Nostalgia - The Way We Were (not The Way I Was)

December 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. That’s the gist of a Times op-ed this morning by Daniel Gilbert. In fact, in Gilbert’s view, nostalgia is a doomed emotion.
Maybe we’ve reached nostalgia’s end. . . . . Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered.
Gilbert presents no data, but he’s a Harvard professor of psychology (his course is one of the most popular) and a best-selling author and a serious researcher. So he ought to know, right?

The nostalgia on his mind is the nostalgia of place, and he assumes that we can be nostalgic only for places that are unique – luncheonettes with homemade pies, record stores whose offerings depend on the quirky preferences of the owner. You can’t be nostalgic for a homogenized landscape, where all downtowns have the same Starbuck’s and Gap, Gilbert says, because these will not change.
Americans may no longer need to gather at midnight on the last day of the year to yearn for their yesterdays, because wherever they are they will see the landscapes of their youths.
I think Gilbert is wrong. To begin with, even if the store names stay the same, the stores themselves will change, and in 2030 we may be remembering fondly the way all those Gap stores looked back in 2010.

Second, nostalgia seems attached much less to place than to objects and experiences. (I made this same argument two and a half years ago in connection with “American Graffiti.” In future decades, today’s iPods and X-boxes, Zu Zu Hamsters and World of Warcraft will occupy the emotional space now filled by IBM Selectrics and Allman Brothers LPs.

Third, and most important, memory may be psychological (Proust and his famous cookie), but nostalgia is social. Nostalgia is not for what is unique and personal but for what is shared – the TV shows we all watched, clothing styles we all wore. If every mall in America has a Gap and an Olive Garden, this should make them stronger candidates for nostalgia. You may have grown up in Tennessee; but the year is now 2030, and you’re living in California; the guy you meet in a bar comes from Wisconsin. But you can both recall the old Starbuck’s (“Remember how they sold CDs and called the workers baristas, and you could get a ‘vente’?”).

That’s the gist of Billy Collins’s poem “Nostalgia,” a spoof on the whole idea (“Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.”) Listen to Collins read the poem to a live audience here . (Scroll down to #15.)

(Today seems to be nostaliga day. As I was reading Gilbert’s column this morning, I was also watching “Annie Hall” – thank you, IFC – with its theme of nostalgia and loss, and Diane Keaton singing “Seems Like Old Times.” Then my son switched to the Sci-Fi channel, which is running Twilight Zones all day, black-and-white film with old actors when they were young, and Rod Serling eternally smoking a cigarette.)


Big Conclusions, Little Data

December 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Can the Recession Save Marriage?” That was the headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by W. Bradford Wilcox two weeks ago. Mr. Wilcox’s answer is a cheerful yes. And here’s the evidence:
The divorce rate is actually falling. It declined to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2008 from 17.5 divorces in 2007 (a 3% drop), after rising from 16.4 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2005 (a 7% increase).
Three data points – 2005, 2007, 2008. That’s more than enough. Case closed.

Yes, it’s possible that other things might have been going on in the country to affect divorce rates – the sorts of things that other researchers might have tried valiantly to factor into their regressions. But I guess that for the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia (Mr. Wilcox is its director) and the Institute for American Values (Mr. Wilcox is a fellow) a 3% drop after a 7% increase is slam-dunk evidence for “a silver lining in all this financial pain.”

The larger fish Wilcox is trying to land here is the idea that poor people can have great marriages even without money, and therefore reducing inequality and economic hardship will not strengthen families. But that argument seems to be a fish story.

Philip Cohen, at the Family Inequality blog, has an excellent critique. First he graphs Wilcox’s data, giving it the gee-whiz effect that fits with Wilcox's optimism.

Then he graphs a longer-range view of divorce and economic hard times (shaded purple).

The longer perspective makes the current dip in divorce rates seem a bit less impressive.

Wilcox wants to argue that people can have great marriage even as they lose their jobs, homes, and savings. No doubt, some people can. As Wilcox says, after acknowledging that some couples don’t do so well under that kind of stress, “anecdotal evidence suggests that other couples have
responded to the recession by rededicating themselves to their marriages.”

But a small drop in the divorce rate is not evidence of
a departure from the past four decades, when many Americans came to see marriage largely as a chance to pursue a "soulmate" relationship, where couples focus on emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction and personal fulfillment, rather than as a chance to share childbearing and childrearing and economic cooperation with an extended family.
If Wilcox is right, we can all be relieved that the recession has finally led couples to reject marriage as personal fulfillment and replace it with sharing and cooperation. But then what are we to make of the numbers reported in today’s Times: New York courts have seen an 18% increase in cases of family members assaulting one another. (And those are just the ones that make it all the way to court.)

