Brands - Image and Reality

January 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post, I wondered what “brand equity” meant in higher education. I think I have a vague idea. A school doesn’t just educate. A school is also a brand, and its graduates carry that brand regardless of the education they may (or may not) have gotten there.

Juilliard, for example, was GLM’s top-ranked music school for brand equity (it was also twelfth in the list of colleges, just behind Wellesley, just ahead of Vassar).

I knew a Juilliard graduate, Brad, many years ago, back when I was a playground dad. Not many other men were there on weekdays. Often, it was just me and Brad (plus the moms and nannies), and we got to know each other. He had come from Boston with his saxophone, but at Juilliard he studied conducting. After graduating, he stayed on the West Side and eventually actually managed to land a job as conductor with a regional orchestra somewhere in New Jersey that did five concerts year. It didn’t pay all that much, but it allowed him a lot of free time, which was why he was one of the few other dads regularly at the playground in the afternoon.

One day we were sitting on the bench, and Brad asked me where I’d gotten my Ph.D. I guess we’d never talked much about higher education. Harvard, I told him.

“I didn’t know that,” he said, surprised, “and I’ve known you all this time.”

“Don’t be impressed,” I said.

“But I am,” he said. From his voice and the look on his face, I could see that he meant it. I wanted to convince him not to be.

“Oh Brad,” I said, my voice rising in mock awe, “You went to Juilliard?! You must be this really great and talented musician. Juilliard – wow!” Or something like that.

He laughed.

“See what I mean?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. Then a pause. “But I’m still impressed.”

Brand Equity in Higher Ed

January 6, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Global Language Monitor has just released its rankings of colleges and universities (here). GLM ranks “brand equity.” No measures of faculty or student quality, no measures of cost, no graduation rates. Just “buzz.”
TrendTopper MediaBuzz utilizes a mathematical model that ‘normalizes’ the data collected from the Internet, social media, and blogosphere as well as the top 75,000 print and electronic media.
Those other rankings – the ones that look at the schools themselves – are biased.
GLM’s TrendTopper MediaBuzz Rankings actually removes all bias inherent in each of the other published rankings, since they actually reflect what is being said and stated on the billions of web pages that we measure.
Here are the top ten universities
1. Univ. of Wisconsin—Madison
2. University of Chicago
3. Harvard University
4. Mass. Institute of Technology
5. Columbia University
6. Univ. of Michigan—Ann Arbor
7. Cornell University
8. University of California–Berkeley
9. Yale University
10. University of Texas—Austin
And the top ten colleges
1. Davidson College
2. Occidental College
3. Williams College
4. Wesleyan University
5. Carleton College
6. Amherst College
7. Bucknell University
8. Oberlin College
9. United States Air Force Academy
10. Pomona College
The aren’t any surprises in the first list, except perhaps that four of the top ten are state schools (the “public option” when there’s a “government takeover” of education.) But with the colleges, I wonder what the nature of the buzz was. Is Occidental at #2 because Obama went there as a freshman? Why is Bucknell more buzzworthy than, say, Kenyon or Vassar?

I also wonder what brand equity means. In commerce, it adds value. It increases the price of a product or share of stock. What does it do for education?

Options and Adoptions

January 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In “Knocked Up” and “Juno,” single women with unplanned, unintended, unwished-for pregnancies wind up keeping their babies (and presumably live happily ever after). As Ross Douthat says in this NY Times column on Monday, these films make abortion seem “not only unnecessary but repellent.” A few American films, very few, have taken a different view of abortion, notably “The Cider House Rules” and “Dirty Dancing.”*

There’s a third option to unwanted pregnancy – adoption. Douthat sees it as the bridge between infertility and unwanted pregnancies. The trouble, Douthat says, is that because of abortion, fewer babies are crossing that bridge.
Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.
Instead, those babies are being “destroyed.”
This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.
Douthat’s article got some strong reaction. Read the comments on the Times website. Or if you prefer blunt outrage, try Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon. She frames the question differently. You can’t just say, “Abortion bad, adoption good.” You have to ask: good and bad for who? Take that closing, somewhat mawkish line of Douthat’s. The mother who is “destroying ”the foetus is obviously not the person who “hungrily desires” it. Nor are the people involved in adoption equals. There’s a social class dimension. Douthat’s abstract prescriptions when applied to the real world mean this: because a middle-class white couple hungrily desires a child, a poor girl must carry her baby to term and give it to them.
to return to an era where being a sexually active, unmarried woman was de facto criminalized so that your labor could be forcibly extracted from you to benefit people who do a much better job than you of keeping up appearances.
Douthat sees the pre-Roe era as one of possibly troubled girls gratefully and happily giving up their happy babies to happy and grateful adopting couples. Marcotte is less sanguine. It was instead an era when
young white women . . . who turned up pregnant were forced to give birth to babies and forced into maternity homes where they were restrained and often subject to torturous behavior so they couldn’t resist when their babies were snatched from them against their wills.
Adoption, in the real world, is not such a simple solution. Maybe that’s why there are so few movies about it. I can’t think of any movies with adoption as an important element of the story. Surely there must be some.** [Update: See Tina’s comment.]

