The American Dream

May 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Social stratification has two important dimensions: inequality and mobility. How wide are the gaps between people in the society, and how easy is it to move up the economic ladder?

It’s clear that the gap between rich and poor has been growing. So has the gap between the rich and the middle. Those at the top of the income distribution have been getting a larger and larger slice of the total pie. In the last 30 years, average real income has risen moderately, but incomes for the top 1% have nearly tripled. The typical CEO in 1978 got about 40 times what the average worker earned. Today, he makes 260 times as much. European countries have a seen a similar trend, though it is far more muted. Among the OECD countries, when it comes to inequality, we’re number one.

But even if inequality is greater in the US than in other industrialized countries, America is still the land of opportunity, the country where people are freest and most able to work their way up the ladder of success, right?

Certainly this is what Americans believe. Isabel Sawhill and John Morton have just published a short, non-technical, and very understandable report: “Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?”

The dream is certainly alive, as this chart from the report shows.


In comparisons with people in other countries, Americans are the least troubled by economic inequality in their society. They are also most likely to believe in the idea of economic mobility — to think that economic success should and does depend on individual effort rather than social forces, and that the government should not try to reduce inequality. It’s the belief expressed succinctly in a bumper sticker, “I fight poverty, I work.”

But is the American dream reflected in reality? Or is George Carlin right when he says, “The reason they call it the American dream is that you have to be asleep to believe in it”?

Sawhill and Morton looked at “intergenerational mobility”— the income of thirtysomethings today compared with their parents’ income at a similar age. Of the countries they measured, the US comes out at the low end.


Germany has 1.5 times as much mobility as the US, and Denmark has three times as much. Only Great Britain has less mobility than does the US.

It looks as though the American Dream is alive and well . . . and living in Denmark.

American Nostalgia

May 28, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston


“American Graffiti” was on the other night, and I watched some of it in company with the teenager in residence. We didn’t watch the whole thing. We didn’t need to. The movie is pure nostalgia – the sounds and sights of another time – and once we soaked up enough of that, we lost interest. You don’t watch George Lucas films for character and dialogue.

I was sitting there singing along with the oldies. Occasionally, I would offer an astute cinematic comment like, “The fifty-eight Impala, what a car.” But later as we were talking about it, my son wondered what sorts of things from today would trigger the same kinds of response forty or fifty years from now. “Will we look at a movie and say, ‘Wow, a 2007 Accord!”? He didn’t think so.  He didn’t even think the music of today would have the same kind of meaning for his generation that those early rock songs have.

It wasn’t that he thought those old songs were better. (He dismissed “Sixteen Candles,” one of the first songs on the soundtrack, as sounding exactly like “Earth Angel,” which for some reason we’d heard earlier that day. And I really couldn’t argue.) But what makes “Sixteen Candles” so powerful, so evocative of an era, may be that the source of music then was much more centralized. In the 50s and 60s, a city would have only a handful of AM radio stations, most of them playing the same top-40 list. Youth today have a much greater variety of music, and they have become a much more fragmented public. For its grand finale this year,  “American Idol,” rather than use the hits of today, turned the clock back to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” an album from forty years ago, long before any of the contestants was born.

As for cars, they are still a crucial part of American culture, but standout individual models are rare. SUVs look pretty much alike, as do sedans. More tellingly, cars may have lost their symbolic value as markers of identity.

So what objects might my son, forty years hence, point out in a period film? “Hey look, an iMac. Remember when Apple called all their products iThis and iThat?” He was right. The iPod might well be the equivalent of the those doo-wop songs. But the emblematic object is the medium (the iPod), not the message (the various songs it plays). Or if we are looking for specific items, we might do better in the electronics department than at the car lot. Movies (or whatever storytelling medium we will have in 2050) might evoke the world of 2007 with an X-box and Halo, a Play Station and Grand Theft Auto.

Billy Collins has a poem “Nostalgia.” The joke of it (its “conceit,” as English professors might say) is that nostalgia is limited to the relatively short span of our own lives. It begins:
Remember the 1340’s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Collins might have added that nostalgia extends in one direction only — backwards, towards the “old days.” When we picture those people in the 1340s, or when we see films of those people of the 1920s walking stiffly about in black-and-white at four frames per second in their narrow suits and bowler hats; it’s hard to realize that to those people, their times were not the old days, and they themselves were not old-fashioned. They were at the cutting edge, the height of modernity.

In the same way, it’s hard to think that from the perspective of the future, our lives today are old-fashioned, and in only a few decades we’ll chuckle nostalgically to see people thumbing their Blackberries or watching downloads of “Pirates of the Caribbean” on their cell phones.

