Gossip in High Places

March 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, small minds talk about people.

I first heard that line when I was in high school — someone in our crowd tut-tutting us for gossiping.

It’s not true, of course. Everyone gossips, the great-minded and the small-minded. But I remembered that line today when I read about the guilty verdict in the Scooter Libby case. Officially, Libby was guilty of lying to a grand jury, but the whole incident was really about gossip. Oh sure, it was also really about the Bush administration’s attempt to sell the false notion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But what Libby lied to the grand jury about was not the talk of ideas or events; he had lied about gossip — about who was telling who about Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame.

The people involved may not even have thought of it as gossip. The image of gossip is usually women whispering about trivialities of personal life. A search on Google turns up images like the ones in this post.

But according to a recent British research report, it turns out that men gossip just as much as women, and
Even in universities and the headquarters of multinational companies, where one might expect conversations in common rooms and restaurants to focus on matters of wider importance such as politics, business, cultural or intellectual issues, no subject other than gossip occupies more than 10 per cent of total conversation time – and most of these ‘serious’ topics only account for about two or three per cent.
So I don’t find it surprising or upsetting that people in Washington gossip. That’s what people who share some corner of the social world do. They talk about other people, and the talk often has overtones of moral judgment.

What’s troubling is to find gossip used as an instrument of policy. I had hoped that policy was about ideas and events. The neoconservatives, in the Bush administration and out, styled themselves as people of ideas. One of their biggest ideas was the invasion of Iraq. O.K., maybe it wasn’t such a great idea after all, but you’d think that at the highest levels of policy, people would be talking about it in terms of ideas and events.

But no. Cheney, Libby, Rove, and probably many others were using gossip to defend their policies. They could have focused on the ideas and evidence in Joe Wilson’s report. Instead, they were calling reporters to tell them that Joe Wilson had gotten the job (to investigate one part of the WMD claims) only because his wife, who was in the CIA, had recommended him. In other words, Wilson was a wimp who relied on his wife to get him an assignment.

The press doesn’t come off much better in all this. Libby and the others knew when they made those phone calls that the news people traded in gossip. I suspect that Tim Russert, Robert Novak, and the others look with contempt on the celebrity press – the reporters who try to ferret out every secret fact about Britney and Paris and Brad and all the rest. The Washington press probably don’t consider even them to be real journalists. But how is what they do different from stories about Joe Wilson and his wife?

I’m going to be reading the newspaper from a different angle now. I’m going to try to see how much of the “news” is talking about ideas and events and how much is gossip. (Surely there must already be research on this. I’m just too lazy to track it down right now.)

Music and Lyrics and Success

March 3, 2007Posted by Jay Livingston

“All British films are about the class system,” said Melissa in her perfect British accent. This was a long time ago when we were in graduate school, and we’d just seen some classic British film, maybe This Sporting Life, and I’d offered some brilliant bit of analysis like, “It was sort of about the class system.”

She didn’t say, “Duhhh.” We didn’t have “duh” back then, and she wouldn’t have said it anyway; she was too nice. But that would have been the appropriate response. Instead, she made that statement about all British films being about the class system. She said it as if she were reminding me of something so obvious that any child would have known it.

“No they’re not,” I said defensively, continuing my moment of brilliance. “What about . . . .” But I was stumped. I had seen a few British films, but as I went through them in my mind, I could see that just as she had said, they were all about the class system. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the class system was such a pervasive presence in British life that it inevitably played an important part in any movie.

Now I’m wondering if all American films are about success.

I saw Music and Lyrics yesterday, the new film with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, but the romance seemed, to me at least, secondary and not intrinsic to the story. Yes, it’s nice that Hugh and Drew finally wind up together, but that’s not really what the story is about. In a comedy about the romantic relationship, the plot throws all sorts of conflicts and obstacles at the couple — rivals, misunderstandings, deceptions, diversions, etc. — obstacles which they eventually overcome.

But in Music and Lyrics, the struggle is not for the lovers to finally come together but for each of them to overcome obstacles to writing a hit song. Their stories are less about love and more about success. Drew has the talent to write, but devastated by the publishing success of a former lover, she’s reluctant to write anything, especially song lyrics. When she does write the winning song, she’s unwilling to allow Cora, the airhead Britney Spears-type rock star, to give it her hit treatment. (Of course, this being a Hollywood comedy, she has it both ways: Cora sings the song the way Drew wanted it, and it becomes a hit.)

Hugh is a 1980s has-been, coasting along on his faded fame, writing songs that pander to an imagined audience rather than trying to do serious musical work. Will Drew finish the lyric, will Hugh write worthwhile music? That’s what the story is about.

The happy ending is not that they wind up together (though of course they do). Instead, the high point is that they finish the song and have it performed by Cora before twenty thousand screaming fans at Madison Square Garden. And even the success of their romance at the end seems to depend on their implied career success as a songwriting team.

How different this all is from the British romantic comedies that Hugh Grant has been in — Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill come to mind. These may have Americans as love interests (Andie McDowell and Julia Roberts, respectively), but the films are absolutely unconcerned with career success.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Music and Lyrics. It’s pleasant, with good-looking people in good-looking places, and the Hugh Grant character lives in a building one block from my own, which can be seen in some of the shots. The film has several funny lines and wonderful send-ups of 1980s and 2000s rock music and videos. Go see for yourself.

As for Melissa (see the first sentence of this post), she went back to London, became a documentary filmmaker, and made several excellent ethnographic films — none of them, so far as I know, about the class system.

Look Who's (Not) Talking

March 1, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s this morning’s headline from CNN

White House: U.S. won't talk to Syria, Iran directly

It’s obvious that the US has big problems with Iran and its nuclear program. The White House is recycling its pre-Iraq-war script, but Iran, like Saddam, refuses to cave. For one thing, they probably don’t think the US can really launch another war right now (there are reports, though not in the mainstream press, that several generals have threatened to resign if the Bush administration declares war on Iran). For another, as apparently, even the Bush White House has discovered, the US can’t force other nations to do what it wants — not by threatening invasion, not by waving fistfuls of dollars in their faces.

So talk seems to be the best place to start. But the Bush policy has long been that one cannot talk with evildoers. Such talk would sully our moral purity and reward bad behavior (as though speaking with a Bush administration official were some kind of prize).

How to reconcile the need to talk with the stated policy of not talking? Look closely at the headline, especially the last word: “directly.” Four months ago, I posted here that this “We won’t talk to him” game reminded me of quarreling children, usually siblings, who refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, they address remarks to intermediaries (parents) though in full hearing of the enemy (i.e., brother or sister).

And so it is with the US. The CNN story continues that Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, “said U.S. and Iranian officials have been ‘seated at the same table in multilateral negotiations’ several times in the past few years, during aid conferences and in meetings at the United Nations.”

So the US will sit at the table in Baghdad; so will Iran and Syria. But several other countries from the region and from the UN Security Council will also be “seated at the same table.” The US will talk to these others, not to Syria and Iran. But it’s just possible that as at the family dinner table, the representatives from Iran and Syria will overhear.

