Tom Hanks - “Toddlers & Tiaras”

March 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Look at this.” I was on the train to work, and a colleague in the Education department was tapping his finger on this picture on the front page of the New York Times “Styles” section.



The Times had printed the picture so large that it did not completely fit above the fold.

The article was not about the sexualization of pre-teen girls. It was about kids who are fashion designers. Still, as my colleague pointed out, this 11-year-old seems to be going for a look that is far from kid innocence.

How do we respond to the sexualization of children, especially girls? It seems like a particularly American idea, though I’m not familiar enough with other cultures to know. Do other countries have beauty pageants for girls who still count their ages in single digits?

“Little Miss Sunshine” was one response, though it seems more a satire of the American success ethic than of kiddie beauty contests (my post on it is here). Those contests seem like parodies or satires of themselves. But in case not, here’s Tom Hanks (on Jimmy Kimmel’s show Sunday night after the Oscars) with his home movie.


“Those People”

February 26, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post here discussed Daniel Hamermesh’s observation that the relatively stingy welfare policies of the US stem from two aspects of American culture – optimism and a lack of concern about inequality. But why are Americans so sanguine about inequality when over 40 million of their fellow Americans are so poor that, according to the official definition of poverty, they cannot afford to adequately feed their families?

Maybe it’s because Americans do not consider the poor to be their “fellow Americans,” as part of the same community. Claude Fischer discusses a more general version of this world-view in the central chapter of his recent (and excellent) book Made in America. He calls it “voluntarism” – the idea that the only legitimate groups are the ones that people voluntarily join. While people have strong obligations to others in those groups, they have little or no obligations towards people not in those groups. Under the principle of voluntarism, if I haven’t voluntarily joined a group that provides assistance to poor people, I have no obligations to them, and for the government to use my tax dollars to do so is tantamount to robbery.

The voluntarism ideology may exist in varying degrees in many other societies. Still, some countries have more generous welfare than others, and within the US, some states have more generous policies than others. These differences may reflect the social distance that the majority feel from the poor. If we perceive the poor as similar to us, as part of our community, we will be more generous. If the poor are a different type of person, we will not want our taxpayer dollars going to “those people.”

What might be influencing those perceptions of similarity or difference?

Ten years ago, economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote put the question bluntly in the title of their paper, “Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?” (A pdf of the paper is here.) Is there something else going on besides voluntarism, optimism, and concern about inequality? Their answer was yes, and that something else is race.

They compared measures of welfare spending among countries and within the US among states. In both cases, racial homogeneity was a strong predictor of welfare generosity. Here is a scatterplot of countries.

(Click on the chart for a larger view that will allow you to read the country names.)

The less homogenous the population of the country, the less generous are its welfare policies.

In the US, as anybody who has been here for more than about five minutes knows, the welfare/poverty issue is not just about income and nutrition and inequality. It’s about race. So Alesina, et. al. plotted welfare against percent African American in the fifty states.

The greater a state’s black population, the stingier are its welfare benefits
There is a strong negative relationship between the generosity of a state’s program and the share of the state’s population that is black: the raw correlation is 49 percent.
True, state revenue is also a factor – the states with lower welfare and more blacks are also states that are poorer, and those lower state budgets may affect welfare payments. But it’s not just the lack of funds.
When we regress the maximum AFDC payment on both state median income and the share of the state population that is black, our primary result is still significant. The estimated regression is (standard errors are in parentheses)

maximum AFDC payment = –149 (72)– 692* (131) percent black + 0.017* (0.002) median income N = 50, R2 = 0.71.
As the authors summarize this aspect of their study:
Americans think of the poor as members of some different group than themselves, while Europeans think of the poor as members of their group.

Views of Poverty – Optimism and Stinginess

February 25, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston


Ask Americans how much income a family needs to “just get by” – to be not poor – and the answers will generally be a number that’s 50-55% of the median income. That’s not how we compute the official poverty line, though. That number is based the price of food. The poverty line is three times the amount a family would need to spend to provide the minimum adequate nutrition.

In European countries, as Daniel Hamemersh at Freakonomics has learned, the poverty line is based on relative income, usually about 50% of the median. (When the US poverty formula was created, that three-times-food formula did work out to about 55% of the national median. Now it’s closer to 40% of the national median. The family at the poverty line can still feed itself, just as it could fifty years ago. But it’s much farther away from the average US family.)

Hamemersh says that this choice of how to calculate poverty reflects two American characteristics:
  • optimism – if low incomes go up just a little, and food prices remain stable, nobody will be “poor.”
  • lack of concern about inequality
Hamermesh contrasts this with the view from across the pond.
In Europe, even with income growth, unless inequality decreases, the fraction of households in poverty won’t change. How pessimistic, yet how concerned about equality!
Optimism goes with stinginess towards the poor; pessimism with generosity.

Here are some charts that I used in a post last month about the belief in the the efficacy of work (the first two bars). But the last two questions support Hamermesh’s ideas about the difference between the US and other countries on the question of inequality and welfare. (The data come from a Brookings survey.)

(Click on the chart for a larger, readable view.)

Your Money's Worth

February 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

My grandfather was in the retail business – furniture. When he and my grandmother went shopping – for other things, not furniture – she was sometimes stunned by the prices. “What makes this so expensive?” she would ask. My grandfather, pretending a careful examination of the item, would nod his head thoughtfully and say, “Profit.”

I remembered Grandpa Jack when I saw this graph posted by Aaron Carroll at The Incidental Economist. It shows healthcare expenditures per capita plotted against GDP per capita.


As you would expect, the richer a nation is, the more it spends on healthcare, just as it spends more on food, entertainment, or anything else.