Muslims and Methodology

May 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Pew Research Center this week published a poll that asked Muslims in the US and other countries their views on several political issues. News stories here focused on the US results, but whether those results were cause for relief or alarm depends on who was reading the poll.

The mainstream press (aka “the mainstream liberal press”), ran headlines like these:
In many ways, US Muslims are in mainstream America (Christian Science Monitor)
Muslim Americans in line with US values (Financial Times)
Survey: U.S. Muslims Assimilated, Opposed to Extremism (The Washington Post)

The right-wing press picked up on one number in the poll:
TIME BOMBS IN OUR MIDST - 26% OF YOUNG U.S. MUSLIMS BACK KILLINGS (The New York Post)

Or as the Washington Times put it in an op-ed piece by Diana West, “According to Pew's data, one-quarter of younger American Muslims approve of the presence of skin-ripping, skull-crushing, organ-piercing violence in civilian life as a religious imperative —‘in defense of Islam.’”

For some on the right, 26% was a lowball estimate. Here’s Rush Limbaugh:
“Two percent of them say it can often be justified, 13% say sometimes, and 11% say rarely.” So let’s add it up, 26 and 2 is 28, so 31% think to one degree or another, suicide bombing is justified. If you add to that the 5% that don't know or refuse to answer, it's even worse. So almost a third of young American Muslims who support in one way or another homicide bombings according to the Pew poll.
(If Limbaugh had taken a basic statistics course, he could have inflated his estimate even more. There were only about 300 young Muslims in the sample, so the margin of error means that the true proportion might have been several percentage points higher.)

When a result can be open such different interpretation, maybe there’s something wrong with the survey methodology. Let’s take a look at the actual question:

Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?
The conclusion of Limbaugh and others is that unless you say that killing is never ever justified, you’re a menace to society.

But what would happen if we substituted “Christianity” for “Islam” and polled Christians in the US? How many Christians would absolutely reject all violence in defense of Christianity? And how many might say that violence, even violence against civilians, is sometimes justified to defend Christianity from its enemies? I wouldn’t be surprised if the number were higher than 26%.

Consider the war in Iraq, which Limbaugh and the others support. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, several thousand of them as “collateral damage” in US operations. The “shock and awe” bombing in the original invasion certainly included “skin-ripping, skull-crushing, organ-piercing violence” upon civilians. But at the time, a majority of Americans supported it, and Bush’s position still remains that we went to war to defend our freedom against its enemies.

The survey has many more interesting findings, and it’s especially useful for comparing US Muslims with those of other countries. But of course those matters were not newsworthy.

The Point of Tipping (was "Cheap Bastards")

May 25, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

At Marginal Revolution, a blog that seems to be run mostly by economists, a post about tipping
has been provoking much response. Tyler Cowen, the original poster, got right to the central question.
The best way to understand tipping is to go to a restaurant you will never patronize again. Once your meal is over, when she is not looking, leave your tip not on your table but rather on another table she served. That way she still gets her money and you have in no way ripped her off.

That is psychologically tough to do.
We will never come back to the restaurant; we are never going to see this waiter or waitress again. Why should we care what they think of us?

From purely economic perspective, tipping is not rational, and it’s interesting to read the responses of hardline economists twisting themselves in knots to explain how, ultimately, tipping really is economically rational.

But the simpler explanation is that we are social beings, not merely economic maximizers. If you want to understand tipping, you’re better off reading Erving Goffman and not Adam Smith. We do care what others think, even anonymous strangers in public settings. Even when there are no real consequences, we follow the norms of self-presentation.

The payoff is not to our pockets but to our self-concept. You don’t want the waitress to think you’re a cheap bastard because you yourself don’t want to think that you’re a cheap bastard. At least one commenter at Marginal Revolution tells of deliberately not leaving a tip, but he feels obligated to give a long account so that we won’t think that this cheap bastard is a cheap bastard.

I don’t know if the research has been done, but what do you think would happen if you asked people to rate themselves as tippers — below average, average, above average? How many would say that they were below average tippers?

A couple of years ago I was talking with a student, a slightly older (late 20s) woman who had at some point in her career worked as a waitress, and somehow the conversation got around to tipping. “I always leave a good tip,” she said, “on a $12 check, I might leave a $5 tip.” And she was by no means wealthy. Her income was certainly far less than mine. I was an 18-20% tipper —average, right? But suddenly I felt like a cheap bastard.

What’s an extra dollar or two on a $10 lunch tab or cab fare — what would you do with that money anyway. And it turns you from an average 20% tipper to a generous 30% or 40% tipper.