As I said in my earlier post, when people use this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy. (Apologies for recycling my garbage. I’m doing it only because the White House is also recycling its own.)

Moral Nostalgia and the Myth of the Authoritarian Past

February 27, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wright, on his Christian sociologist blog, talks about “moral nostalgia.” Great coinage. It might even join those few other terms that have crossed over from sociology into the general vocabulary — terms like role model and self-fulfilling prophesy. (Can anyone think of some others?)

The idea that people, especially young people, are less moral than the previous generation is apparently irresistible. Blogger (and Montclair State sociology alumna) Trrish P has a link to a version of moral nostalgia called “Take Me Back to the Sixties.” Ah yes, the moral paradise of the sixties. Of course, this guy’s counterpart in the 60s was complaining that society then represented a sharp decline from some earlier golden era. And in the fifties too, parents lamented the moral decline among youth— the sort of thing satirized in the song “Kids” from Bye-Bye Birdie. The show opened on Broadway in 1960, so its sensibility was pure 1950s. Paul Lynde sang the song, and he did a great job of mocking the moral nostalgia while pretending to espouse it. Here’s a link to him doing a brief version on the Donny and Marie Osmond television show some years later.

Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Kids! Who can understand anything they say?
Kids! They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!
And while we're on the subject:
Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do! . . . .

Kids! They are just impossible to control!
Kids! With their awful clothes and their rock an' roll!
(Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams)

Sociologists are not immune from moral nostalgia. In class, I often use an essay from an intro text which explains the truly steep rise in juvenile homicide in the late 1980s by pinning the rap, in part, on the “decline in the moral authority of the family.”

When I read that phrase, in my mind’s ear I always hear Paul Lynde singing “Kids!” But students see the statement as an obvious truth, and most of them say that in the ten years since the essay was written, the moral authority of the family has continued its regrettable slide.

The essay presents absolutely no evidence that the decline has occurred (it’s a short essay, and the authors have many fish to fry), so I use it as an example of how difficult it is to operationalize a concept like “moral authority of the family” and get evidence about it, especially for comparing past eras with our own. But I also suspect that the decline in family authority, at least among middle-class families, is a myth.

Has there ever been a generation when parents said, “You know, kids today are a lot better behaved than we were”? I suspect that even the parents of the “Greatest Generation” didn’t think the kids were so great. At least in the US, the idea that morals are slipping and that kids are less respectful and obedient is as old as the Republic, and it may have to something to do with our relatively non-authoritarian family and our emphasis on independence even for children.

But I think there’s a more general source for this myth of the authoritarian past. It’s common to hear parents say something like, “The things kids say and do today — I could never have gotten away with that with my old man.” (I usually imagine a man saying this, perhaps because authority is not so much an issue for women.) The man who says this pictures his own father as much more powerful than he, the speaker, is now. But that’s only because he is remembering his father from the perspective of a child. When he was a child, his father really was much more powerful than he was — so much bigger and stronger, it seemed the father could do whatever he wanted. But when that child grows up and thinks about himself today, he is not looking up from the viewpoint of his own small children. Instead, he sees himself from his own place in the larger world. He knows that he is certainly not the biggest or strongest person around, he knows that his actions are limited by all sorts of constraints that are largely invisible to children. He sees that he cannot control all aspects of his children’s lives.

It’s a short and obvious step from this perception — my father was more powerful when I was a kid than I am today — to the general idea that kids these days are disobedient, disrespectful, and impossible to control. And no doubt, his children will grow up remembering their own childhood as relatively authoritarian, and on and on through the generations.

Wisdom and Crowds Go to Hollywood

February 23, 2007 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Wisdom of Crowds crowd loves to cite the ability of “prediction markets” to pick the Oscar winners. But this year, you don't need a prediction market to know which way the wind blows. All the major awards seem to be sure things, except perhaps Best Picture. Here, for example, are the prices on Best Actress nominees. You get 100 points if your choice wins. Here's what you pay.

Helen Mirren (The Queen) 94
Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal) 2
Penelope Cruz (Volver) 2
Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada) 4
Kate Winslet (Little Children) 1

In other words, people are willing to risk 94 points to win 6 on Ms. Mirren. If Judi Dench wins, her backers will get back 98 points of house money along with the two they paid.
Other consensus choices and current prices.

Director - Martin Scorsese (The Departed) 88
Supporting Actor - Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) 61 
Supporting Actress - Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) 76 
Actor - Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) 82 
Documentary - An Inconvenient Truth 85

On Best Picture, the crowd’s wisdom is less obvious. Since Picture and Director usually go to the same movie, The Departed has an edge, but not much of one considering the consensus on its director.

The Departed 44
Letters from Iwo Jima 7
The Queen 4
Babel 22
Little Miss Sunshine 22

Unfortunately, the major prediction marketplace for the Oscars, Hollywood Stock Exchange doesn’t have markets for the lesser categories— the ones that seem as arcane as baseball records. Best sound design in a foreign documentary by a left-handed shortstop on a Wednesday. But one English bookmaker does have some of these. For the record, and to see how wise the crowd turns out to be, are some of them with the equivalent prices. The numbers show that the crowd is not so nearly in agreement as it is on the major awards:

Animated Short Film - The Little Matchgirl 58 
Art Direction - The Prestige 40
Cinematography - Children Of Men 29
Costume Design - Marie Antoinette 38
Original Score - Babel 47
Visual Effects - Pirates Of The Caribbean DMC 80


I just hope Ellen DeGeneres is at the top of her game, because if the crowd is wise, there won’t be much suspense about the winners. In reminds me of March 1992. I was teaching a Monday night class, and the date I had scheduled the midterm turned out to be Oscar night (it was still on a Monday back them). As a final multiple-choice question, just for fun, I had put, “The winner for best picture in tonight’s Oscars will be . . .” and listed the five nominees.

I had intended the question to lighten things up. What a miscalculation. What happened was that several students, after turning in their tests, complained that the question was unfair. How could they possibly be expected to know what was going to happen in the future, and besides what did any of this have to do with the criminal justice system, and so on. I assured them that I had no intention of including it in their test score.

When I marked the exams the next day, it turned out that of the 35 multiple-choice questions, that was the only one that everybody in the class had gotten right.

The Wisdom of Crowds. The Silence of the Lambs.

Is Anna Nicole Smith Still Dead?

February 21, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Britney Spears is on the front page of tabloids like the New York Post again today, though in some papers she’s competing with Anna Nicole Smith. Aren’t you tired of these stories? Do you think the Anna Nicolecoverage is way out of line with what it deserves?

You’re not alone. A poll by The Pew Research Center for People and the Press finds that the People think the Press has overdone the Anna Nicole Smith story. In the survey taken a week ago, 61% said the story had been given too much coverage. Interestingly, 8% thought Anna Nicole merited even more press. Still, more than one person in ten said it was the story they’d followed most closely (18% among younger — 18-49 — women).