Carroll adds:


Notice two things however. The first is that Norway and Luxembourg (the two countries farthest to the right), fall below the line. This is because – presumably – at some point you can spend more money, but what’s the point? The drugs won’t work better,* the advice is still the same, and the doctors can’t do any more. At some point, spending more is just waste, because the outcomes don’t get any better.

    The second thing to notice is the US. You can’t miss it. It’s the big red dot that’s way at the top. We’ve chosen to ignore what I just said.


It may be “waste,” but that money has to be going somewhere.

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* A while ago I posted (here) some charts comparing the US and several other countries on the costs of various aspects of healthcare – standard procedures, office visits, widely-used drugs. I included the line, “Since . . . you get what you pay for, our Lipitor must be four to ten times as good as the Lipitor that Canadians take.” It was my only post ever to get Boinged, and for a day the number of visits here climbed to about 2600, doing my heart much more good than would any prescription meds.

Race to the Bottom?

February 23, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Scott Lemieux passes along this information from his friend Ken Sherrill:
Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:
  • South Carolina – 50th
  • North Carolina – 49th
  • Georgia – 48th
  • Texas – 47th
  • Virginia – 44th
If you are wondering, Wisconsin, with its collective bargaining for teachers, is ranked 2nd in the country. Let’s keep it that way.
A convincing study of the effects of unionization on student performance would have to take into account a host of variables – demographic, budgetary, etc. – and their interactions. It should also have more sensitive measures of union strength and perhaps of outcome variables as well. But this is a start.

The message seems to be that if you are going to argue that the absence of teachers’ unions brings educational benefits to schoolchildren, you’re starting out down by about five runs in the first inning.

A complete list of the states is here. (And what’s up with South Carolina? It seems to be intent on making itself the punch line to a variety of jokes. See this previous post, for example.)

Lies and “Defacto Truth”

February 22, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some wacko Teabagger (is that a redundancy?), one Mark Williams, posted an appeal encouraging his comrades to pose as union members at a Wisconsin SEIU rally and act outrageously so as to discredit the union. They would have signs ‘that say things like “screw the taxpayer!”’ Then “we will echo those slogans in angry sounding tones to the cameras and the reporters.” (After the post went viral, Williams took it down, but you can still see a cached version here.)

Williams added
Even if it becomes known that we are plants the quotes and pictures will linger as defacto truth.
Has Williams been searching the PoliSci literature? A couple of years ago, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler published their research about the effect of responses to political lies. What should you do when a poltician says something that is just not true? Providing accurate information would seem like the logical way to go. But Nyhan and Reifler did experiments showing that providing the relevant facts doesn’t work. It can have even a “backfire” effect. Those whose political views are in tune with the lie become even stronger in their beliefs. (Links to the paper and to a WaPo article about it are on Brendan’s blog – here.)

The examples Nyhan used were conservative lies (e.g., Bush saying that his tax cuts increased revenues), so we don’t know whether liberals might be more rational about facts. Also, Nyhan’s sample was hardly random – 130 students at a Midwest, Catholic university. But given the tenacity of the belief, especially among conservatives, that Obama is a Muslim born outside the US, these 130 might not be all that different from the general population.

It doesn’t matter if the “defacto truth” is not factual. What this research shows (and what Williams intuitively senses) is the futility of refudiation.


HT: The Political Carnival.

Tattoo Who?

February 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston


When I saw this*



I immediately thought about the problem of cognitive consistency. (Earlier posts on cognitive dissonance and consistency are here and here.)

Our anti-gay friends, some of them, base their position on the Bible. Not the New Testament – Jesus didn’t have much to say on the topic. Instead, they go back to Levticus (18:22). The guy above is using the New American Standard translation: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”

The trouble with Leviticus is that you have to be very selective about your abominations. The famous “Letter to Laura” skewered radio talker Laura Schlessinger on this problem of consistency when she cited this same verse. Here’s a sample:
When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
(Snopes has the whole letter and much more.)

Aaron Sorkin turned letter into a scene on The West Wing complete with a version of Dr. Laura.



As for the righteous fellow in the first picture, I wonder if he felt any cognitive dissonance when he turned the page in his Bible, read the next chapter, and found this (Lev. 19:28):
You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.

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*HT: Chad Crawford  via a Tweet from Incurable Hippie.

Lumet – First and Last

February 18, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“12 Angry Men” (1957) was Sidney Lumet’s first film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” his last, a half century later. “Devil” had gotten good reviews, so I recorded it a while ago. I intended to watch it last night. But when I turned on the TV, “12 Angry Men” was just starting on TCM. I’ve seen it a few times, maybe more, but I had a hard time turning it off. After a half hour or so, I switched on the DVD and went for “The Devil.”

Things change in 50 years.

In “12 Angry Men,” jurors deliberate, exploring the details of a murder case. In the room, personality, emotion, and position affect reason, memory, and perception. We see the group dynamics, the interaction and persuasion. The film is in black and white and has essentially one set, the jury room. There is no “action” (except a moment when one angry man threatens to hit someone but is easily restrained). Characters occasionally stand up and walk to another spot in the room or to the window. That’s the action

[Spoiler Alert]

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” centers on a jewelry store robbery. The store proprietor, a seventyish woman shoots the robber. Then he shoots her. Later, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke (they are brothers) beat a heroin dealer in his apartment, Hoffman shoots the heroin dealer’s customer (nodded out on a bed in the apartment) and then shoots the dealer. They go to the house of a man who is blackmailing Hawke. Hoffman shoots the man, then points the gun at Hawke’s head. While the two brothers are trying to decide whether Hoffman will shoot Hawke, the blackmailer’s wife shoots Hoffman. Later, Hoffman lies in a hospital (the shooting was bad but not fatal). Albert Finney (Hoffman’s father) kills him by suffocating him with a pillow.

