Sociology and Changing Times

February 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things change. Watch the video (go ahead, it’s only five seconds long).

(Please ignore the offensive and irrelevant “blonde” in the title. “Secretary” would be better on all counts. )

Maybe you laughed out loud. And if your kids were in the room, maybe they asked you what was funny. Show them the video. Did they laugh? Did they get the joke? (The text that accompanies the video says that people under 40 won’t get it.)

I may use this in my class as a lead-in to the origins of sociology. Tönnies and Gemeinschaft, Durkheim and solidarity, Weber and rationalization. I always fear that students will see these thinkers as merely idle intellectuals coming up with fancy ideas and vocabulary for no other reason than to make life difficult for undergraduates a century later. I want students to see them as real people who were facing big changes, changes that they thought were important, puzzling, and even troubling.

My strategy of late has been to ask students what they think of as the most important events of the past 25-30 years. I also ask them the same question about inventions.

The list of events was slow in coming and a bit quirky:
  • The Iraq wars
  • 9/11
  • Election of Obama
  • Death of Michael Jackson (I don’t judge; I just write ’em on the board).
  • Haiti earthquake
  • Katrina
  • Tsunami of 2004 (there was a disaster chain of association)
  • Fall of the Berlin Wall
  • Formation of the European Union (from an older student, born in Europe)
They had an easier time with inventions:
  • Computers
  • The Internet
  • Cell Phones
  • iPods
  • Facebook
  • Fiberoptics
In fact, their list, although shorter, was strikingly similar to a list generated a year ago by a panel of judges at the Wharton school. (Drek too, here, has recently played this game.)

Then comes the hard part. Why are these important? In what ways have they changed, or will they change, our lives? Will we look back in 25 years and say, “Yes, the death of Michael Jackson – that changed everything,”? (When I asked this in class, the student who had contributed it agreed to take it off the list.) But even with 9/11, the question isn’t an easy one. We know we’re in a “post-9/11 world,” but how is it different from the pre-9/11 world?

The inventions were less baffling. Students thought it made a difference that you could be friends with someone thousands of miles away, someone you’d never met face to face. Or that you could form a group based on narrow interests with people you never could have met otherwise, people all over the world. But they had a hard time saying just how those changes would be important in their lives or how these things would change society.

My point was that with many of these things, we are in the same position as the early sociological thinkers. They were responding to events, chiefly the French Revolution and its legacy, and technological change, the Industrial Revolution. Their task was to come up with a way of talking about these changes, making sense of them, and figuring out their impact on how people lived their lives and thought about themselves and others.

I think the exercise was useful. Maybe some of the students saw it as just bullshitting about stuff we had no conclusions or information about. But my hope is that it gave students some appreciation of the thinkers we were going to be looking at and of the important changes that began around 1800. Some students have only the dimmest knowledge of the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution (stuff that happened a long time ago in high school). I hope that the analogy with 9/11 and the Internet help.

Packaging Air

February 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A Dan Myers* kind of post)

I had to buy low-dose aspirin (81 mg). One a day, supposedly good for the heart. I went for the generic brand, of course. It came in two sizes – 120 pills and 300 pills. The larger size was the better bargain. And it certainly looked much larger on the shelf.

Then I got home and opened the package. The bottle was mostly empty. I had bought a lot of air. The 300 little aspirin tablets were all there I guess, though I didn’t bother to count them. But they would have fit into a bottle one-third the size. The pill packers hadn’t even put in the usual wads of cotton to fill out the empty space. (What are you supposed to do with that cotton anyway? Do you swallow it with the aspirin, or before? Or do you use it to sop up spilled water?)

In the picture, I’ve dumped the 300 aspirin into a plastic cup that’s about the same diameter as the bottle, and I’ve drawn a line on the bottle to show the level the aspirin reached.

*Dan would have made a video showing the 2/3 empty bottle and him pouring the aspirin into the glass, and maybe popping one into his mouth. Or probably something more amusing. Like taking a huge bag of potato chips, pounding on it till the contents were small particles, and then pouring that into a thimble.

Pimp My Write

February 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It doesn’t have much to do with sociology, but this correction in the Times was too good to pass up.

“Pimp” as a verb has now become such a mainstream term that a Times reporter mistakes pumped up for pimped out. (The full Times article is here.)

Ben Yagoda says that the title he really preferred for his book on the parts of speech was Pimp My Ride. The name of the MTV show provides such a good example of the fluidity of parts of speech – a noun turned into a verb, a verb into a noun. Instead, he went with When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It.

Hat Tip: Brendan Nyhan reporting a tweet from Ben Smith at Politico

Cooking the Books - A Second Look

February 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Do the police undercount crime?

The graph I cribbed from Rick Rosenfeld in yesterday’s post showed a remarkable similarity between victimization surveys and official crime statistics. In 2000, for example the rate of reported burglaries according to the NCVS was nearly identical to the UCR rate. Both were about 4.4 per 1,000.

Yet in the recent Eterno-Silverman study, police commanders, responding anonymously, said that crime statistics were suppressed. And Josh in his comment yesterday refers to Peter Moskos’s “let me count the ways” description of how the police keep crimes off the books. (See Moskos’s own take on the study at his website.)

The problem is that the graph I presented was somewhat misleading The NCVS and UCR rates of burglary do not measure exactly the same thing. It’s not exactly oranges and apples; more like oranges and tangerines.

1. The NCVS data are for the New York metro area, so we have to use similar UCR data even though the rap about fudging the stats is only about the NYPD. No way to get around that problem

2. More crucially, the NCVS counts only residential burglaries; the UCR number includes both commercial and residential burglaries. Nationwide, about 2/3 of all UCR burglaries are residential. Using that figure for the New York area we get a UCR rate for Residential burglaries of only 3.0 per 1,000 population, about one-third less than we would expect from the estimate of the number of residential burglaries that victims say they reported. Here’s an amended graph. I’ve added a line for residential burglaries that uses the simple 2/3 formula.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The rate of residential burglaries that victims say that they report is usually one-and-a-half to two times greater than the rate of residential burglaries officially “known to the police.” For the year 2000, the NCVS rate of 4.4 per 1,000 population works out to 40,000 reported residential burglaries. If 2/3 of burglaries are residential, only 27,500 of those made it onto the police books.