Nevertheless, here we are a week later, and Anna Nicole is still on the front page, and she's one of the first stories on the 11 o’clock news. Presumably, the people in the news business know what they're doing. So if people had really had enough of the Smith story, wouldn’t they pass up the newsstand and turn off the TV? Maybe this is one of those cases where there’s a discrepancy between what we say and what we do.

I wish we had something besides survey data to find out what news stories people are interested in. Surely Google, MSN, and Yahoo keep track of which stories people are clicking on. Do they make the data available?

In the meantime, news programmers will continue to feature Anna Nicole (and Britney) , news watchers will continue to tell pollsters “enough already,” and newscasters will continue to make comments, usually off-camera, like this one by CNN reporter Jack Cafferty.



Cafferty’s question, “Is Anna Nicole Smith Still Dead” is an allusion to a news anecdote of a half-century ago. In 1952, actor John Garfield died of a heart attack, which might have been news enough since he was a handsome Hollywood star, he was only 39, and he’d been blacklisted after refusing to name names when called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

But Garfield’s death was especially newsworthy because he had suffered the heart attack while making love, and the woman he was making love to was not the woman he was married to. The press squeezed the story to the last drop of ink, playing out every possible angle.

The anecdote, at least the way I heard it, goes that on a slow news day weeks afterward, editors were sitting around a table, trying to decide on the day's headlines. Nothing in the news seemed to have the attention-grabbing juice needed for the front page.

So someone suggested, “John Garfield Still Dead.”

(A personal note: Garfield's son David went to the same college I did. We weren't buddies, but we knew one another by name. In Googling around for this post, I discovered that David, like his father, became an actor, and like his father he died of a heart attack. He was 52.)

Mixi Messages and Wa

February 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I spent a few months in Japan many, many years ago, the Japanese often told me that Americans were “frank.” At first, I took this as a compliment. Only later did it dawn on me that what they were really saying was that Americans tended to shoot off their mouths, saying whatever they thought, without much regard for how it would affect others. Americans seemed more interested in expressing their own individual opinions and quite willing, in the process, to trash the overall harmony within the group, what the Japanese call “wa.”

Sportswriter Robert Whiting’s 1989 book You Gotta Have Wa is about Wa in Japanese baseball. (The title is an allusion to the song “You Gotta Have Heart,” from the baseball-themed musical Damn Yankees.) Whiting describes the difficulties that arose when American baseball players who couldn’t quite stay in the majors wound up in Japan. Like good Americans, they would see their main task as playing well, getting hits, etc. But they would ignore or even resent a task that most Japanese would take for granted — becoming and being a member of the team, especially in the sense of subordinating their own preferences and accomplishments to the overall Wa of the group.

I myself unwittingly committed these cultural gaffes, one of them so egregious that it’s a wonder I wasn’t immediately ostracized if not executed.

I remembered this distant past again with some embarrassment when I read in Wired Online about MySpace moving into Japan, where the popular site is Mixi. Rupert Murdoch, whose NewsCorp owns MySpace (and a lot of other media), has never been shy about expanding his empire, and since November MySpace has run a Japanese site.

The differences between the MySpace and Mixi reflect the broader cultural difference between individualism and Wa. The name says it all: MySpace “is about me, me, me, and look at me and look at me and look at me,” says an American media executive in Japan. “In Mixi, it's not all about me. It's all about us.” In fact, American parents are surprised and often dismayed by how much personal information teenagers will put up on their MySpace pages for any stranger to see, and by the way kids will use the Internet for nastiness and character assassination.

But Mixi messages tend to be more supportive. It also is based more on groups than individuals. To join, you need an introduction from someone who is already a member, and communication remains centered among clusters of friends or people who share interests. It’s more a way to maintain relations among a group than a way of meeting new people or expressing yourself.

I checked the home pages for the two sites today. MySpace is very in-your-face. Someone in a photo on the cover of Nylon (screaming bold yellow typeface) seems to be screaming and sticking her tongue right into the camera. Just above, “Meet Sal” shows a very confrontational Sal, and then there's Jonathon in battle gear, and over on the right of the screen “cool new people” being cool by acting wild and crazy.



The Mixi login page shows a girl sitting in a field of grass, quietly reading a book, as her friend walks up to her. Both girls are dressed conventionally, and we see them from a distance. The words, not in garish yellow but almost blending in to the blue summer sky, say, “community entertainment.”

It will be interesting to see what happens with MySpace in Japan. Will the medium itself shape the content? Will it speed the development of a more individualistic and less group-oriented culture among Japanese youth, a change which has been slowly evolving in any case? Or will the culture reshape the site and make it more typically Japanese?

Necessities

February 15, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

In debates about poverty in the US, conservatives will usually point out that many people with incomes below the poverty line have a standard of living equal to that of middle class people of earlier times or other places. Here’s a typical version, by Robert Rector, written in 1990 and posted on the conservative Heritage foundation Website. After noting that the poor own homes (38%) and cars (62%), Rector concludes,
“Poor” Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more property than did the average U.S. citizen throughout much of the 20th Century. In 1988, the per capita expenditures of the lowest income fifth of the U.S. population exceeded the per capita expenditures of the median American household in 1955, after adjusting for inflation.
(The quotation marks are enough to clue you in that Rector doesn’t think that a family living on $15,000 a year is really poor. They’re merely “poor.”)

By a similar logic, the “poor” today are better off than J. P. Morgan because Morgan didn’t have a washing machine. And they’re better off than Louis XIV because the Sun King didn’t have indoor plumbing.

Bill O’Reilly put the “not really poor” argument more succinctly, “Even the poor have color television sets and pretty much everything they need.”

O’Reilly at least comes closer to the real issue. Being poor is not simply a matter of what you have. It’s what you have compared with what you need.

But what do you need? In the 1600s, nobody needed a flush toilet because nobody had one. And for a similar reason, nobody in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s needed a washing machine.

Needs are determined by what people have. If nearly everybody in a society has a car, that society becomes a place where a car is a necessity. And if you can’t afford to buy what people think are the necessities, you are poor.

Here are the results of Pew Research poll published late last year. The poll asked people whether they thought an item was "a necessity" or "a luxury you could do without."
(You don’t have to be a social constructionist to see that what people need is not much different from what they think they need.)


(Click on the graph to see it in a larger version)

Have you got what it takes?

Note that ten years ago, a microwave was a luxury for two-thirds of the population. Now it's a necessity for two-thirds. I’m in the minority on that one, and I'm missing two of the other top five items as well.

Operationalizing Investment

February 13, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you turn a vague concept like “decline in the moral authority of the family” into a variable you can actually use in research? This week, I told my students that operationalizing concepts is the key to thinking like a sociologist. Of course, at the beginning of the semester when I introduced the idea of social facts, I told them that thinking in terms of social facts was the essence of thinking like a sociologist. (Moral authority happened to be the subject that came up; it's not the subject of this post.)