Six shootings, one asphyxiation, mostly all in the family, and all shown explicitly on the screen.

Both are good movies, but what a difference. And oddly enough, even though the Angry Men are confined to a single room for nearly the whole film, it’s “Devil” that has more an air of claustrophobia. The characters are trapped in their lives, trapped by their own decisions.

Simplicity Patterns



February 17, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Moral clarity” always seemed to me like a self-flattering way of saying “My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts.” Moral clarity turns the complicated into the simple. It reduces a complex issue into a choice between good and evil. William Bennett popularized the phrase in his arguments supporting the Iraq invasion. Terrorism is evil, therefore invading Iraq is good. Unfortunately, reality turned out to be a lot more complicated.

The call for “Moral Clarity” comes mostly from the right, and not just on fighting terrorism. Go to the “Center for Moral Clarity,” click on “Key National Issues,” and you’ll find support for “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act” (be warned however that this page does not spell out the moral clarity of leaving 40 million Americans without health insurance).

Does this preference for the simple over the complex generally distinguish the political right wing from the left? (See an earlier post on this and tolerance for ambiguity here.) And does it carry over into other areas? Is the political also the personal?

OK Cupid is a dating site. It isn’t about terrorism or health care. But the people who run it (Harvard math grads who turn dating into data) have looked at the correlations and discovered some non-obvious connections. Looking to get lucky? Ask your prospective date if they like the taste of beer. Those who do, both men and women, are 60% more likely to say they would consider sleeping with someone on the first date.

The same sorts of questions fit with the idea that conservatives prefer simplicity both in politics and people.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Here were the political questions that these were based on.
On the surface, liking your peeps to be simple or complex shouldn’t have much to do with your position on gay marriage or creationism. But it does.

Blogging for Dollars?

February 15, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I got religion. Or more accurately, religion’s got me. The Bulletin for the Study of Religion, is cross-posting my “When Prophecy’s Faked” entry of a couple of weeks ago, a liaison I never expected. The lord works in mysterious ways.

I’m flattered. But unfortunately, this is no way to get rich. It wouldn’t be even if Arianna Huffington had been the one spreading my prose across the cybersphere. HuffPo pays its bloggers, even sociologist worthies like the redoubtable Philip Cohen, exactly the same sum as does ReligBull – $0.

That sum, it turns out, is not much less than a blog post’s true worth, even at the Huffington Post with its 15 million page views a day. Nate Silver does the math (here):

Of those 15 million views, only a small fraction com to the HuffPo blogs. Silver estimates that the median blog post got about 550 page views. How much is that in American money? Silver calculates it as about $3.44.
Ms. Huffington just sold her Post to AOL for $315 million. But if you were thinking about retiring to the Bahamas by monetizing your blog, maybe you should reconsider. (My friend Michael says he thought that to “monetize” something meant to turn it into water lilies. Maybe that’s the better idea.)

Skill Transfer - Quote of the Day

February 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

People who made a ton of money in the business world sometimes run for public office. Their entry level aims are usually somewhere near the top – governor, senator, even president. And they often tout their business success as evidence that they’ll be excellent public servants or that they “know how to create jobs.”

It reminds me of high school – the student government elections and Assembly Day when the jock’s speech always centered on the idea that his experience on the football team qualified him to be president of the student body.

I was thinking about this again when I read Sudhir Vankatesh’s piece in Wired about prostitution. He notes that the Internet has not been kind to the pimp role. Hookers have become much more independent.
I met 11 pimps working out of midtown Manhattan in 1999, and all were out of work within four years. One enlisted in the military; two have been homeless. Only one now has a full-time job, working as a janitor in a charter school.*
I imagined a pimp speechifying about his administrative role, his vast experience dealing with people, bringing buyers and sellers together – making a market really. All these qualified him for a leadership position in business or government. It’s the same kind of bullshit peddled by the quarterback in high school or the former CEO running for governor. The difference is that the pimps know it and take a more realistic view of their job history.
I asked one of them how pimping experience helps him in the legit economy: “You learn one thing,” he said. “For a good blow job, a man will do just about anything. What can I do with that knowledge? I have no idea.”

* Charter-school advocates often argue that these schools, freed from the union stranglehold over hiring and firing, can be much more effective in their personnel selection. I guess they have a point.

Seaward with the C-word

February 9, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Warning: this post is about language, and it contains some very bad words. When we talk about language, if we can’t use the actual words that we’re talking about, then the terrorists have won.)

It’s fun to notice the differences between American and British English, especially profanity – probably because in most respects the languages are so similar. Sure, it’s “ass” here and “arse” there, but the meaning is the same. Some words, like “wanker,” have crossed the Atlantic (maybe because we didn’t really have a good word for it).

Then there’s the C-word.

A BBC presenter,* Jeremy Paxman, slipped in referring to the budget “cuts,” and it came out as “the C-word” (story and video here). A month earlier, another presenter made a similar mistake when referring to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. (The presenter’s name: James Naughtie. Enough said.)

We’re a bit more prudish about language. In the US, inadvertent or spontaneous profanity on TV has brought heavy fines. In the UK, it’s been merely a giggle. In the US, “The King’s Speech” is rated R for language. In the UK, it’s 12A (under 12 years must be accompanied by an adult).

And in the New Statesman last week, Laurie Penny spoke up for the C-word. She finds it “empowering,” especially when uttered by a woman.