(Huge hat tip to Philip Cohen at Family Inequality.)

Christmas and the Destruction of Value

December 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

What was in those boxes we unwrapped and opened today? Gifts, most people would say.

But according to a Grinch-famous 1993 economics article by Joel Waldfogel, those boxes were also crammed with “deadweight loss” – the difference between what the giver paid for the book or bauble and what it was actually worth to the recipient.

Waldfogel surveyed Yale undergrads and concluded that “between a tenth and a third of the value of holiday gifts is destroyed by gift-giving.” Destroyed. That $40 sweater you gave to your cousin’s husband – you destroyed $10 of its value.

Here’s the key question Waldfogel put to his Yalies about gifts they’d received: “If you did not have them, how much would you be willing to pay to obtain them?”*

By this method, a really good gift would mean a high deadweight loss. For example, I would never pay more than $40 for a sweater for myself. No sweater to me is worth more than that. But suppose a good friend bought me a really, really nice $200 sweater. I love that sweater. I love it precisely because it’s an extravagance I never would have allowed myself. But the most I’d be willing to pay for it is $40. So according to Waldfogel, my friend destroyed $160 (80%) of the sweater’s value.

When I first heard about the Waldfogel study, I thought it was a bit of self-parody – like those jokes about engineers , where the engineer sees everything in terms of the concepts of his profession and thus misses the point. (Waldfogel, for example, refers to the “inefficiency” of gift-giving, as though the point of gift-giving were efficiency.) But Waldfogel wasn’t kidding. He just published a follow-up book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

In fact, gift-giving has become increasingly rationalized and efficient. Children write letters to Santa specifying what they want; brides and grooms have bridal registries that do the same. Cash and gift cards are becoming more popular as gifts. There is no doubt that gift-giving is an economic exchange, and it would be silly to pretend thateconomic value has nothing to do with it (it’s the thought that counts). But it’s equally silly to think that it gifts are only economic and that they have no social meaning.


*The Form-1040-instructions quality of the prose is typical. For example, the Waldfogel survey also asks respondents to estimate the value of the gifts as “the amount of cash such that you are indifferent between the gift and the cash, not counting the sentimental value of the gift. If you exchanged the original gift, assess the value of the object you got in exchange for the original gift. If you exchanged the original gift for cash, put the cash amount you received here.”

Sexting and Percentaging - The Wrong Way

December 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Pew survey on sexting – it came out over a week ago. I don’t know how I missed it. Must be the holiday blahs. And where was the media hysteria? Most news outlets ignored it, probably because the results weren’t all that alarming.

For the entire sample of eight hundred 12-17 year olds, the estimated proportion who sent “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves” was 4%. Given the margin of error, that means that the actual percentage, as Dan Ryan at Sociology of Information notes, is somewhere between 0% and 8%.

Of course, we’re not going to see a headline like “Sexting Teens May be 0%.” Not when you can goose up the numbers to 30%. Here’s the headline that ran in The Washington Post:
Sexting hasn't reached most young teens, poll finds;
30% of 17-year-olds report getting nude photos on their cells
That subhead manages to get the highest percentage by
  • using only the oldest subgroup in the sample
  • measuring receiving rather than sending

Dan has some other methodological criticisms, including this one. First the Pew summary paragraph:
One parental intervention that may relate to a lower likelihood of sending of sexually suggestive images was parental restriction of text messaging. Teens who sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images were less likely to have parents who reported limiting the number of texts or other messages the teen could send. Just 9% of teens who sent sexy images by text had parents who restricted the number of texts or other messages they could send; 28% of teens who didn’t send these texts had parents who limited their child’s texting.
I spent the last two weeks of the semester trying to get students to percentage tables correctly. “Percentage on the independent variable,” I repeated and repeated. And now Amanda Lenhart at the Pew Foundation undermines all my good work. As Dan says,
It is unlikely that the authors are thinking that sexting causes parental restrictions – the sense is just the opposite – and so the percentaging should be within the categories of parental behavior and comparison across these.
Dan even does the math and finds:
  • Children of restrictive parents who ever sent a sext: 1.4% (3 of 218)
  • Children of non-restrictive parents who ever sent a sext: 5% (29 of 572)
Read Dan’s entire critique. Or for the truly absurd and probably counter-effectual, see the anti-sexting videos featuring (I am not making this up) James Lipton.