I also tell students that no matter how you operationalize it, someone is going to complain that you've left something out. And they're right. Most of these conversions from abstract to measurable are imperfect. But you go to research with the variables you have, not the variables somebody else would like you to have.

I've been thinking about this problem in connection with parental “investment” in children. Back in November, one of the candidates we interviewed for a position this year, Kristen Schultz Lee, taught a sample class based on her research, which was about “parental investment in children’s education” and whether it was greater for boys than girls. I thought that was an interesting idea. I don’t usually think of what my parents did for me as an “investment,” i.e., something with an eventual payoff for the investor.

Kristen operationalized “investment” (at least in her talk to my class) as merely how far the child went in school. It works, but I wondered if there might not be more to this idea of investment. After all, she did her interviewing in Japan, where, supposedly, the stereotype “kyoiku mama” (education mama) stays up late with her son, helping him with homework and going over drills in preparation for the all-important college entrance exams. (Click on that link and you’ll get several other negative female stereotypes in Japanese.)

Now an article in the latest issue of the American Sociological Review looks at something similar. It compares adoptive and biological parents’ investment in children’s education, but the researchers (Laura Hamilton, Simon Cheng, and Brian Powell) define investment more broadly: “the economic, cultural, social, and interactional resources that parents provide for their children.”
  • Economic: the things that money buys (books, computers, private school).
  • Cultural: not just music lessons, but even the time parents spend with kids, reading or just playing.
  • Interactional: what non-sociologists call “talking” with the child.
  • Social Capital: Talking with other school parents, going to PTA meetings, etc.
(I guess I’m not much of a sociologist after all. In all those hours I spent squeezing Play-doh with my kid, I never thought of it as providing him with Cultural Capital. And when I went out for coffee with other parents after drop-off, I thought I was just putting off going to work. Now I realize I was building up my kid’s Social Capital.)

The importance of this research lies in its implications for biology-based theories about human behavior. These theories, under names like “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology,” have become increasingly influential in social science. In this case, they would probably predict that adoptive parents would be less invested in their children.

But this study found nothing of the sort: “two-adoptive-parent families invest at similar levels as two-biological-parent families but still at significantly higher levels in most resources than other types of families.”

Interestingly enough, Kristen Schultz Lee had included similar variables in her research (homework helping, cram schools) though she didn’t mention them in my class. Somewhat in keeping with the kyoiku-mama stereotype, extracurricular activities were somewhat gender-related (girls do cultural classes, boys do academic classes). But I don't think the overall differences in education were as large as I might have expected.

(Hi, Kristen. As I write this, Oswego County has had twelve feet of snow in the last ten days or so. In Montclair, there’s not a snowflake to be seen.)

Minding the Gap

February 11, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Back in November, I blogged about Google Trends. Now Google has another cool tool, still in beta. It's called Gapminder, and as the name implies, it shows the gaps among countries of the world. You can choose from about a dozen variables, mostly economic and health data, and get an XY graph with the size of each dot corresponding to the population of the country. You can also select which countries to identify with a name label. Here’s a chart showing the proportion of doctors and per capita income. (The actual screen will look clearer than this reprodution.) Belarus, like many of the other former Soviet republics, has much lower income than the US but slightly more doctors per capita.



The flash presentation also tracks changes since 1975. The chart below shows trends in infant mortality and income for the US and the Czech Republic (which has data starting in 1992, the year of its founding).



A similar site, gapminder.org, has slideshow presentations of some of the same variables. It groups countries to show differences among countries of similar economic levels.



Losing Our Religion?

February 9, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

I have been assuming that the Bush years have been good for religion. His “faith-based initiatives” have sent billions of government dollars to churches and other religious organizations. And when religion-based policies have conflicted with scientific findings, guess which carried the day, at least in the federal government.

Thomas Jefferson wrote famously of the “wall of separation between church and state.” George W. Bush seems to have heard a voice telling him to tear down that wall. More than any other president in modern times, or perhaps since the founding of the republic, Bush has tried make religion a part of government and politics.

Bush’s policy success in tearing down Mr. Jefferson’s wall does not seem to have won over more of the public. Here are the results of two Gallup polls, one taken just as Bush was coming into office, the other just last month.

The question was: "Next, I'm going to read some aspects of life in America today. For each one, please say whether you are very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied. How about the influence of organized religion?"


Americans are still satisfied with the role of religion (56% vs. 39%) , but dissatisfaction has grown during the Bush years. Do people want to see the Bush trend continue?

The proportion of Americans saying they want religion to have less influence has increased by 45% (from 22% in 2001 to 32% in 2007).

It's hard to know what to make of the change. Thirty-two percent wanting less religious influence (maybe only a little less), is still a clear minority, and America is still far more religious than other advanced industrialized countries. Executive, legislative, and judicial branches have greatly favored religion.

The puzzling irony is that despite its dominance, the Christian majority feels threatened. Nearly sixty percent of Americans agreed that "Christianity is under attack in the US today." OK, this does come from a Fox News poll, and maybe people have just been listening to Bill O'Reilly. But it's possible they see these Bush-era trends as omens for the future.

Superbowl Ad Work

February 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

TV commercials are compressed version of some aspect of our culture. After all, if you’re going to spend $2.5 million just to get your ad on the air for thirty seconds, you want to be very sure that it resonates with widely held ideas. The straight commercials embrace the dominant values and give them a big kiss — Coca Cola’s everyone-happy-together, Chevy’s America-is-best. The funny ads take a more critical view of the culture.

Several of the Superbowl ads were about work. On the straight side was the GM robot ad. A robot drops a screw, loses his job at the GM plant, and descends first to holding up signs, then working in a fast food joint, and finally committing suicide by jumping off a bridge, all while the soundtrack plays the mawkish “All By Myself.” The only spoken words in the ad come at the end: “The GM 100,000 mile warranty — it’s got everyone at GM obsessed with quality.”

A full minute showing how capitalist competition benefits consumers and makes workers virtuous. It’s one of the core ideas of conservatism. For example, here’s David Frum (he worked in the Bush White House, even wrote a book about W. called The Right Man, and writes for The National Review)
The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor . . . Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control . . . Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do now.

The Career Builder ads offered a less laudatory picture of competition in the workplace— the one about performance assessment and this one about promotion.




The most curious ad in this category was SalesGenie.com. At first I thought it was going to be another spoof on the success-worshipping worker. I thought that the incredibly successful salesman— red Ferrari, boss’s invitation home for dinner, etc.— was going to be held up to ridicule as the obnoxious guy that he seems to be. But no, he’s the one we’re supposed to identify with. He’s supposed to make us want to use the same product he does.


I wonder if SalesGenie wasted several million dollars on this one.

Twilight Time?

February 4, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The death of Seymour Martin Lipset a month ago provided the news peg for the Wall Street Journal to run a piece proclaiming “The Twilight of Sociology.” Lipset was the WSJ’s kind of guy — a 1930s Trotskyite socialist who became a neoconservative.