On this side of the Atlantic as well, it’s the word that carries the strongest taboo. Probably more so than in Britain. I think we use also it differently. We do not use it to refer to men. My first inkling of this came thanks to the Monty Python travel agent sketch. The Tourist cannot pronounce the letter C. The travel agent, Bounder, asks, “Can you say the letter 'K'?”
Tourist: Oh yes, Khaki, king, kettle, Kuwait, Keble Bollege Oxford
Bounder: Why don't you say the letter 'K' instead of the letter 'C'?
Tourist: what you mean.....spell bolour with a K
Bounder: Yes
Tourist: Kolour. Oh that's very good, I never thought of that. What a silly bunt.**
No American, whether in anger or in a comedy sketch, would call a man (including himself) a cunt. But here’s Laurie Penny:
The first time I ever used it, I was 12 years old, and being hounded by a group of sixth-form boys who just loved to corner me on the stairs and make hilarious sexy comments. One day, one of them decided it would be funny to pick me up by the waist and shake me. I spat out the words “put me down, you utter cunt,” and the boy was so shocked that he dropped me instantly.
Manliness isn’t the issue. It’s not like when we call a guy a “pussy.” When the Brits call a man a cunt, it apparently means merely that he is completely inept, perhaps contemptible In the US, she would have called him “asshole.” Cunt just carries too much gender denotation, at least to my American ears.

It reminds me of something I heard long ago in college. A bunch of guys were talking, and one said that some girl was “a schmuck.”

“You should never call a girl a schmuck,” said another guy, pausing before finishing the thought, “unless she’s a real schmuck.”

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* A non-profane difference. American TV doesn’t have “presenters” or “newsreaders.”

** In the only YouTube versions I could find, this punchline has been edited out.

Oobleck and the Gulf Disaster

February 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Oobleck is not high-tech chemistry. The name comes from Dr. Seuss, and making the stuff is child’s play – mix cornflour and water – which is why grade-school kids are familiar with it. Also why YouTube has lots of videos of people running on water. (Mythbusters got in the act too.)

Now it turns out that Oobleck might have stopped the BP underwater gusher in the Gulf. Mud, the usual “top kill” substance, was useless because the flow of oil was so rapid. But oobleck’s “non-Newtonian” (Seussian?) properties might have done the trick. (Wired has the story here.)

Jonathan Katz, a physicist, apparently suggested oobleck to the Department of Energy team that was assembled three weeks into the disaster.
Katz did some quick math and saw that a half-cornstarch drilling mud would suppress the turbulence and sink in one coherent slug. Unfortunately, no one listened.
“I have no idea why they didn’t pay attention,” said Richard Garwin, a retired IBM physicist who was also part of the DOE-convened team.
In 1986, the mystery of the Challenger disaster stopped being mysterious and became instantly understandable when Richard Feynman dropped a rubber O-ring into a glass of ice water. This wasn’t rocket science. Or rather, it was rocket science, but it was the part that a third-grader could understand.

These weren’t failures of science (let’s assume that the oobleck theory is correct). Maybe they weren’t even failures of scientists. More likely they were failures of organization. We need to know more about how the structure and culture of organizations keeps some ideas from getting very far, or from getting in the door at all . . . until it’s too late.

The Wisdom of Crowds XLV

February 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s become almost a tradition here at the SocioBlog: A big football game that generates widespread betting, and we once again consider “the wisdom of crowds” – the idea that the collective guess of the crowd (those people interested enough to take a stand) will be superior to the that of any one expert or group of experts.

I’ve been skeptical about this idea, at least with regards to football betting. This blog was only a few months old when I first posted about it (here), and readers who took the hint and went against the crowd won a sweet bet on the Bears. I’ve revisited the hypothesis a few times (here and here), including last year’s Superbowl (here), when the crowd was heavily backing the favorites, the Colts, driving the line from 3½ points up to 6. But the Saints won the game outright.

This year, the line opened with the Packers favored by 2½ or 3 points* and has not budged. The betting is equally divided, which is good news for the bookies. They’ll make their 5-10% no matter which side wins.

The only movement has been on the under/over line – the combined total points by both teams. That line opened at about 46, and went down to 44½. My guess is that this early shift represented “the smart money.” Now the line is gradually going back up, and may be as high as 46 by game time. Apparently the public is looking for a high-scoring game.

If you’re a contrarian, if you lean towards the wisdom of bookmakers rather than the wisdom of crowds, you’ll take the under and be happy with a 23-21 final score. It’s not a bet I would be eager to make however. The trouble with betting the under, as a gambler explained to me long ago, is that you sit there watching the game rooting for nothing to happen.

Go Steelers.**

UPDATE: The under/over line did not move much. Apparently, there was no strong crowd consensus, though if there was an imbalance, it was towards the over, which turned out to be the right choice. Final score: Packers 31, Steelers 25. The Packers played well; the Steelers made some costly errors.

* As of this writing (Saturday night), if you want to bet the Steelers plus the three points, you have to give up odds of 120-100 (i.e., you get $100 if you win; you pay $120 if you lose). If you take only 2½ points, you can get odds as low as 105-100. And conversely, if you bet the Packers, you pay more to give only the 2½. But it looks as though the line is inching up. By game time, I expect most bookmakers will have the line at 3.

** It is a bit more difficult to root for Pittsburgh this year – not-so-gentle Ben and his deserved rating among fans as the Superbowl’s most disliked player, James Harrison as #1 in being fined by the NFL. And according to yesterday’s New York Times, the Steelers are even on the wrong side of the concussion issue while the Packers are on the side of the angels.