Does that mean that the police canned 12,5000 reported burglaries? Probably not. There may be other explanations for the some of the discrepancy. But the data do provide some support for those who are skeptical of the precision of the police numbers.

Cooking the Crime Books?

February 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Crimes known to the police” is the official count of Crime in the United States – the annual report published by the FBI, which compiles data from local police departments. It’s also known as the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR).

Many years ago, a friend of mine found that his car had been broken into and wanted to report the crime to the police. He went to the local precinct, and when the desk sergeant finally acknowledged him, he said, “Someone broke into my car and stole my stuff.”

“So what do you want me to do?” said the sergeant.

That was one larceny that never became “known to the police,” at least not on the books of the 20th precinct.

The problem of uncounted crime has been around a long time. In the late 1940s, New York’s burglary rate grew by 1300% in a single year, a huge increase but entirely attributable to changes in bookkeeping. Word had gone out that burglaries should no longer be routinely assigned to “Detective Can.”

In the 1980s, Chicago’s robbery rate rose after the FBI threatened the city that it wouldn’t include their data because the numbers were so suspect. Atlanta kept its numbers artificially low prior to the Olympics. This week, the Dallas police chief is under attack for the way his department reports crimes.

Now two criminologists, John Eterno and Eli Silverman, are claiming that New York’s crime data have been fudged consistently for the last 15 years, and they point to CompStat as the culprit (NY Times article here.) CompStat is the system that William Bratton brought to New York when he became police commissioner in 1994. It required commanders to report every week on statistics and patterns of crime in their areas.

Eterno and Silverman gave anonymous surveys to retired precinct commanders, Under pressure to appear effective in the war on crime, precinct commanders might stretch the facts. The value of a theft might be creatively investigated to keep the total under the $1000 threshold for “grand larceny.” Felonies look worse than misdemeanors.
A purse snatch might get recorded as a theft instead of a robbery because robberies fall into the broader category of “violent” crimes. Or victims, like my friend in the old days, might be persuaded not to bother reporting the crime.

In an op-ed in the Times yesterday William Bratton, who brought CompStat to New York when he became police commissioner in 1994, vigorously defended the NYPD numbers. Although he provided no data, he might have.

Since 1973, the US has had an alternate count of crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey. Most of the data are for the US, but Rick Rosenfeld and Janet Lauritsen were able to get three-year averages for New York City, and they have looked at the data for burglary.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The graph shows the rate (percents) of
  • people who told the NCVS they had been victims of a burglary
  • people who say they reported the burglary to the police
  • the official rate of burglaries “known to the police”
The numbers are not precisely comparable (the NCVS rate may be based on households rather than population, and the UCR rate includes commercial burglaries as well as residential). But the data in the graph do not support the idea that CompStat increased the fudging of burglary statistics If it had, then starting in 1994, we should see a widening gap between the NCVS line and the UCR line, with the UCR line moving downward much more. But if anything, it’s the Victimization line that descends more steeply.

In the decade following CompStat, both sources of data show a 68% decrease in burglary. So if commanders were cooking the books, they weren't including burglary in the recipe.

Snow Job

February 17, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Watching toddlers in the snow last week reminded me of a bit the Daily show did a few weeks ago about the Fox News gang. The segment, narrated by John Oliver, zeroed in on a theme that runs through much of the conservative hand-wringing about the present state of the country: “an incredibly over-simplistic nostalgia.” Here were Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly all mourning the passing of the “the America we grew up in,” “those simpler times when people were together.”

We see a quick montage of each right winger saying, “when I was a kid.” Then Oliver’s aha moment: “It was a better, simpler time because they were all six years old!”

I’ve mentioned this before (here) – the tendency to confuse phylogeny with ontogeny. To the child, the world is a secure place with simple rules that have to be followed, a world where grown-ups are powerful, restricting but also nurturing. But when the child grows up and becomes an adult, the world as he sees it is a much less certain place, and his own powers to control things are limited.

What does that have to do with snow? There’s a cartoon (if I could draw worth a damn, I’d do a version of it here) that captures this same idea. It shows a father and his young son walking in deep snow.  It comes up to about knee-level on the father, but for the little boy, it’s nearly chest high, and he is struggling to walk. The father is holding his hand flat at the level of his own waist and saying, “This is nothing. When I was a kid, we had snow up to here.” And when that child grows up, he too will remember waist-high snow.

In the same way, the Fox guys are all saying, “When I was a kid, the America that I grew up in was a safe, caring, and simple place.” Since these men all grew up in different eras, as Oliver pointed out, the nostalgia is not for a bygone America; it’s for a bygone childhood.

If You’re Gay, You’re O.K. . . .

February 13, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

. . . .but if you’re homosexual, it’s more conjectural.*

When a recent New York Times / CBS poll asked about gays in the military, the survey split the sample and asked the question two ways. Half the sample were asked about “homosexuals,” half were asked about “gays and lesbians.” The good news is that whatever the phrasing, only a minority opposed allowing gays to serve. But respondents were far more tolerant of “gays and lesbians” than they were of “homosexuals.”

(For a larger view, click on the chart.)

More simply, people favored “gays/lesbians” 70 to 19; “homosexuals” by 54 to 29.

The results on Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell are less clear. People who were in favor were further asked if their opinion extended even to those who were out. Of the 70% who favored “gays and lesbians,” 58% favored even the uncloseted. Among the 54% who favored “homosexuals,” only 44%.

On the one hand, that means the openly “homosexual” are seen less favorably than are the openly “gay.” On the other, when the “openly announce” condition was added, of the 70 who favored allowing “gays/lesbians” in the military, 22 changed their minds. Among those who favored allowing “homosexuals,” the attrition was only 10 of 54. However, with an N of only 500 in each group, these results may not be so reliable.

* The allusion here is to the old song, “If you’re white, you’re all right . . .” the same one that Rev. Lowery referenced in his benediction at the end of the inauguration thirteen months ago (here, beginning at about 4:30 – highly recommended). Or listen to the original song by Big Bill Broonzy.

Hoop Nightmares

February 12, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
Recruiting college athletes probably wasn’t funny even when Comden and Green made fun of it in “Pass the Football” in Wonderful Town in 1953. The former college hero, Wreck, sings*:
Couldn’t spell a lick,
Couldn’t do arithmetic;
One and one made three,
Thought that dog was c-a-t,

But I could pass that football
Like nothin’ you have ever seen. . . .