The author of the article, Wilfred McClay, a professor of humanities, sees the 1950s and 60s as the “golden age” of US sociology, but the titans of that era are dying off (Lipset, Rieff, and Riesman in the past year or so). And according to McClay no new giants are rising up to take their place. Where are the grand sociologists?

McClay, the good conservative (what else would you expect to find in the WSJ?) first blames liberal politics. “Academic journals and scholarly monographs were given over to supporting the reigning views of race, gender and class — and fiercely suppressing any inquiry that might challenge these views.” Then he blames the concept of social construction: “many sociologists came to believe, all reality was ‘socially constructed.’”

McClay exempts the sociology of religion from his condemnation: “a lively subfield, populated by outstanding figures such as Robert Bellah, Robert Wuthnow and Peter Berger.” The irony of course is that Peter Berger is co-author of the seminal book on social construction.

McClay also blames “scientism,” making much the same criticism that C.Wright Mills leveled at the “abstracted empiricism” style of sociology fifty years ago. McClay never mentions Mills among the giants of that golden age, probably because Mills was guilty of what McClay sees as current sociology’s main sin— “misguided activist zeal.”

McClay urges sociology to recover its potential for greatness by going back to “one of the “abiding themes of ‘old sociology’: how the stubbornness of social forces circumscribes what is possible for us as individuals.”

I’m not sure that McClay is right about anything. Are there no sociologists of the stature of Lipset or Riesman today? It’s often hard to tell who the giants are until you look back from the perspective of many years. When you’re standing right next to them, they may not seem so impressive (though Lipset was indeed an imposing physical presence; so was Alvin Gouldner, a Lipset contemporary probably too liberal for McClay to mention).

And if it turns out that there are no towering figures, is the cause to be found in our ideas, our ideologies, and our activism? McClay is so eager to pin the blame on progressive ideas that he ignores his own advice. He says nothing about the social forces that constrain sociology today. The social and economic realities of universities, journals, granting agencies, and publishers probably have a greater impact on the form and content of our work than does our ideology.

It may also be that we are in a “normal science” phase, still working out the implications of ideas laid down in the social scientific revolution of a century or more ago. Sociologists in this phase may still do great work — even those who think that Lipset was a great sociologist could hardly argue that he shook the theoretical or methodological foundations of the field— but they are unlikely to be seen immediately as giants.

(I offer no link to McClay’s article because the Wall Street Journal does not provide free access to its articles. But if you have the AB Inform database, you can find it: February 2, 2007; Page W13)

Little Miss Raincloud

January 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Optimism, hard work, success. They’re part of the culture, and we drink it into our consciousness just like Coca-Cola. If you have the right, positive attitude, and you work hard at your idea, you’ll be a winner.

Even if you personally don’t live by these basic American values, they are such a dominant part of the culture that you probably think you should live by them. Values are ideas and principles that are intrinsically good. You can’t argue with them. As my friend Linda Tischler found out.

Linda (wife of sociologist Henry Tischler) is a journalist, and she has been writing about business for a long time. As a senior writer at Fast Company magazine, she was invited to be on a panel at a conference of the N.A.F.E., the National Association for Female Executives. They couldn’t pay her, but they’d cover her expenses. The name Laguna Niguel, California had a nice ring to it. So did the name Ritz Carlton, so she took the offer.

The audience was full of hopeful female entrepreneurs —“momtrepreneurs” as they liked to call themselves— women who had started up a business during naptimes. What they wanted to hear from the journalists was how to get their product into an article in Fast Company, Business Week, or similar magazines.

Linda told them frankly that the odds were very much against them. “I get seventy-five e-mails every day pitching story ideas like that, plus the phone calls and snail mail. And a lot of those pitches are from well-paid PR people at GE, Apple, etc.” She was telling them, in effect, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to do a story about you.

This was definitely not what the audience wanted to hear, and from the comments and reactions, she thought the momtrepreneurs at Laguna Niguel might wind up dumping her in the laguna. After all, these were women who had paid $400 for the conference that promised

Featured business sessions include “A View From the Top” with the country's leading female CEOs; building your brand; effective networking; balancing work, relationships and family; conversation with leading journalists. Attendees will be able to connect with Fortune 500 companies and present their products and services through exclusive invitation-only matchmaking event.

They wanted a pep talk, a “motivational speaker,” someone who would tell them how they could get on the cover of Fortune. And she gave them reality.

She also told them how she screens the pitches. “If your e-mail is bigger than two megabytes, it’s going to get deleted unread. If it doesn’t tell me in the first short paragraph or two what the idea is, out it goes,” and so on. I think her mistake was that she put her advice in the negative, what not to do. That along with her basic message made her a raincloud spoiling the sunny clime of Laguna Niguel.

Linda and Henry recounted her sad tale at dinner last night. It’s not all we talked about. Conversation turned, as it often does, to Iraq. And now I wonder if there isn’t a parallel. The Bush administration sold the invasion on fear (remember those WMDs), but they also sold it on American optimism. We would oust Saddam, and all the Iraqis, just like the Munchkins when Dorothy liquidates the witch, would be free and happy and forever grateful to their liberators.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way— the optimism was more based on neo-conservative fantasies in the US rather than realities in Iraq— but Bush still frames the war in terms of winning and losing, as though international politics is some kind of game with only two outcomes— victory and defeat, success and failure. Since, in another phrase much beloved among motivational speakers, failure is not an option, he’s throwing in another 20,000 troops.

As I walked home after dinner, I passed the building of an acquaintance, Allen Seiden. Allen is a good poker player, and he’d been playing long before the current poker boom — a boom that has allowed him to go from smoky house games to lecturing and teaching. “The first thing you have to learn if you want to win money in poker,” he tells his audience, “is a four-letter word that begins with F. The word is fold. Use it early, use it often.”

The audience nods, but the chances are that most of them don’t really learn the lesson. Most poker players, the average pigeons, will call the bet just to see one more card rather than admit that the hand is a loser, optimistically hoping for the card that will fill their straight and bring them success  Which is why Allen has been able to make money playing poker. And which may also be why Bush just sent more troops to Baghdad.

Good Day Sunshine

January 28, 2007Posted by Jay Livingston
An extended family in the Southwest, hard pressed by economic and personal problems, gets in their ramshackle old vehicle and sets off for California, where they hope for some kind of success. Along the way, their vehicle breaks down, the grandfather dies, and they suffer other setbacks. But most of the people they meet along the way are eventually sympathetic and helpful, though the agents of the business world are not so kind. In the end, when they do get to California, they discover that it’s not the answer to all their dreams.

All of which is to say that I rented “Little Miss Sunshine” this weekend.

I don’t think the writer and directors of “Little Miss Sunshine” had “The Grapes of Wrath” in mind when they made the movie. Or maybe they did. After all, the family in “Little Miss Sunshine” is named Hoover, with its echoes of the depression and the Hoovervilles the Joads pass through. In any case, the parallels are there to be seen, even though the two films are very different in tone.