Graphing Ideas about Marriage (Me vs. USA Today)

February 3, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

As someone with the visual aptitude of gravel, I shouldn’t be edging into Flâneuse territory. But when I saw this graph in USA Today this morning, I was frustrated.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
Responses, by age group, when asked if they want to marry:
SOURCES: Match.com/MarketTools survey of 5,199 men and women who either have never been married or are widowed, divorced or separated.

I found it hard to make comparisons from one age group to another. In the online edition, the layout was better – all in a row – and the addition of even a single color helped. (Odd that USA Today, the newspaper that led the way in using color, gave its print readers the graph in only black-and-white, or more accurately gray-and-gray.)

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

I thought I’d try my own hand with my rudimentary knowledge of Excel.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

What do you think?

ASA v. ACLU?

February 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I feel like the eighth guy in the Asch line-length experiment (video here .) since on one central issue I find myself siding with Glenn Beck and against the ASA.

For those who were out of the room and missed the commotion, Beck has been vilifying Frances Fox Piven, a 78-year-old sociologist who for decades has written and spoken about poverty and welfare. She has been a target of Beck’s before. This time, after she suggested that the unemployed take to the streets to demand government action that creates jobs, Beck called her an “enemy of the Constitution.” (more here)

Piven received hate mail and some death threats, presumably from Beck’s followers, who also posted truly vicious comments directed at Piven on Beck’s website The Blaze. The ASA called on the Fox network
to control the encouragement of violence that has run rampant in recent months. . . . . The right to free speech does not ever include rhetoric that encourages violence against one’s opponents.
It’s the free speech part that bothers me. I guess I’m more ACLU than ASA. Yes, the world would be a better place if Beck weren’t Beck. His faux-naïf, just-a-guy act barely hides the reality that he’s a nasty piece of work. And some of his fans are even nastier. What he says is often wrong – inaccurate, illogical, even nutty. But Beck didn’t call for violence. He just said that Piven is a terrible person who has dangerous ideas and says bad things.

If what Beck said “encourages violence” and is therefore not protected speech, then nobody can be allowed to say that someone has done something really bad (let alone being “the worst person in the world”). You could probably find equally venomous name-calling directed at academics like John Yoo. I mean, calling someone a war criminal is a fairly serious accusation. Possibly, those accusations made some readers so angry that they sent Yoo death threats. (If so, it would be altogether fitting, given his rather tolerant position on death threats.) Were those articles about Yoo at Salon, the Atlantic, and elsewhere “encouraging violence”? Were they therefore not protected free speech?

As someone said, you can’t blame an idea for the people who believe in it. After the Arizona shooting, people went scurrying around trying to show that the shooter had been inspired by books from the opposite side. Marx, Ayn Rand, and possibly Hitler were on Loughner’s reading list (so were Peter Pan and The Phantom Tollbooth). But even if we could pinpoint a particular book or TV show, even if Loughner had said, “The Manifesto made me do it,” the book and its writer still have the protection of the First Amendment. And that’s a good thing.

So the ASA is right to ask Beck to tone it down (not that it will have any impact on Beck even in the unlikely that he is listening). But they are wrong to imply that his rhetoric is not included as protected free speech.

In the Asch experiment, the subject – the eighth guy to offer his opinion – always felt uncomfortable when the other seven people saw things differently from what he saw. That’s how I feel, and it’s which is why I’ve hesitated to post this.

Norms and Negotiations

January 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jenn Lena links to Tom Chiarella’s 2005 essay, “Haggling for Hot Dogs,” placing it in the context of Harold Garfinkle’s ethnomethodology and the “breaching” (i.e., norm-breaking) assignment often used in intro sociology course. In one frequently used version, the instructor tells students to go buy something but offer to pay less than the posted price. (The item must be the kind where price is not negotiated -- a bottle of soda, not a car.)

Chiarella starts out asking a hot dog vendor for a $1 discount. He gets nowhere.
The hot-dog man looked at me then and slapped closed the lid to his cart. "No deals!" he snarled. [See a longer description of this exchange in the full article here.]
Clearly, Chiarella was breaking a norm.

I don’t use the norm-breaking assignment, and I’m not sure what instructors who do use it want students to learn. It seems that there are four obvious lessons:
  • All situations are governed by norms.
  • A norm is usually invisible until someone breaks it.
  • It’s not easy to deliberately break a norm (a lot of students cheat on the assignment), but . . .
  • . . . our anticipatory anxiety about breaking a norm is way out of proportion to the actual response of other people.
Garfinkle has at least one more important point to make: norms are flexible, not absolute. No matter what the assignment he gave students – no matter how bizarre the action – once they were in the field, they were able to create a context in which that action seemed normal, even unremarkable.

The simplest strategy is to frame it as “an experiment.” Tell a stranger, “Hop up and down three times on your left leg,” and you’ll get some weird looks and not much co-operation. But if you say, “Excuse me, this is an experiment for my sociology class. Would you mind hopping three times on your left leg?” you’ll get a more polite response and probably a lot of hopping. But even without resorting to the experiment frame, Garfinkle’s students were able to create normalizing contexts.

Chiarella ends his article with another hot dog vendor.
Last week I was walking my dog in the large city near my town. . . .on the marble steps of a war memorial. . . . There was a man selling hot dogs on the sidewalk below. . . .
This time, without even trying, Chiarella has created a context for a free hot dog. The key is his own dog.
I approached and offered my money. He handed me my hot dog.
For one moment, I thought about making an offer on a second one. But I . . .let it go. “Is screwing a working guy out of seventy-five cents really worth the time?” . . . So I started slathering on the mustard instead.
“I've got something for you,” the vendor said, and when I turned to look, he was holding a hot dog.
I smiled and shook my head. “I'm good,” I said. “No thanks.”
But he was holding it out for my dog, who wolfed it out of his hands without pause. I laughed. The man seemed happy; the dog, ecstatic. Why not? It’s what I had been saying from the start. A free hot dog? That’s a good deal for all.