I couldn’t even tell red from green,
Get those verbs through my bean,
But I was buddies with the dean
Like nothin’ you have ever seen.
And now Binghamton. It wasn’t football, it was basketball, and it wasn’t the dean, it was the president. And Wreck, unlike the scholar athletes at Binghamton, wasn’t selling crack or using stolen debit cards. That on top of no-show courses, plagiarized papers, and lesser academic offenses.

But why? Academically, Binghamton had elevated itself to star position in the SUNY system. It was getting many of the New York’s brightest students. What would a Division I basketball team add? Why did President De Fleur feel that having a good basketball team was so important? And why, in this effort, did she take Jerry Tarkanian as a role model?

Did she think that a great team would improve the school’s finances? If so, she was not looking at the evidence. Most men’s basketball programs (football too) bring in less money than they cost.

There’s a larger institutional story here, and it’s been told before. It starts with this odd amalgam of sports and higher learning, and it has grown according to its own internal logic. It’s sort of like our “system” of health care. If we were starting from scratch, would anyone propose what we now have as a good way to provide health care to a nation? If we were starting over with our institutions of higher learning, would anyone propose that universities house professional-level competitive sports programs, with all the demands these make on the athletes and the institution?
*The song is best in context. Unfortunately, the most listenable version I could find on YouTube is a concert version at a rather torpid tempo by Simon Rattle. I know I should have hung this post on a peg more up to date than an ancient Broadway musical, but I just saw South Pacific (1949) last night.

Methods and Madness - A Snowstorm and Global Warming

February 11, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the first week of intro, I talk about sociology as a science and the need for systematic evidence as opposed to anecdotal evidence. Using anecdotal evidence to “prove” a point has an obvious flaw – the conclusion depends entirely on who is gathering the evidence. It's an easy lesson, and the students all get the idea. As I say, the flaw is obvious.

Or is it?

Last night, The Daily Show strung together snippets of people on national TV (OK, mostly Fox News) using the current snowstorm in the Eastern US to disprove global warming.

“It’s one storm in one region of one country,” says Jon Stewart, “It makes no sense to extrapolate. . . .”

Here’s the clip. The relevant portion begins at about 3:45

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Unusually Large Snowstorm
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Is this extreme convenience sampling? Or, here in the East, is it snowball sampling?

Superbowl 2010 – The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money

February 7, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Wisdom-of-Crowds theory says that the “crowd” – the average of interested speculators – is smarter than any one expert. If you want to figure out the weight of an ox or the location of a lost ship or the outcome of an election, go with the flow.

The contrarian position, at least on football games, says that the bookies are smarter than the general public. (For an earlier post on this topic, with links to still earlier posts, go here .)

Here’s what that means in the Superbowl. The bookmakers’ initial line had the Colts favored by 3½ to 4 points.* The money poured in on the Colts.

Bookmakers do not like to change their lines, especially by more than a half-point,** but in order to attract money on the Saints, they moved the line up to 5½ or even 6. That, plus some injury news on a Colts player, brought in Saints money, so much that some books moved the line down as low as 4 ½. The public is back on the Colts, and the line is going back up. As of this writing (11:45 a.m.), at some online, offshore books, you can get the Saints plus 6 (though you may have to pay 15% rather than the customary 10% on losing bets).

If you believe in the Wisdom of Crowds, you’ll follow the herd, give the points, and take the Colts. If you are a Smart Money contrarian, you’ll take the Saints and the points. (You’ll wait till game time draws closer, hoping that even more public money comes in on the Colts, driving up the line even higher.)

Of course, the Superbowl is one game, far too small an n to confirm one theory or another. On the whole this season, my impression is that public teams did better than usual – not enough to put the bookies out of business, but paring their profit margins somewhat.

If I were betting tonight, I’d take the Saints. I might even take them to win on the field and repay me to the tune of $170 to $100. But the Steelers didn’t even make it to the playoffs this year, so who really cares?


* Strictly speaking, the bookmakers set the line not to balance score but to balance the action. With an equal amount bet on each side, they make their 5% regardless of who wins on the field. But, especially in big games that will draw a lot of action, the initial line closely reflects the books’ assessment of the teams. (Old sax players may also be fond of Balanced Action.)

** A bookmaker who moves the line runs the risk of getting “middled.” Suppose the original line is Colts -3 ½ and everyone bets the Colts. The bookie raises the line to 5 and everyone now bets the Saints +5. If the final score is Colts 35, Saints 31, the outcome falls in the middle of the two lines, and the bookie loses all bets.

UPDATE 9:45 p.m.: If you
ve read this far, you probably know the outcome. The Saints won 31-17. The crowd was wrong on the point spread and on the under/over.

What Was the Question?

February 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Survey questions may seem straightforward, but especially if the poll is a one-off, with questions that haven’t been used in other polls, you can’t always be sure how the respondents interpret them.

The Kos/Research 2000 poll of Republicans has been getting some notice, and no wonder. At first glance, it seems to show that one of our two major political parties is home to quite a few people who are not fully in touch with reality, especially when Obama is in view.

Do you believe Barack Obama is a racist who hates White people?
Yes 31
No 36
Not Sure 33

Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?
Yes 24
No 43
Not Sure 33

Should Barack Obama be impeached, or not?
Yes 39
No 32
Not Sure 29

I’m not sure what the results mean. Self-identified Republicans are about 25% of the electorate.* If one-third of them hold views that are “ludicrous” (Kos’s term), that’s still only 8% of the voters.

But what about non-ludicrous Republicans. Suppose you were a mainstream conservative and Research 2000 phoned you. To find out, I put some of the questions to a Republican I know – non-ludicrous (he reads the Wall Street Journal, he doesn’t watch Glenn Beck.)

Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Barack Obama? (In the survey, 53% said, “yes.”)

Such a loaded question! I think she's nuts and he's sane – but in principle, she's right and he's wrong about most issues.

Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?

They don't WANT terrorists to win – no – but they don't care as much about the battle as most Americans do.

He might have said Yes to the interviewer just because he thought a Yes was more in line with the spirit of the question than with its actual wording. Or he would have refused to answer (and possibly have been put in the “Not sure” category?)

So the questions are more ambiguous than they seem, even on close reading.