Like “The Grapes of Wrath” made 65 years earlier, “Little Miss Sunshine” takes a critical look at America. But while to many American “Grapes of Wrath” was a revelation in its depiction of the realities of economic hardship and the mistreatment of farm workers, “Little Miss Sunshine” takes on aspects of the culture that we already know about. It’s poking fun at— and poking holes in— some of our most cherished ideas, particularly those embodied in the father’s nine-step motivational program for success. The movie is an antidote to all those films and real life programs that preach the American gospel of optimism, hard work, and success. It’s a comedy, but there are few jokes or wisecracks. It’s a satire.

We can’t really dislike the father, but the movie makes us root for him to give up his view of the world, a view that sees everything in terms of winners and losers. We’re almost happy when he fails to sell his “Refuse to Lose” idea. In fact, the losers in the family are the people we are drawn to — the teenager who hasn’t spoken in months, the suicidal uncle who has lost out in (gay) love and in academics to another Proust scholar, the lecherous grandfather banished from a retirement community because he was caught snorting heroin, and the slightly chubby little girl who will never achieve her dream of winning a beauty pageant.

In the formula Hollywood film, the little girl would practice hard. The other girls in the pageant would be experienced, with the advantages of wealthier parents, fancier costumes, and professional coaches. Maybe one of them would even cheat. But our little girl would outshine them all, just like Rocky, The Karate Kid, or any of a host of others. And the success in the contest would then flow into all other aspects of her life.

But imagine Rocky or Karate Kid making a mockery of the match itself, then turning his back on it and saying, “You know, a contest like that— winning or losing it — is a pretty stupid thing to base yourself and your world on.”

Which is what “Little Miss Sunshine” does. When the silent teen finally does speak, he speaks for the film, and this is what he says: “Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work . . . .”

The Visualization of Probability

January 26, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

I used to play New York Lotto. I knew it was like throwing my money away. You pick 6 numbers out of 59. Let’s see: 59 C6. That’s 59! / 6! * (59 - 6)!. If you can’t do the math in your head, the Lotto ticket provides the answer on the back.

For a dollar, your chance of hitting it big is one in 22 million.

As my brother put it, quoting a statistician friend of his, “Your chances of winning the lottery are not substantially increased by entering it.”
“What do you mean?” I answered at the time. “They’re increased infinitely.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “but not substantially.”
All of which says more about the concept of infinity than about the Lotto. If you buy a second ticket, your chances have gone from 1 in 22 million to 2 in 22 million, a multiple of two. But what multiple takes you from 0 in 22 million to 1 in 22 million? None, the answer is not finite.

What puzzles me is that even though I knew the odds, I continued to buy a ticket each week. I think it was a matter of visualization. When you fill out the ticket, you pick six numbers out of 59 on a simple 6 x 10 grid, and for your dollar, you get two plays. Here’s a lottery ticket I filled out for Wednesday’s drawing. I selected my numbers by going to an online random-number generator. After all, if the New York Lotto selects its numbers randomly, a random number generator should come up with the right answer. I have also circled the winning numbers.

The results don’t look too bad. I had three direct hits, and several of the other winning numbers are pretty close to one or another of my choices. The trouble is that with only fifty-nine places to put six numbers, they’re bound to be close. The little grid doesn’t convey the concept that there are 45 million different combinations of fifty-nine numbers taken six at a time.

Then one day I was looking up a number in the phone book (only a few years from now, kids hearing that phrase will ask what a phone book is. Or was.) It took me some flipping of pages and running my finger over the columns before I came to the name I wanted. But what would have been the chances of hitting it randomly, of opening the phone book, pointing to a name, and having it be exactly the one I was thinking of? Or what would be the chances of someone picking my name at random out of the phone book?

It turns out that the Manhattan phone book has about 1.2 million names (or it would if there were one name for every line). In other words, my chances of winning the lottery were about the same as someone picking my name at random from a phone book eighteen times as thick.


This photo is only eight phone books thick. Picture a book twice this size. And then imagine someone randomly turning to your page, and then from all the names on that page, picking yours.

So now when I go past the newsstand with its Lotto sign, I think of that gigantic phone book and not the little pink-and-white grid. And ever since, I haven’t bought a lottery ticket.

Now all I have to do is figure out what to do with that dollar a week I’m saving.

I Can See Clearly Now . . .

January 24, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

As someone with the visual intelligence of ketchup (as Dave Barry might put it), I have great admiration and envy for people who can think in pictures – graphic designers, architects, basically anybody who can draw at a level above stick figures.

In the social sciences it’s especially useful to be able to put ideas and data in visual form. In that arena, Edward Tufte is The Man, and his 1983 book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is probably the seminal work in the field. I can't remember who turned me on to it, but when I started leafing through it, I was amazed.

Tufte now has a sort of blog with an “Ask ET” forum, which has, among other things a link to a flash version of Genealogy of Pop/Rock Music: The Classic Graphic by Reebee Garofalo. It ends about 1980, but you still might want to check it out to see if Garofalo's view of, say, Meatloaf's ancestors agrees with your own.

My latest find is this periodic table (pictured below) which groups the different visualizations into families. The original site (though not the copy on this page) has a flash function so that when you drag your pointer over an “element,” it pops up an example of that type of visualization. Check it out.


Tagged

January 22, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

The Montclair SocioBlog has been “tagged.” If you don’t know what that is — as I didn’t— it’s just like playground tag, except that when someone tags your blog, you have to post five odd or obscure facts about yourself and then tag other bloggers.

I always hated tag when I was a kid. I was no good at it. I was slow. I was one of those kids who wore “Huskies.” Funny how feelings don’t change all that much from age nine to what now passes as maturity if not dotage.

But this is a collective blog, in principle at least, and that raises questions about the ground rules. Do we put facts about our department? About its members? I figure that some combination is probably the quickest way to get to five. So here goes.

1. I already mentioned it — the Huskies thing.

2. As a department of ten, we are fluent in Spanish, Mandarin, and Turkish, can get by in French, German, Italian, Russian, and Czech, and can toss off the odd phrase in Japanese and Yiddish. Some of us also speak English.

3. One of us shares a name with the musical brains behind the Beatles and a defensive lineman for the Giants when they won the Superbowl. Another of us shares a name with successful songwriter, and every December when he walks into stores and hears “Silver Bells,” he wishes that once, just once is that asking too much, ASCAP would send the check to his address instead.

4. None of us, as far as I know, has ever been in a rock band. Or wanted to be. Sad commentary.

5. When most of us came to Montclair, the social sciences were housed in what had been a girls’ dorm. Our offices had closets. With towel racks, even though the showers in the bathrooms and been disconnected.

I'm tagging These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty, the blog of Montclair grad Trish Pottersmith.

Groups and Wisdom III

January 20, 2007 
Posted by Jay Livingston

James Surowiecki argues for the “wisdom of crowds.” The average of the guesses of a lot of interested people will be closer to the right answer than will the guess of the smartest individual. If you want to get the answer to something, let them all bet on it and then watch where the money pushes the market.