Russian Blues

January 28, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Whorfian hypothesis” – the general idea that language influences thought – regularly takes a drubbing over at Language Log, especially when their resident linguists get wind of yet another instance of the “'no word for X' fallacy.’” This week, Mark Liberman (here) caught Rachel Donadio in the New York Times claiming that “Italian has no word for accountability.” This came barely a week after a debate at The Economist (“This house believes that the language we speak shapes how we think.”) where Liberman had argued the “no way” side.*
in its common interpretation, which sees a list of dictionary entries as determining the set of available thoughts, this proposition is false.
Well yes, if you put it in stark terms like that (“determining . . . available thoughts”). But I would imagine that having a word for something makes it more accessible, more visible. Without a word for X, we are less likely to notice it or distinguish it from things that are close to X but not exactly X. Take colors, for instance.
Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (‘‘goluboy’’) and darker blues (‘‘siniy’’). . . . Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors when they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (one siniy and the other goluboy) than when they were from the same linguistic category (both siniy or both goluboy). . . . English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category advantage in any of the conditions.

These results demonstrate that (I) categories in language affect performance on simple perceptual color tasks and (ii) the effect of language is online (and can be disrupted by verbal interference). [emphasis added]
This is from the abstract of a 2007 article, “Russian Blues Reveal Effects of Language on Color Discrimination.”

That title reminded me of another article in the Times this week about a Russian and blues.

Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated

    And in a speculative moment in 1945, [Nabokov] came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues.

Nabokov was a synaesthete – his brain transformed the sound of each letter into a particular color. In his “colored hearing,”

The long a of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony.
He was also very sensitive to subtle differences in color.**
Passing on to the blue group, there is steely ‘x’, thundercloud ‘z’ and huckleberry ‘h’.
The fine distinctions among shades of blue in the Russian language and the Russian emigre’s interest in lepidopteral blues is surely a coincidence, but it’s one that might have pleased the novelist.



----------------
*In the voting, Liberman lost the debate by a 3-1 margin. That doesn’t mean he was wrong; it just means he wasn’t persuasive.
**In the literature course that he performed while on the faculty at Cornell, Nabokov would often correct the available translations of French or Russian novels. In one of these, the translator used the word purple. Nabokov would tell his students to cross out the word and substitute violet, then he would shake his head and chuckle softly at the translator’s pathetic error and mutter, “Purple!” seemingly to himself. I thought I had read this somewhere, but now I cannot find any such account.

When Prophecy's Faked

January 26, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

It turns out that the only scientific evidence linking autism to childhood vaccinations was a fraud. The doctor who reported it, Andrew Wakefield, faked the data, most likely because he was in cahoots with lawyers who were suing vaccine makers. (The story is here and many other places.)

What does that mean for autism-vaccine believers like Jenny McCarthy, who has been one of the more noticeable vaccine skeptics and one of Dr. Wakefield’s strongest supporters?


Jonah Lehrer writing in Wired draws a parallel (which I’m embarrassed not to have noticed) between this turn of events and the origins of “cognitive dissonance,” particularly When Prophecy Fails.

Much of the early research on cognitive dissonance, a term coined by Leon Festinger, came out of the social psych. lab – all those contrived experiments by Festinger and others. But the idea had its origin in a real-world study. In 1954, Festinger noticed a newspaper article about a small group of believers who were predicting that the world would be destroyed on Dec. 20 of that year.

Festinger and two colleagues joined the group, pretending to be believers (no IRBs in those days) and regularly attended its meetings. They were especially interested in how the group would react when, come Dec. 21, they were all still on this planet. The group had gathered on the fated night and waited for the spaceships to rescue them from the great destruction. But nothing happened. How would they resolve the dissonance between their belief (about the end of the world and its causes) and the evidence?

It should be no surprise that they held to their basic ideas. Instead, their leader (a Mrs. Keech*) relayed the latest message from the space aliens: the heroic efforts of this little group had created such a powerful force for good that God had chosen to spare the world. Both the world and their belief system were saved.

The other, possibly surprising, outcome was what happened next. You might think that the group members would lose their enthusiasm and that the group would gradually dissipate. Instead, they vowed to redouble their efforts and turn outward. Before, they had been content to save themselves. Now they set out to proselytize.

The same thing apparently is happening on the autism-vaccine front. Lehrer quotes Jenny McCarthy
This debate won’t end because of one dubious reporter’s allegations. I have never met stronger women than the moms of children with autism. Last week, this hoopla made us a little stronger, and even more determined to fight for the truth about what’s happening to our kids. [Lehrer’s emphasis]
He adds, “That’s right: the demonstration of fraud has made McCarthy even more convinced that vaccines cause autism.”

After prophecy fails, it’s only logical (well, psycho-logical) to claim that your beliefs are even stronger and to go out and proselytize. In the face of disconfirming evidence, you have to work even harder to convince yourself. And, as we teachers well know, one of the best ways to clarify and strengthen your own ideas is to go out and teach them to others.

* Not her real name.

BLEG: I dimly recall hearing somewhere that Robert Coover took the inspiration for his first novel, Origin of the Brunists (1966), from When Prophecy Fails. But my Internet searches have turned up no confirmation of this. Does anyone have any information about this? If you know Coover, call him up and ask.