Should public school students be taught that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world?
Seventy-seven per cent of the sample said, “Yes.” And Kos, who commissioned the poll in connection with his book – to be called American Taliban – will see that result as rabid pro-creationism and anti-science. But re-read the actual question. Here’s what my sane Republican had to say:

This one's easy:
Absolutely yes. “public school students should be taught” a lot of important facts about our culture and civilization – that the Greeks invaded Ilium and destroyed Troy, that Confucius was the inspiration for a great religion, that Thomas A. Edison invented the electric light bulb, that Darwin in his Origin of the Species explained how animals change according to the process of natural selection, and “that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world.” Why the hell not teach that fact? Who could say no to that?

Who indeed? Not me.

* The poll may have oversampled the fringe (see Emily Swanson at Pollster ), but those folks at the fringe are more likely to be active at the local level, so it’s possible they’ll swing some weight at the national level too. Their preferred candidate is, of course, Sarah Palin. So while political scientists think the poll may be exaggerating the far right (see Joshua Tucker’s excellent critique at The Monkey Cage), the Palinstas are hailing the poll as spot on.

Capitalism, the Movie

February 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Oscar nominations were announced, and Hollywood columnist Michael Medved is perturbed that two of the nominees, “Avatar” and “Up in the Air,” paint an unfavorable portrait of US corporations.

How could Hollywood continue to turn out these anti-business films when Americans, according to Medved, are so pro-business?
In a 2009 Gallup Poll about the “biggest threat to the country in the future,” 65% selected “big government” or “big labor,” while fewer than half as many (32%) fingered “big business.”
I’d just picked up Joel Best’s Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, so it occurred to me that if government, business, and labor were equally perceived as threats, lumping any two of them together (government and labor), would leave the third with half as many. But Medved didn’t have to put his thumb on the scale. Here’s the graph from Gallup.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

People who see big government as the biggest threat do in fact outnumber those who point the finger at big business. But business beats out labor as a threat by three to one.

So why, when offered films like “Wall Street” or “Wall-E” do Americans not stay away in droves? If Medved had browsed more of the Gallup data, he might have found that American feelings about big business are more complicated than his own unconditional love. Even in the one question he does cite, nearly a third of us see big business as “the biggest threat to the country’s future.” That proportion had increased since the previous time Gallup had asked the question. In fact, suspicion of corporate influence was growing throughout the Bush years, perhaps because corporate influence itself was growing.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Hollywood has been making movies about greedy capitalists ever since nasty mustachioed landlords were tying poor damsels to railroad tracks. Some of these were successful; others bombed.*
As William Goldman famously said of Hollywood (and Medved quotes him), “Nobody knows anything.” That includes Michael Medved.

(The photo is not a still from a movie. It’s a scene I happened upon in Brooklyn last fall.)

Thirty years ago, Ben Stein seemed similarly perplexed by this same anti-business tendency among very well-paid Hollywood writers. Stein has a more sensible explanation than does Medved, at least as far as screenwriters are concerned. See my post here.

Snow Morning

February 3, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It wasn’t nearly enough snow to close the school, and by afternoon, it will be mostly melted, but this morning, before most classes had begun, the campus looked like this.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
The Spanish mission architecture – the white stucco walls and deep terra cotta roof tiles – of the original campus buildings is something I associate with warmer climates, but it looks good in the snow.

On the other hand, as you walk around the snowy campus, camera in hand, you realize how truly ugly some of the buildings from the 1950s and 60s are (and you keep them out of your pictures).

Man on Why

January 31, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Man on Wire” is the documentary about Philippe Petite walking a wire stretched between the two towers of the World Trade Center a quarter-mile above the ground. The tagline for the film is “The Artistic Crime of the Century.”

As that implies, the movie takes much from the “caper” film genre, and Fabio Rojas had a great post sketching the social organization dimensions of Petit’s operations. Petit is the center of attention, but his feats (he’s done this sort of thing more than once) are made possible only through extensive planning and coordination with a team of others.

But there’s a cultural note as well – that good old American automatic reflex, the utilitarian assumption (see here for another example). After Petit is captured by the police and brought to earth, a news reporter interviewing a cop at the scene asks, “Did he say anything about why he was doing it?” The question occurs again and again.

In the film, we hear Petit remembering back 30 years, still incredulous, describing the immediate response of the Americans:
And you know, “why, why.” . . . I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a practical ‘Why, why?’ The beauty of it is that I didn’t have any why.
That’s what makes it an artistic crime. Art for art’s sake, a concept that seems almost un-American.

Texas, Texas, What Do You Censor?

January 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1950s, there was HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and Joe McCarthy’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee keeping us safe from commie ideas. Now there’s the Texas Board of Education. It just blacklisted Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Dallas Morning News story here).

The Board didn’t ban just Brown Bear. They crossed all books by Bill Martin, Jr. off the third grade reading list. Martin wrote dozens of books (partial list here); Brown Bear is easily the best known, certainly by me. I read aloud so often to my kid that I probably have it memorized. Most of the space on the page has illustrations. You can read the text in about a minute, literally. But obviously the Board didn’t bother to do that. Instead, they relied on information that Bill Martin had written also written a book containing “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.”

It’s an understandable enough mistake. After all, Bill Martin is an unusual name – how many can there be? And lots of authors who write books like Ethical Marxism are known to slip their insidious ideologies about “the categorical imperative of liberation” into children’s books that contain fewer than 50 different words, most of those words being I, you, what, do, and see.*

In the mid-1950s, the CBC broadcast a satire called The Investigator. It was later released as an LP that was distributed in almost samizdat-like underground fashion in the US. The premise was that Sen. McCarthy has been in a plane crash and gone to heaven. There, he teams up with Torquemada and others to root out communism and subversion on high. Their committee questions many people (Voltaire, Jefferson, Socrates, et. al.), and winds up sending them from Up Here to Down There.

McCarthy keeps calling Karl Marx before the committee, and each time he gets the wrong Karl Marx. “Oh no, I am not Karl Marx the writer,” each one says with a German accent “I’m Karl Marx the watchmaker.” Or the baker or whatever. Finally, McCarthy gets so frustrated, he sends all Karl Marxes to Down There.

And now we have the Texas Board of Education – Life imitating Art – sending all Bill Martin, Jr. books Down There.

The real problem is not just ignorance by the Board or its staff. It’s also the centralized structure of the Texas educational system. The Board makes decisions for all schools in the state. The irony here is that conservative Texans complain loudly about “bureaucrats” in Washington making decisions that affect very local issues. They have a point. The same point applies to the Texas Board of Education.