The “wisdom of crowds” runs smack up against another concept in betting— the “smart money” — the conventional idea that some bettors are consistently more astute, while others are “punching bags.” After all, if the crowd, the majority of bettors, were usually right, they would long ago have driven the bookmakers out of business.

Ideally of course, a sports book makes money on the “vig,” the 10% surcharge on losing bets. (When you bet on a football game, you put up $11 to win $10. The point spread supposedly makes both sides equally attractive. If the bookie has the same amount bet on each side — say $1100 on the Bears and $1100 on the Saints —he’s guaranteed to make $100, collecting $1100 from the losers but paying out only $1000 to the winners.)

Sociologist Ray D’Angelo, who has studied bookies, says that yes, it’s the vig that the bookies count on. That plus a few out-of-control gamblers. But how often do the bets on the two sides of a game balance out? And what happens if they don’t?

One thing bookmakers do to correct an imbalance in betting is to change the point spread. By watching changes in the point spread, you can often tell which team the crowd likes. For example, in last week’s Bears-Seahawks game, the original line suggested to Las Vegas casinos was Bears minus 7. But bettors loved the Bears, and the line quickly changed to 8. Even that didn’t deter Bear bettors or attract enough Seahawks money. Oddsmakers continued to move the line up to 8 ½ and even 9. In the end, the crowd was not wise. The Bears won, 27-24, but their bettors, who gave up a lot more than three points, lost.

This week it’s the Saints and the Bears (not, as I nearly typed from force of habit, the Saints and the Roughnecks). And apparently the crowd likes the Saints. They opened as three-point underdogs. But today, some books have cut the line 2 ½ or 2, and one big book (Bodog.com) is giving Saints bettors only 1½ points. One Website that allows you to see the number of bets confirms this crowd preference: twice as many people have taken the Saints.

So do we follow the crowd? Or should we be “contrarians” and bet against the crowd? The contrarian view says that the bookies stay in business by being smarter than the public. Bookmakers probably also subscribe to the smart money view. That’s why Ray D’Angelo’s small-time bookmakers didn’t worry about bets from “out of control” gamblers. Those bettors were definitely not smart money.

But some bettors really are the smart money. I once heard an interview with a man who sets the line for one of the big Las Vegas casinos. He said he might not be worried by a lot of money from the general public coming in on one side. But there are particular sports bettors whose opinion he respected so much that even a relatively small bet from one of them would cause him to move the line.

My guess is that in tomorrow’s game, it’s the sheer volume of money on the Saints, not the bets of a few experts, that has pushed the line down. In any case, if you’re a contrarian, you’ll go with the Bears (also if you’re a Chicagoan, but that’s a different matter). If you believe in the wisdom of crowds, you’ll bet the Saints.

There’s one more risk in going with the crowd when their betting has moved the line — the worst-case scenario: You call up your bookie on Sunday and find that all the money coming in on the Saints has driven down the line. Instead of getting three points, the line is 2 ½. You figure, hey, it’s only a half-point, a minor consideration far outweighed by the wisdom of the crowd. You take the Saints and settle in to watch the game. It’s a close one, tied for much of the fourth quarter, right up until the final seconds, when the Bears kick a field goal to win 24-21. If you had been able to get the three points, you'd have a push. But the crowd pushed the line down to 2½, leaving you a half-point short, and you hurl your copy of The Wisdom of Crowds through the TV screen.

UPDATE: The Bears won 39-14. The bookies cleaned up, and the crowd was left to reconsider its collective wisdom.

Groups and Wisdom II

January 16, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki begins with the story of Francis Galton at the fair. Galton, whose life spans much of the 19th century, was among other things, a statistician. He also believed in improving the human race by selective breeding. In fact, he coined the term eugenics.

At the fair, Galton noticed people submitting their guesses on the weight of an ox. Galton the statistician kept track of all the guesses— some 800 in all— and computed the group mean. Galton the eugenicist assumed that the guesses of the ignorant would detract from the overall accuracy, while the guesses of farmers and butchers would be closest to the actual weight.

When all the entries were in, the mean of the group guesses was 1197 pounds; the ox’s weight, 1198 pounds. Not even the savviest ox breeder came closer than the group as a whole.
I teach a general intro course for majors, and the first concept I want them to grapple with is the social fact. I usually start with Durkheim and suicide rates. But this semester I'm thinking of doing variations on a theme by Galton for the first day of class.

1. Bring a jar filled with M&Ms.
2. Have students pass the jar around and submit a piece of paper with their name and their guess as to the number of M&Ms. (Maybe announce that there will be a prize so as try to prevent wise-ass guesses.)
3. Collect the guesses but announce that there’s going to be one more player, the group itself, i.e., the mean of all guesses.
4. Maybe ask them to speculate on whose guess will be closest or how they think the group will do compared with the guesses of the smartest students or the students who eat a lot of M&Ms and are therefore more familiar with the subject.
5. Record the guesses, compute the mean, announce the right answer.
6. If Galton is looking down and blessing this experiment, the group mean should be closer than any individual guess, even that of the most experienced M&M eater.
I’m not sure if this really gets across the point about social facts. It does show that there is something about a group that makes it different from just the sum of its individuals, but it requires no interaction, no social influence.

On the other hand, there’s a moral to the story that I like: in order for the group to be so smart, we need the contributions of everyone, even those whose guesses were farthest off. The same principle will holds true for discussion throughout the semester. So don’t suppress an idea just because you think you don’t know enough about the topic.

Now all I need is an M&M-counting machine.

Groups and Wisdom I

January 14, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

On Friday, The Washington Post published an article about a plane crash that occurred twenty-five years ago. The plane hadn’t been properly de-iced, and it barely lifted off the ground before crashing into a bridge.

The moral of the story, though, is not about ice but about group structure and culture, especially as these shape lines of communication. The Post calls it “a textbook example of what can go wrong when pilots do not communicate and listen properly.” As the plane was moving down the runway, the co-pilot looked at the instrument panel and said, “God, look at that thing, That doesn't seem right, does it?” He repeated his reservation, but the pilot ignored him.

At the time, the accepted way of doing things, the cockpit culture, was an authoritarian one with the captain at the top. This culture made it more likely that the captain would not hear information coming up from others and less likely that those below would speak up loudly enough to make sure they were heard.

The pilot and co-pilot in the doomed plane were “residue of an era when fighter jocks from World War II and Korea flew for the airlines. In that gung-ho environment, captains were always right. They did not need advice, and co-pilots and other crew members often were afraid to assert themselves.”

The crash led to an industry-wide attempt to change cockpit culture. Now the pilot has a checklist of conditions and readings that he and the others must review, and he has to listen closely to what others report about these items. Hospitals have tried to put a similar system in operating rooms, and in both of these places, the last checklist item is, “If anyone sees any red flags, something they are uncomfortable with, bring it to my attention.”