Hard Work and Its Rewards

January 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Protestant ethic had a pretty good run in America, where it was also known sometimes as “the work ethic.” But the huge reaction to Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal essay is a sign that “hard work” has become a matter of considerable ambivalence. Some of Chua’s critics were sure that her all-work-and-no-playdates regime would render children socially inept. Her supporters saw her article as a reminder of how far American parents have strayed from their proper roles. (My recent post on the article is here.)

The idea that hard work is in itself a good thing has been in decline in the US for at least a half century. At the same time, a new value has been rising – the value on self-fulfillment. That’s what drives conservatives up the wall, and they see a clear connection between the two. Our tolerance and respect for drudgery has declined because of the sixties-liberal-hippie idea that work should be intrinsically rewarding.

But it’s not just self-fulfillment that’s causing problems for the old value. Hard work for hard work’s sake also conflicts with other long-standing American values: rationality, utilitarianism, pragmatism, self-interest – the idea that behavior is all about attaining specific goals. If hard work doesn’t seem to be achieving the goals, sinking ever more effort into it just isn’t very practical.

Chua’s article, with its anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of hard work, offers some comfort for traditional American beliefs and values. More so than most advanced countries, we believe that work pays off.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

In the Brookings international survey, the US was nearly at the top in agreeing that “People get rewarded for their effort.” Over 60% agreed, compared with a median of about 35% for the 27 countries in the sample.

The belief also gets a push from Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule.” Outliers like the Beatles and Bill Gates weren’t just talented. They, and others who eventually wound up at the top of their fields, all spent thousands of hours working to develop their craft. We are familiar with the fictional version of this scenario – the hero who, at all costs, pursues his dream. Others scoff and try to discourage him, but he perseveres, often at great sacrifice. He remains true to his vision, and in the end, he triumphs.

The trouble is that we don’t know about all the similarly single-minded dream-pursuers who didn’t make it. How many other bands and other programmers put in their 10,000 hours and wound up where they started, in obscurity?

The radio show “This American Life” often gives the other side of our most beloved stories. Last month, it aired the story of Duke Fightmaster, a one-time mortgage broker who decided that he was going to be the replacement for Conan O’Brien when Conan replaced Jay Leno (NBC’s plan at the time).
I had this idea that if I just follow my passion or find something that I'm passionate about, something that uses my creativity, and if I just am able to find that and throw myself into it I'll be successful.
He started doing his own talk show from his own bedroom. Eventually, he quit his day job in order to pursue his dream of replacing Conan. He moved the show out of his house first to a VA hall, then a small nightclub. He maxed out his credit cards, went bankrupt, lost a house, lost a car, and had a sort of breakdown. Still, he didn’t give up on his dream. He stopped after three years, but only when he could no longer find a place to do the show.

Here is what he says in response to NPR producer Sarah Koenig’s what-have-you-learned-Dorothy question.*
Going out and saying I'm going to be the replacement for Conan O'Brien, it turns out that that's a lot easier said than done. It's not as easy to start a talk show and replace Conan O'Brien as I thought it might have been.
Koenig laughs and says,
I could have told you that three years ago. I mean, nobody gets to be Conan O'Brien. Only Conan O'Brien gets to be Conan O'Brien; that's why it's so hard to be Conan O'Brien.
* A podcast of the show is here. The above segment begins at about 34:30. A transcript is here.

Grade Inflation

January 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Sides at The Monkey Cage posted ths final gradesheet from a Goverment course that John F. Kennedy took in 1939-40.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

JFK’s B- isn’t bad. Although that was the modal grade, the class mean and median were a C+. I haven’t seen any gradesheets from current Government courses at Harvard, but I would expect that a B- would fall pretty far down the curve. And just for the record, it was Kennedy’s lowest grade that term. In his other courses, he got two Bs and a B+.

UPDATE. Jan. 25. Lisa Wade at Sociological Images has more on this topic-- a graph of grades in US colleges going back as far as 1920 -- and a link to the source, gradeinflation.com, which has much, much more.

Speak Roughly To Your Little Boy

January 18, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Amy Chua says that her recent book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is about her personal “journey” of change away from the “very strict Chinese parenting model.” But the Wall Street Journal edit of the memoir for its op-ed page reduces Chua’s journey to a one-dimensional promo for that extreme Chinese model. The WSJ selected those elments of Chua’s story that embody the current conservative world-view in the US. For example, the chief family virtues in this model – for the the children and the parents as well – are hard work and perseverance. The model also emphasizes goals rather than process; the “journey” is less important.  Still less relevant is the way the child feels about any of it. Finally, the tiger mom method places all responsibility on the individual and rejects the influence of external, situational forces.

The appeal of the Chinese model stems in part from our fear that America has become, in Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s phrase, “a nation of wusses.” Rendell was referring to the NFL’s decision to reschedule a football game in Philadelphia a few weeks ago when heavy snow made travel to the stadium dangerous and nearly impossible.
The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.
Rendell was joking, but the joke reflected our anxieties about ourselves vis-à-vis China.

The remedy for this wussiness, at least in the ideal WSJ family, is basically the parent-as- marine-drill-sergeant. The drill sergeant doesn’t “journey.” He barks that he wants results not excuses, my way or the highway, and similar bons mots. This model of child-rearing combines several elements of the conservative mentality: authoritarianism, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity, and certainty.* Parents are always right, their rules are clear and absolute, and children should unquestioningly do what parents say.** Therefore, whatever parents do to enforce rules is legitimate and beneficial since it leads to the desired results. (Some of Chua’s methods will strike many readers as psychological cruelty if not abuse.)

Another virtue in the war on wussiness is Toughness. This means the rejection of emotions, especially “feminine” emotions like sympathy, as irrelevant or even detrimental to the task at hand. (Remember the right-wing reaction to “empathy”?) “Masculine” emotions that can be used for goal attainment are O.K. These include pride and anger, and perhaps even envy and greed (hey, four out of seven ain’t bad.)