* The book does have five two-syllable words: goldfish, purple, yellow, teacher, and looking. I don’t mean to mess with Texas, but if these Bill Martin, Jr. books are being considered for third grade reading lists, you have to be a bit concerned about the quality of education in the Lone Star State.

Hat Tip: Elizabeth at Underage Reading . Inside Higher Ed also ran this story, apparently under the assumption that in Texas, third-grade reading lists fall into the category of higher ed.

City Mice, Country Mice

January 27, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Pennsylvania – Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in between.

The quote is usually attributed to political consultant James Carville. But how much “in between” is there? That’s crucial if you’re counting votes, which is mostly what Carville is interested in. But it’s also important for demographic variables that might not have much to do with voting.

I was thinking about this problem today because I’d just assigned students to look at the distribution of a variable across states. The trouble is that when you see a high or low score on some variable for a state, there are two important things you need to know:
  • how concentrated is the state’s population; how much of it is accounted for by one or two large cities?
  • how different are the metro and non-metro populations on this variable?
Unfortunately, the data set my students have to work with doesn’t provide that information.

Neil Freeman at Fake is the New Real gives us some help by slicing metro areas (blue) away from states (brown) and then resizing each according to population. Here’s Pennsylvania, carved à la Carville.

(Fake Freeman puts the areas in rank order of population. I had to find the pieces and put them back together to make this graphic.)

New Yorkers often distinguish between the New York City area (NYC plus the Long Island and Westchester suburbs) and everything else, called “Upstate.” Here’s how that one looks (Fake Freeman separates Buffalo and Rochester as well).

(Note: the scale in the two graphics is the same. So Pennsylvania without its cities is more populous that New York without its cities. Pittsburgh metro is much larger than Buffalo or Rochester.)

Other interesting states:
  • Illinois – Chicago and Downstate
  • Texas – even without its big cities, Texas ranks fourth (after NYC, LA, and Chicago). There’s still a lot of non-metro Texas. Don’t mess with it.
  • Nevada – Las Vegas (ranked #64) dwarfs the rest of the state (#93).
  • New Jersey– Fake Freeman takes out the urban areas, giving them either to the NYC or Philadelphia metro area. After that, there’s just not much left – geographically, at least (in population, non-metro NJ is ranked 89th, which puts it ahead of a half-dozen intact states).

Correlation and Cause - Feeding and Breeding

January 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andre Bauer’s idea that poor people are like stray animals is what will get most of the attention, as I suppose it should. Bauer* is running for governor of the enlightened state of South Carolina, where Appalachian Trail hiker Mark Sanford is still in that office.** Bauer is Lt. Gov., and here’s what he said à propos programs for free and reduced-price lunches in the public schools.
My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better,
Bauer stands by his analogy and says he was quoted out of context. Right.

Obviously, Bauer did not take Sociology of Poverty. Of less importance politically is that he also skipped the methods course. Apparently, he has some data – a bar graph – but he mistakes correlation for cause.
I can show you a bar graph where free and reduced lunch has the worst test scores in the state of South Carolina. You show me the school that has the highest free and reduced lunch, and I'll show you the worst test scores, folks. It's there, period.
I suppose that it is somehow possible that providing food for impoverished kids makes them dumb. Maybe electing people to office in the Palmetto State has a similar effect.

*Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer is not to be confused with Andre Braugher, the excellent actor who plated Detective Pembleton on “Homicide” (the forerunner to “The Wire”) and is currently in “Men of a Certain Age.” Pictures below. You figure out which Andre is which.

** What’s up with The Palmetto State and its public servants? Lt. Gov. Bauer is incautious not just in his campaign speeches. He also tends to get stopped for speeding, and he once crash-landed a small plane. (CSM article here.) Then, besides Sanford and Bauer, there’s the former chair of the SC Board of Education, who home schooled her kids, believes that “intelligent design” and “abstinence only” should be taught in the schools, and resigned only when it was revealed that she also publishes online porn (oops, I mean erotic fiction.) The story and links to her very NSFW prose are here. I guess she just wanted to put the palm back in palmetto.

Sod -- How Dirty Is It?

January 24, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was taken aback when I noticed this license plate on the car in front of me.

I’ve posted before about an off-color vanity plate that sneaked through the NY DMV. That one was in French. But this is English – albeit British English.

I had thought that sod was a fairly offensive word. I had heard that it was short for sodomize, and I had heard phrases where it was interchangeable with fuck in meaning if not strength. “Sod all” to mean nothing; “sod off,” or “sod that.”

I sent the photo to a native informant, my colleague Faye Allard, born and raised in Walthamstow, East London, who natively informed me that on a scale of one to ten, sod would be about a 3. Maybe the DMV is more linguistically aware than I am.

Googling around, I discovered that there’s a Bjork song called “Sod Off.” Then, in a letter published a few days ago in the Times (UK), a woman wrote, “My runner's high has sod-all to do with endorphins.” And a Guardian interview with newscaster Jon Snow (“the moral anchor”) begins with Snow looking at his bicycle tire and exclaiming, “Sod it. I’ve got a puncture.”

So my sod-off shotgun misfired. Still, Faye got a kick out of the shot of the license plate.

Doing Research on Weed . . . Not

January 21, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Todd Krohn at The Power Elite yesterday had a nice commentary on the lack of scientific research on marijuana – a post in which Todd manages to use a different soubriquet for the drug each time he mentions it (and I can think of several he didn’t get around to). Todd’s point is that Big Pharma is putting the kibosh on such research because there’s no profit in it for them. As California shows, even when marijuana is legal, the production and distribution remain decentralized.

A Times article about this on Tuesday (in the News section, not in the Science section) blamed the lack of research on the conflict between different wings of the federal government – medical/science vs. law enforcement:
Bureaucratic battles between the D.E.A. and the F.D.A. over the availability of narcotics — highly effective but addictive medicines — have gone on for decades.

Federal officials have repeatedly failed to act on marijuana research requests in a timely manner or have denied them, according to a 2007 ruling by an administrative law judge at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Todd links to an article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. The headline asks, “Is Marijuana a Medicine?”

To answer that, we need research, and if f the Obama administration means what it said about taking science seriously, researchers may have some grants approved. But (as pot smokers say . . . not) don’t hold your breath. As the Times article puts it,

So medical marijuana may never have good science underlying its use.