There’s a more general sociological truth here, one that decades of case studies and small-group experiments have shown. Authoritarian systems are very efficient for doing routine tasks in unchanging environments. But when the situation changes, they are accidents waiting to happen. They are inflexible, mostly because the top people are reluctant to change their ways and ideas, especially if these ideas seem to have been working. Often, people lower in the system have helpful ideas for dealing with the new circumstances, but the people at the top don’t pay attention or dismiss the ideas as unworkable. By contrast, democratic systems, with information flowing freely in all directions, are much better at adapting to change.

The Post mentions only cockpits and OR’s. But the timing of the story is interesting. The story didn’t describe pilots and surgeons as “staying the course” despite negative information, but the Post ran it only a day or two after President Bush announced his intention to put even more effort and troops into his Iraq policy, essentially ignoring information and recommendations from a variety of other voices including members of the Iraq Study Group, the military, and Congressional Republicans, and an overwhelming majority of the US population.

(Hat tip to Mark Kleiman at The Reality Based Community for catching this story.)

The Bridge II

January 9, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

The Geico Washington Bridge deal (mentioned in the previous entry) is dead. The Port Authority cancelled the gecko-at-the-gate arrangement. The New York Times article does not specifically mention the Montclair SocioBlog by name, but it does refer to “the loud and swift response to the contract.” Still, we’re proud do have done our part.

The incident reminded me of a proposal some years ago to defray costs at the Statue of Liberty by charging visitors a dollar. I don’t recall how long ago this was, perhaps in the 1980s. My searches on the Internet, including Lexis-Nexis, couldn’t find any reference, probably because the proposal got nowhere fast. I do recall one politician saying something like, “It’s the Statue of Liberty. She says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor.’ She doesn’t say ‘gimme a buck.’”

What’s also interesting in this issue of the interplay of public and private is that Geico, the private corporation, may have been more responsive to public opinion than was the public institution (the Port Authority). Geico was worried about its image in the public eye. But for the Port Authority, it’s not clear whether public opinion was the decisive factor in this case of multi-causality. Even in today’s statements, it’s hard to tell whether the Port Authority really shares the view that the Bridge is a public piece of architecture not to be prostituted as an advertising vehicle. In fact, one of the arguments against the deal was economic — that the PA was selling too cheap. It’s like the old punch line, “Now we’re just haggling about price.”

A Bridge Too Corporate

January 6, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was a close one, so was the Meineke Car Care Bowl played in Bank of America Stadium, unlike the FedEx Orange Bowl or the Citi Rose Bowl and the Allstate Sugar Bowl (formerly the Nokia Sugar Bowl).

OK, you get the idea. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you have to be of a certain age to remember when these games took place without the benefit of corporate sponsorship and in stadiums named for cities or universities or heroes, not businesses, and with no corporate logos painted on the grass.

Maybe we are becoming more and more tolerant of corporations trading their help to “public” institutions in exchange for the right to use those institutions for their own publicity and profit. Schools, always underfunded, are natural targets for Coca-Cola and Pepsi. The school gets some money; the companies get an exclusive for their sugar-water and snack machines. “Public” television, similarly starved for funds, turns to corporations, who in turn get to have their names announced in connection with an honorable cause.

Now we have the Geico George Washington Bridge. For about $1.6 million a year (a bargain according to advertising experts), Geico will have billboards over the tollbooths at the Bridge, signs on the approach ramps, and their logo on the Port Authority’s Website and mail.

In another era perhaps, this encroachment of corporate profit-making and image-mongering might have been unthinkable. Roads and bridges were the responsibility of government. Now as I drive, I see signs telling me that some stretch of highway is being kept clean thanks to Donald Trump. I wonder how far the privatization of once public facilities will creep. All we have to do is keep starving our schools, museums, libraries, and other public institutions. Where else can they turn but to corporations?

I look forward to the approaches to the Lincoln Tunnel in New York and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington with ads for the Lincoln Navigator. The National Gallery brought to you by GE, the Bank of America Grand Canyon . . . .

A (North American) Hockey Game Broke Out

January 3, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

File this one under Sport and Culture.

Over at Blue Monster, Dan Myers posts a photo he took of an American flag made of hockey sticks and pucks. It’s on the wall at the ESPN Zone in Chicago. Myers adds, “the irony of a hockey-themed American flag doesn’t escape me given that it is the most international of our major sports leagues.”

There's also the irony of the association of the American flag and a sport noted for its violence — slashing, high-sticking, and of course, fighting. European hockey, apparently, is a different game, cleaner and less violent. The experience of European players in the NHL provides a study in socialization and acculturation.

Chris Gee, a grad student, compared penalty time for North American (US, Canada) and European-born players and found that while European-born players in the NHL averaged 39 minutes in the box, the average for North Americans was 53 minutes. And Europeans accounted for only about 11% of the penalties for fighting.

Position might have something to do with it if Europeans are underrepresented among defensemen. But Gee thinks it’s cultural, and as they spend time in the NHL, the Europeans become socialized to North American ways. Europeans with three or more years experience were far more likely to get caught charging or high-sticking.
Fighting and aggression are revered in Canadian hockey, but in Europe it’s a very different story. But after Europeans arrive here they learn what’s successful and normal; they see the crowds rise to their feet during a fight and they become Americanized.
Gee’s research appeared last September in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise. I found a report via Lexis-Nexis in the Ottawa Citizen, Sept. 28, 2006.

Happy New Year

January 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t generally care for the televised versions of celebrations. Even on a forty-inch, high-density TV, the Tournament of Roses or the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade or New Year’s Eve in Times Square leave me cold. The whole idea of a celebration is to be a participant not a spectator, to feel the energy of the crowd surging through your own body. And you can’t do that from thousands of miles away sitting on a couch with the remote in one hand even if you have a glass of champagne in the other and a silly hat on your head.

But Sunday night as I watched the TV screen in a quiet Florida condo, there was one moment that got to me — a quick montage of celebrations in cities further east that had already rung in 2007: Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Seoul, etc. Durkheim was right about rituals: they reinforce the feeling of commonality, of sharing. He was also right that rituals define a group. If you’re part of the group, you participate; or maybe it’s more accurate the other way round: if you participate, you’re part of the group.

In some cases, this group-defining function of rituals sharpens differences among us. It’s at the root of the “war on Christmas” flap, with people like Bill O’Reilly ranting about the secularization of Christmas and the evils of saying “Happy Holdiays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Whose ritual is this anyway? If it’s a Christian ritual, non-Christians are excluded. If it’s a more inclusive American ritual, the Christ-centered religious elements have to be muted. (Of course, some extremists want it both ways, so that Christmas is a national holiday and yet still very Christian, a designation that would promote their definition of the US as a “Christian nation.”)

New Year’s is the only holiday I can think of that draws no such boundaries between groups. As one of my students put it, it’s the Earth’s birthday. So everyone who lives on this planet is part of it. We celebrate locally, but the images from around the world prod us to think globally.