This tension between toughness and kindness towards children is nothing new. The Lewis Carroll poem from Alice in Wonderland (1865) alluded to in the title of this post was itself a parody reaction to a popular poem of the time, “Speak Gently”
Speak gently to the little child!
Its love be sure to gain . . . .
And
Speak gently to the young, for they
Will have enough to bear;
Pass through this life as best they may,
’Tis full of anxious care!

The conflict is also reflected in the bimodal reaction over at Amazon, where the book is #6 on the bestseller list. In the end, I doubt that the book will have much lasting influence on child rearing here, though some parents will use it to justify what they were already inclined to do.

The much greater influence will be that of American culture on Asian-Americans. As Chua says, she was “humbled” (and presumably changed) by her 13-year-old. The Asian kids at my son’s high school (where they were about half the population) would often say, “Asian parents are crazy.” When these kids and Amy Chua’s kids become parents, they will probably not be quite so “crazy.”

* For a somewhat controversial review of the literature on this topic, see this 2003 Psychological Bulletin article, which includes studies from other countries.

**This upends the usual American formulation, at least in movies and other fictions, where children are typically wiser than parents. (See my earlier post contrasting this configuration with the British version of childhood as seen in “Atonement.” Or this post on the non-authoritarian sitcom family.)

Mom and Apple Pie Sesame Noodles

January 17, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Amy Chua’s essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” has been getting a ton of attention.

When it comes to child-rearing, Americans seem forever to be seeking out expert advice. This used to be the province of print – books and magazine articles – but videos and TV shows are now in the media mix of advice for parents. This advice cannot be an “only in America” enterprise. Still, I would guess that we manufacture and consume more than our share.
Societies with a stronger sense of tradition would have less anxiety about whether they were doing it right. But in American culture, tradition usually loses out to rationality – effective means to desired goals. There seems to be a value on rejecting the ways of the previous generation (“I’m not going to make the same mistakes my parents made.”) Turning to experts for new ways of raising kids also fits nicely with American optimism and belief in progress. (“The new, improved child-rearing – get it now. Operators are standing by.”)

The trouble is that parents have many goals for their children – success/achievement, social skills and friendships, autonomy, self-fulfillment, proper behavior, happiness, and so on – for the immediate present and for various distances into the future. These goals are not in perfect harmony, and to get more of one good thing, you may have to give up another. Worse, even if parents could decide which goals they wanted to emphasize, they have precious little evidence, beyond the very short run, for the effects of one strategy or another. So we turn to those who claim to have some special knowledge, and the books and videos just keep on coming. “How can I make sure my kid is happy?” Or smart? Or successful? Or well-liked? If there were clear answers to these questions, we wouldn’t need another book.

So while these books purport to tell us how to raise kids, they also document the anxieties and ideologies of their authors and readers.

The Wall Street Journal article is a case in point. I refer to it as the “WSJ article” and not Amy Chua’s. Here is the cover line at Penguin.
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
But the WSJ article has no such change of mind, no ambivalence, no uncertainty. The Chua in the WSJ is the Tiger Mom, driving her daughters with a strictness that most readers will see as cruelty. And in the end, the WSJ Chua is triumphant. Her unrelenting demands and no-sympathy tactics vindicated, she remains convinced of the rightness of her approach. But that is far from the whole story. Here she is in an interview with Jeff Yang at SF Gate:
The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they'd put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn't even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.
It’s possible that Chua is kidding herself. Yang’s SF Gate post quotes someone on Chua’s “woeful lack of self-examination.” But he also says, “The book’s tone is slightly rueful, frequently self-deprecating and entirely aware of its author’s enormities.”

The WSJ edit tells the story so as to make it conform with the American conservative world view (more on this in another post). I guess that one moral of the story is that you should be wary of heavily edited excerpts on the WSJ editorial page. Or, as my fellow fourth-grader’s book reports invariably ended, “If you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to read the book.”

Animated Speakers

January 12, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I teach, I rarely use the board. My handwriting is terrible, and for just about everything I say in class, I have a write-up that I post on Blackbloard with the ideas and evidence laid out systematically and all the key concepts and names in bold type. When I do write on the board, I often see student struggling to decipher the letters. I tell students not to worry about copying it all down. They can find everything written clearly and spelled correctly on Blackboard.

Underlying my casual attitude to the board is the assumption that I-write-you-copy ritual breaks the flow of thought. That’s also one of my objections to PowerPoint, especially if students focus on writing down what’s on a slide rather than thinking about what’s being said.

Who am I kidding? The only one whose thought gets broken is me. For students, a pause while I write on the board would give them a minute to think about the idea. Besides, I realize now that having a written version, even with no pause for reflection, reinforces and somehow adds to a lecture. I realize this thanks to RSA Animate. Watch even a minute or two of one of their animations. Here for example is Zizek on cultural capitalism.



The drawings don’t really add anything intellectually, and the words are just a shortened transcript of what Ehrenreich is saying. But the message coming simultaneously via two senses seems much more memorable. (The RSA site also has the video of Zizek on camera for the full half-hour lecture, for connoisseurs interested in side-by-side comparisons.).

I guess I’ll be spending the rest of winter break working on my marker skills.

Beach Blogging Bingo


January 8, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The SocioBlog is heading for a week in the sun (I hope). Internet access may be dicey. If I do post, it will be from . . . well, I’ll let the Saxophone Colossus tell you. (Jazzers will know what I mean. Or click on the link for the classic track.)

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.