And by the way, the online version of the WSJ had this image, which sort of jumped off the screen at me.

Oh wow, man. Like what a flashback. Was it just me, or was the WSJ deliberately trying to blow my mind?

Milton Glaser’s 1967 Dylan poster that came folded in the Greatest Hits LP. Groovy.

The Nabes

January 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Now playing at a theater near you,” say the movie ads. How do they know?*

The distinction between “downtown” movie houses and“the nabes” has gone the way of the double feature and the newsreel. Most movies open everywhere. Still, not all neighborhoods are alike, and theater owners have a good idea of which movies will play well in their neighborhood.

Neighborhood patterns show up even when the geography of film distribution is not a factor – when you’re renting or downloading from Netflix. The Times has a cool interactive map that shows a film’s Netflix rankings in various neighborhoods. Here are the graphs in the New York region for “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Vicki Cristina Barcelona.”

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Paul is the negative image of Vicki. Did you see both these films? Did anyone see both these films?

Some films have no discernible pattern. The map of “Benjamin Button,” for example, is solid orange throughout. Others, like “Mad Men” are mostly white but with a few predictable shaded areas, like Manhattan and Montclair – a similarity that shows up in the map of just about every film. Montclair is basically the West Side but with lawnmowers.

On the Times site, you can choose from a dozen different metro areas. Take a look at the movies in a city near you, a city whose demographics you’re familiar with, for in most cases, the movies are proxies for demographic variables. Not all films follow the same patterns. Here’s “Last Chance Harvey” in New York and Boston.

Notice the concentric circle pattern in both cities. Somewhere, Burgess, Shaw, and McKay look down and nod.

*I once heard a comedian use this line (can’t recall who it was).

Pleasure and Value

January 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We have a campus listserv for political discussion. Recently, someone started a thread about the Swiss minaret ban and other European responses to demographic changes. But here’s what leapt off the page, to me at least:
I recently saw an article in the NY Times about a project sponsored by French president Nicolas Sarkozy to initiate a discussion of what it means to be French.

The man put in charge of this project, Eric Besson . . . went on to say that the debate was grounded in “the idea that there is a pleasure in discussing”. Yes, this is true, but I would have agreed even more strongly if he had said “there is a value in discussing.”
Where the M. Besson thought in terms of Pleasure, my American colleague wanted Value. The idea that there is “pleasure in discussing” is just not an idea that comes easily to the American mind. We discuss things, but we don’t do it for pleasure. We have a much more utilitarian view. Discussion, as the above quote implies, should have some practical “value”; we should be able to cash it in on some tangible goal.

The French apparently see pleasure as a legitimate end in itself. We tend to be a bit more suspicious of pleasure. Something can be pleasant – good food, good sex – but we might add some utilitarian justification (health, energy, self-enhancement, etc.). We are, after all, the culture where people talk about taking a vacation to “recharge my batteries” – so they can return as more productive workers.

Schools and Obesity - A Sweet Deal

January 14, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The good news is that obesity may have maxed out. The rate has not increased in the last five years. The bad news is that one-third of Americans are obese, or to use the technical term, really, really fat.

The Times article quotes Steven Gortmaker, a Harvard public health professor, who suggests that our approach to obesity should resemble the successful campaign to reduce smoking.
“If you look at the reversal of the smoking epidemic,” Dr. Gortmaker said, “substantial change didn’t really happen until there were bans on advertising and limits on consumption through things like taxation. We have to make some substantial changes.”
Make something harder to get – less available or more expensive – or make it less socially attractive, and people will buy less of it. That was the anti-smoking strategy.

Cigarette companies may not use ads that appeal to kids, nor can they install cigarette machines in schools. No such restrictions apply to junk food companies. Many schools today have vending machines dispensing sugar-water in a hundred different forms, transfat chips, cookies, and candy.

And why do the schools put the machines there? Because they get a share of the profits. The government stiffs the schools on funding, so the schools turn to Obesity, Inc. We starve our schools, and as a result kids wind up eating more junk food. Obesity, Inc. gets both profits and the chance to build “brand loyalty.” The school gets much needed money. For the school and Obesity, Inc,., it’s win-win. For the kids, it’s gain-gain.

I wonder how people would react if Maxim magazine and Cosmo paid schools to allow them to install vending machines selling their mags at a discount. Publishers could argue that the mags are legal – no bare naughty parts – and besides, they encourage reading..

An Urban Institute report recommends, among other things, banning food advertising aimed at kids. If only. Sweden bans advertising for all kids’ products, not just food. Imagine not having TV telling kids how happy they’ll be with this or that toy, or not telling them to nag Mom to get dee-licious Yummy Sweet-O Flakes cereal.

Picking Cherries

January 13, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Greg Mankiw, a big shot economist (he was the chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors) had a brief blog post on Monday comparing European countries and the US. It’s part of a long-standing debate about the relative merits of European-style social democracy. The left wants the US government to do more to reduce inequalities (ensuring universal health care, for example, or providing benefits for the unemployed and the poor, requiring employers to offer paid maternity leave, etc.). Those on the right argue that these policies would stifle the economy. They offer an economic picture of America the dynamic outpacing Europe the stagnant.

The volume on that debate got turned up by an article by Jim Manzi in National Affairs. He refers to “government policies — to reduce inequality or ensure access to jobs, education, housing, or health care — that can in turn undercut growth and prosperity.”

Paul Krugman, in his column on Monday, rejected this idea:
The real lesson from Europe is actually the opposite of what conservatives claim: Europe is an economic success, and that success shows that social democracy works.
Greg Mankiw gives some data on GDP per capita, adding with a sly grin, “Readers of today’s column by Paul Krugman might find these figures useful to keep in mind.” He gives the income data for “the United States and the five most populous countries in Western Europe.”

We’re number one. We’re way ahead – 30% higher than the UK next in line. Mankiw wins; Krugman loses. Case closed. Or is it?

I’m sure there’s a good economic reason for this cherry-picking – choosing only the five largest cherries. But if you were curious about some countries in Europe and elsewhere that were too insignificant for Mankiw to include, you might want to take a look at the entire list. Here's an expanded chart:

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

It turns out that among the non-Asian industrial democracies, there are a few countries that fall in that $11,000 gap between the US and UK. And when you include all those countries, the US is no longer number one.