* My favorite American film with an abortion theme is “Racing With the Moon,” (1984) with Sean Penn, set in 1942 – a good film that nobody saw. For more on abortion in the movies see Stephen Farber at The Daily Beast last April.

** I think adoption does enter into soap operas and medical dramas like “Private Practice,” but usually with such complicated entanglements that the basic conflicts and problems of adoption get lost.

Inequality at the Threshold

January 2, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Economic inequality in the US has been increasing, but mostly because of sky’s-the-limit incomes at the top. The relative inequality among the rest of us, the bottom 95% or even 99%, has remained fairly stable. But the six-figure income of thirty years ago has become a 7- or 8- figure income today.

(Click on the graph for a larger view. The original, via Lane Kenworthy, is here. )

Tyler Cowen, in a recent article that’s been getting some attention, says that our biggest concern, morally and economically, should be with the elephantine incomes of people in the financial sector.
In short, there is an unholy dynamic of short-term trading and investing, backed up by bailouts and risk reduction from the government and the Federal Reserve. This is not good.
Today’s greedy Gordon Geckos game the system. As we saw in the 2008 meltdown and bailout, it’s heads they win, tails we lost. This view, though, turns out to be politically controversial. Blaming the system (unregulated speculation, no downside risk) and the greediest doesn’t sit right with conservatives.

But how then to explain the inequality at the top? By blaming those who are just not greedy enough.

Seriously. Reihan Salam at National Review Online reads Cowen’s article and homes in on a what Cowen calls “threshold earners . . . . someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often.”*

Cowen also says that
any society with a lot of ‘threshold earners’ is likely to experience growing income inequality . . . If the percentage of threshold earners rises for whatever reasons, however, the aggregate gap between them and the more financially ambitious will widen. There is nothing morally or practically wrong with an increase in inequality from a source such as that.
Cowen doesn’t offer any evidence, probably because it would be very hard to measure the threshold attitude. Nor does he even guess as to how much inequality it accounts for. But Salam uses the idea to argue that when we look at the graph we should see not the outcome of an economic and political system. Instead, it’s a matter of personal preference – the personal choice not to earn as much as possible.
The measured stagnation in wages and to a lesser extent in compensation is thus seen as an artifact of political economy rather than a phenomenon that is driven in no small part by changing preferences.** [emphasis added]
For conservatives, the individual-preference model accounts for inequality at the bottom as well as at the top. They see unemployment, for example, as individuals choosing not to work. That, plus unemployment compensation – the princely $300 per week (“paying people not to work” in the words of The Wall Street Journal) that subsidizes the choice to avoid working. (As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. See my earlier post on this is here.)

The trouble is that we don’t know much about threshold earners. As Salam says, “this has been a pretty darn un-rigorous discussion, as we’re talking about phenomena that are hard if not impossible to measure.”

Even so, I don’t see the logical connection between the threshold orientation and inequality. My first guess was that threshold earners would decrease inequality, not increase it. Andrew Gelman thought so too.

Both Gelman and Salam quoted a paragraph from Cowen’s article that begins
The funny thing is this: For years, many cultural critics in and of the United States have been telling us that Americans should behave more like threshold earners. We should be less harried, more interested in nurturing friendships, and more interested in the non-commercial sphere of life.
Cowen says that such cultural change will increase inequality. Again, we have no evidence. But when I read those sentences, I kept hearing the word that dare not speak its name – France. Or Europe generally. That’s where people spend less time working and more time enjoying life. (The French, on average, spend a full hour per day more than we do à table – and not just because their food is better.) Nearly all Europeans, on average, spend more of life in the non-commercial sphere. This mentality extends, or possibly even begins, in the upper reaches of the income scale. Yet European countries have much less inequality than does the US. As I recall, Tyler Cowen spent some time last summer in Germany, so I find it especially curious that in his article, he makes no cross-national comparisons.

*Anyone who took Sociology 100 knows that threshold earners. are nothing new. In The Protestant Ethic, Weber writes of the frustration of employers who try to get more worker output by offering piece-work incentives rather than a flat hourly wage. This strategy runs into
a peculiar difficulty: raising the piece-rates has often had the result that not more but less has been accomplished in the same time, because the worker reacted to the increase not by increasing but by decreasing the amount of his work. [The worker] did not ask: how much can I earn in a day if I do as much work as possible ? but: how much must I work in order to earn the wage, 2 ½ marks, which I earned before and which takes care of my traditional needs? [Chapter II, online here.]
Weber, lacking the vocabulary of modern economics, referred to these workers not as “threshold earners” but as “traditional.”

**The passive voice (“is thus seen as”) obscures Salam’s point – two points really. First, that the usual ways of measuring income inequality are not
useful, and second, that what drives inequality is individual preference, in this case, preference for things other than income.