Gaffes, Truth, and Inconvenience

January 11, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” So said Michael Kinsley perhaps as long ago as 1984.

This weekend gave us one more example. It’s also an example of the difficulty of having an honest discussion about race.

The news this weekend was that a new book about the 2008 Presidential campaign quotes Harry Reid as saying at the time that Obama would make a good candidate because he was a “light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.”

Newspapers and TV were all over this revelation, and they all labeled the statement a gaffe. Republicans are calling for Reid to resign his leadership position. Democrats are defending him, saying that he is not at all prejudiced.

But nobody in the mainstream media, as far as I know – not the politicians, not the news writers, not the TV interviewers – has dared to discuss the substance of Reid’s statement.

Facts, Ideology, History

January 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Republican version of history seems to be that George W. Bush took office at about 10 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001.

“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” I’m not sure if Einstein really said this, and if he did, I’m not sure how he meant it to apply to physics. But I do know that in everyday life, the facts come in for a good deal of rough treatment. We select the ones that fit with our ideas; as for those that don’t, we often twist and contort them until they do, or else we just deny that they exist.

Even prominent people speaking in public about very well-known facts let their ideology override the facts. For example, the conservative ideology is that conservatives are “tough” on terror, while liberals are “soft.” Toughness scares off would-be terrorists; softness invites them. Therefore, when conservatives are in power, people in America are safe from terrorism.

One of the great public relations successes of recent times is the Bush administration’s ability, using this theory, to convince conservatives and many others that the attacks of 9/11 didn’t happen on their watch. For some reason, even people who are in the business of thinking and reporting about important events find it hard to remember who it was that had been in the White House for nine months on that day.

Here we have Dana Perino, former press secretary for George W. Bush, telling Sean Hannity two months ago, “We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term.”

That little thing on Sept. 11, 2001, nine months into Bush’s term – Perino apparently forgot about it. And neither Hannity nor his other guest could remember it either. It did not fit with their view of history.

Not until it was pointed out to her did Perino issue a correction via Twitter:
I obviously meant no terror attack on U.S. post 9/11 during Bush 2nd term.
You’d think that after Perino’s gaffe, prominent Republicans would remember not to make this claim so explicitly. But oops, they did it again.

Rudy Giuliani on Good Morning America tells George Stephanopoulos, “We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama.” (The line comes at about the 3:20 mark.)

And Stephanopoulos, just like the guys on Fox, lets the remark pass. It’s not that he forgot about the attacks. But, I suspect, Stephanopoulos too has unwittingly absorbed the picture painted by the conservative ideologists. It takes just a bit more mental effort to remember something that clashes with prior ideas. So with his mind on closing this segment of GMA on time, he doesn’t realize that Giuliani has just made a huge misstatement of fact.

Did Giuliani not know who was president on Sept. 11, 2001? Maybe Rudy didn’t remember his own speech at the Republican convention
I grabbed the arm of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and I said to him, “Bernie, thank God George Bush is our president.”
Well, as I said above, it seems that someone else must have been president until just after the planes hit the towers.

Even if you allow the Perino dodge (“no terror attack post 9/11"), as Giuliani did in a subsequent “clarification” of his remarks, you still have to block out the fact of the shoe bomber, who was remarkably similar to the current terrorist, the main difference being which parts of his body he was willing to use as a weapon. Later, Giuliani went on the Larry King show. Even then, even knowing that his remarks would be carefully examined, Giuliani continued let his ideology shape his facts. When reminded that Bush took six days before he issued any kind of response to the shoe bomber attack, Giuliani said, “And I believe that six days was before the September 11th attack.”

It wasn’t. It was three months after.

Change the facts.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

January 7, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It seems almost like a Monty Python sketch: the interviewer leaning over to ask the little school boy what he wants to be when he grows up, and the boy stammers, “A- a- a- an actuary.”

Kieran Healy linked to this site, which rates and ranks the best jobs for 2010. Kieran’s post singled out #11 (Philosopher). Here’s a longer list. Click on the image for a somewhat larger view. For a view that you can actually see, and a fuller disclosure of the methodology, go to the original site.

(Click on the image.)

Comfort Zones

January 7 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

De Tocquville said it first. Every time I read some observation about America and Americans, especially by writers from the other side of the Atlantic, I’m almost certain I could find something similar in Democracy in America.

This time it was Geoff Dyer’s “Letter from London” in the New York Times Book Review. Dyer contrasts the pleasantness of life in America with the willingness of his fellow Brits to endure small deprivations. “We didn’t drive big gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, and if we were chilly of an evening we put on a sweater rather than turning up the heating (or, more accurately, turning off the A.C.)”

Americans, he implies, would never resign themselves to a car that was too small or a room that was not a perfect temperature. He traces this British “ostrich stoicism” to the War.
Our finest hour (the blitz, the Battle of Britain), manifests itself in a peculiar compromise: a highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices (restaurants, trains), to proffer (and accept) apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement. We may not enjoy the way things are, but we endure them in a way that seems either quaint or quasi-Soviet to American visitors.
Here’s de Tocqueville on the issue of creature comforts, over a century before World War II, nearly two centuries before Geoff Dyer, and with a slightly different spin:
In America the passion for physical well-being is . . . general; it is felt by all. The effort to satisfy even the least wants of the body and to provide the little conveniences of life is uppermost in every mind.

I never perceived among the wealthier inhabitants of the United States that proud contempt of physical gratifications which is sometimes to be met with even in the most opulent and dissolute aristocracies.
For de Tocqueville, stoicism came not from experience (the Blitz) but from structure, specifically aristocracy. For those in the upper levels,
the comforts of life are not the end of life, but simply a way of living. . . . enjoyed but scarcely thought of. . . . The members of an aristocracy often display a haughty contempt of these very enjoyments and exhibit singular powers of endurance under the privation of them.
For the poor in aristocracies, the lack of mobility creates its own kind of stoicism.
They do not think of things which they despair of obtaining and which they hardly know enough of to desire.
Just as the structure of aristocracy made for its stocism, it is the structure of democratic society that breeds the obsession with the comforts of life.
When . . . the distinctions of ranks are obliterated and privileges are destroyed, when hereditary property is subdivided and education and freedom are widely diffused, the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.
De Tocqueville knew nothing about l'empreinte charbon, but our love of comfort is a huge part of the reason that Americans produce, per capita, three times as much CO2 as do Europeans. What do we Americans do when we get to Europe and find that we have to dry our clothes on a line, not a dryer, and that the car we rent has no automatic shift, no air conditioning, and no cup holders?

(All de Toqueville passages are from Democracy in America, Book II, Chapter X.)

Compare and Contrast

January 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Male or female?

Look at the two faces for more than a second and you’ll realize that they are the same.

This bit of androgyny won third place in the Best Visual Illusion of 2009 contest.*

The illusion is that although it’s the same face, the one on the left looks more female, the one on the right more male. The reason is something familiar to all of us who read the make-up tips in Allure, Glamour, etc. We use blush to contour and highlight, to add shape and definition (i.e., the illusion of shape and definition). We use eyeliners in rich colors. And our lipstick, whatever color might suit us best, accents the difference between our mouth and the surrounding area. In a word, we add contrast.

Contrast is the crucial factor in this illusion: more contrast = female; less contrast = male. (Try downloading this .gif into your photo editor and then fool around with the contrast control.)

*Prizes were awarded last May. I discovered it only recently thanks to Brad DeLong’s blog. The original research is by Richard Russell of Harvard: “Russell, R. (2009) A sex difference in facial pigmentation and its exaggeration by cosmetics” Perception, (38)1211-1219.

Cabs, Culture, Class

January 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Where to, Guv’nor?” It was my first cab trip in London, and the man asking the question was at least twice my age.

I mentioned this to my friend after I’d gotten to her flat. “The cabby called me guv’nor,” I told her, somewhat bemused.

“Well, you are a governor, aren’t you?” she said.

I wasn’t a governor, I was a kid in my twenties. I wasn’t someone in authority giving orders. Nor did I think of the relation of cabby to fare as one of governed to governor or servant to master.

I remembered this incident Sunday as I was reading Geoff Dyer’s “Letter from London” in the New York Times Book Review.
The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered.
Dyer, a Brit, attributes this to two aspects of American culture – politeness and informality – and he contrasts it with the “rudeness in British life.”

But “sir” and “thanks” also stem from our ideology of equality. We Americans feel uncomfortable with the idea of social hierarchy. Those who call attention to class differences are accused of inciting “class warfare,” in other words, of being un-American. And since, according to this same ideology, we have unlimited social mobility, a person’s social position is not at all fixed or permanent. Our Constitution prohibits titles of nobility, those immutable and inherited designations. In a European aristocratic system, if you are born an earl, you remain an earl no matter how incompetent and immoral you may be. Not in America.

Our belief in equality makes for some contradictions. We treat bus drivers and cabbies not as servants but as equals doing a job. But at the same time, we recognize that it is not a “good” job. Who would want to be a servant? Yes, people do service work – cleaning our houses, pouring our drinks, driving our buses and cabs – but we expect that they are striving for a better occupation. People are equal, occupations are not.

In the British tradition, “service” was* an honorable occupation (at least in the picture we get from “Upstairs Downstairs” or “The Remains of the Day”). The British did not treat servants as equals; servants were clearly not the equals of their employers (masters), and it would have been silly to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British ideal was not equality but fairness. Rather than apply the same norms to everyone– if the bartender calls me “sir,” I should call him “sir” – the British recognized a hierarchy, each level with its own expectations and obligations. Since individuals were not all judged by a single standard, occupations did not carry the same moral connotations.

“Where to Guv’nor?” depends on the rules of civility making for fairness between people who are unequals because of their unequal positions. In the American cab, there are no gov’nors. Just as in all those old movies, it’s “Where to, Mac?”**

*I use the past tense here because I have no idea how these ideas have weathered the Thatcher and post-Thatcher years, and for all I know, I am referring to an England that has faded into history and is preserved only on film and videotape.

**Caroll Spinney, who does the voice of Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, “says he modeled Oscar on the Bronx taxi driver who drove him to the old Muppet Mansion the first day he played the character, greeting him with a gruff, ‘Where to, Mac?’” (Washington Times)

A Low Dishonest Decade

January 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Whatever you call this decade we’ve just been through – the aughts, the noughties, etc. – you have to think that it was not a great one. How bad was it? The Washington Post ran this simple graph showing job growth in each of seven decades, beginning with the 1940s. It also notes the change in GDP and household net worth.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Thinking back on these years called to mind (my mind at least) the opening lines the Auden poem “September 1, 1939”:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
As the title implies, Auden was writing on the occasion of Germany’s invasion of Poland,* but these opening lines seem apt for the Bush decade as well – and not just the economy.

Even with economics, many people will continue to believe that right-wing policies – tax cuts and deregulation – are good for the economy, regardless of evidence like that in the graph. Note that even the Reagan decade, the 1980s, finishes behind all but the Bush decade in job growth and GDP gains.

* The poem is probably Auden’s most famous work, and it was much quoted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (see the NY Times store here). But Auden himself had second thoughts about the poem soon after he wrote it. He tried to revise it, but gave up. “The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped.” He omitted it from his collected works and often refused to grant permission to reprint it.

Not-so-secret Admirers

January 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

USA Today loves polls. The bottom of page one often has a box showing the mood of the nation as a simple graph. These used to be accompanied by a “We” headline (“We’re Eating More Fish!”).

The newspaper closed out the year with a front-page report of their poll on the men and women we most admire. The idea of the poll is silly enough. Here are the results for most-admired men.

And the women.

Whatever the wording of the question actually is, what it’s really asking is: “Try to think of someone who’s famous but isn’t a rock star or TV/movie actor.”

But USA adds another layer of silliness with this interpretation of the results
The close finish by Clinton, named by 16% in the open-ended survey, and Palin, named by 15%, reflects the nation's partisan divide.
It does? Then why doesn’t the list of admired men also reflect the same close divide? Yes, the sitting president always gets top spot, but the margin varies. The results from 2006 were
  • George W. Bush 10%
  • Bill Clinton 8%
  • Al Gore 6%
  • Barack Obama 5%
The combined Democrat percent nearly doubled that of the one Republican. For this year’s results, even if you toss Billy Graham and the Pope in with Bush and Beck in the conservative box, Obama still outpolls them three to one.

Similarly, in this year’s women’s poll, the combined liberal percentage (Hillary, Oprah, Michelle Obama) beats the conservatives (Palin, Rice) 31% - 17%.

But the real mistake is to think that when you ask people to name someone they admire you are getting a political profile of the nation.