Clyde and the Academic Job Interview

March 31, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

NPR’s “On the Media” departed from its usual content – stories that make you think that the full title of the show is “Outrageous Things that Make You Want to Spit On the Media” – and ran an interview Brooke Gladstone did with Walt Frazier.*  It’s mostly about two things Clyde loves – basketball and words – with a passing reference to a third, clothes.  (“I’m a shy guy that likes to walk around in mink coats and a Rolls Royce.”)

In my own mind, the mention of Frazier usually triggers this anecdote about a job interview – not mine but that of another professor in the social sciences. Let’s call him Brett.  One day he was reminiscing about his job interview at Montclair back in 1972. 
At the end of my visit to campus, I had my interview with the Dean, and he asked me why I wanted to come to Montclair.  “Well, Dean,” I said, “I want to stay in the New York area till Frazier retires.”
It was a good story, and maybe he really did say that to the dean.  I have no doubt as to the truth of his statement. Frazier was worth staying around for.  In any case, it was prophetic. Five years later, in 1977, the Knicks traded Frazier to Cleveland.**  And in 1977 Montclair dumped Brett, who found a non-academic job.   In Ohio.

* The edited radio version of the interview is here.  A video of the full one-hour interview is here.

** Clyde on being in Cleveland: “I was all dressed up and no place to go.”

Upwardly Mobile Beer

March 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

In the Pittsburgh of my youth many decades ago, Rolling Rock was an ordinary, low-priced local beer – like Duquesne (“Duke”) or Iron City. ( “Gimme a bottle of Iron,” was what you’d say to the bartender.  And if you were a true Pittsburgher, you pronounced it “Ahrn.”).  The Rolling Rock brewery was in Latrobe, PA, a town about forty miles east whose other claim to fame was Arnold Palmer. The print ads showed the pure sparkling mountain stream flowing over rocks. 

That was then.  In the late 1980s, Rolling Rock started expanding – geographically outward and socially upward.  Typically, when ideas and fashions diffuse through the social class structure they flow downward. Less frequently, the educated classes embrace an artifact of working-class culture. But why? Their conspicuous consumption (or “signaling,” as we now say) is saying something, but what? What ideas about themselves and the social landscape are they expressing with their choice of beer?

I had an e-mail exchange about that question with Keith Humphreys, who blogs at The Reality-Based Community.  He too grew up in the area, and we both recalled being surprised years later to see Rolling Rock as a beer of choice among young stock traders and other decidedly non-working-class people.  But we had different ideas as to what these cosmopolitans thought they were doing. Keith saw it as their way of identifying with the working class. 
Those of us who grew up near Latrobe, Pennsylvania are agog when upscale hipsters who could afford something better drink Rolling Rock beer as a sign of their solidarity with us.*
I was more skeptical.  I saw it as the hipsters (or before them, the yuppies) trying to be even more hip – so discerning that they could discover an excellent product in places everyone else had overlooked.  Rolling Rock was a diamond in the rough, a Jackson Pollock for $5 at a yard sale.  The cognoscenti were not identifying with the working-class. They were magnifying the distance. They were saying in effect, “Those people don’t know what a prize they have.  But I do.”

I had no real data to support that idea, so I asked Gerry Khermouch, who knows more about beverage marketing than do most people.  His Beverage Business Insights puts out industry newsletters, and he writes about potables (potent and otherwise) for Adweek and Brandweek.  He’s also beverage buddies with the guys who changed Rolling Rock marketing. Here’s what he said,
far from expressing solidarity with the working class, urban drinkers far afield regarded it as an upscale icon in much the way that Stella Artois has claimed today - a triumph of pure marketing.
One ad campaign in the 90s, “Subtle Differences,” aimed directly at the drinker’s connoisseur fantasies.  Here are two examples.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

It’s the little nuances that make life more interesting. Rolling Rock uses slightly more malt than other domestic golden lagers for a refreshing taste that’s got a little more body, a little more bite. If you’ve noticed, we salute you.

Words like nuance were not exactly an appeal to solidarity with the working-class.  Neither was the strategy of raising the price rather than lowering it. 

To the marketers, the nuance, the malt, bite, and body didn’t count for much.  Their big investment was in packaging.  Instead of stubby bottles with paper labels, they returned to the long-necked bottles with pictures and text (including the mysterious “33” on the back) painted onto the glass. Apparently, the return to the original packaging, along with the  “Old Latrobe” reference, added notes of working-class authenticity.

As for the actual beer inside those bottles, it may have once been what the ad copy said. The beer’s early water-over-the-rocks imagery suggested that the beer itself might be a bit watery. The new owners tried to change that image.  But in 2006, when Anheuser-Busch bought the company, they closed the Latrobe brewery, and Rolling Rock became a watery, biteless product indistinguishable from the other innocuous lagers that dominate the US market. 

* This observation by Keith was an aside in a post about the future of the marijuana market. That post is here.

Madeline in the US?

March 19, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Reposted (with more graphs but no Madeline) at Sociological Images

Readers of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans may remember the title character’s emergency appendectomy.  It is, after all, the central plot point.  Madeline is whisked away to a hospital, where she later shows her scar to her housemates. 

Ludwig Bemelmans came to the US at age 16 and became a citizen four years later.  He lived in New York.  Yet he set this tale in France. 
And soon after Dr. Cohn
came, he rushed out to the phone,
and he dialed: DANton-ten-six -
"Nurse,” he said, “it’s an appendix!”
Everybody had to cry -
not a single eye was dry.
In a US version of the story, the tears might be caused when the bill comes.*

The Washington Post (here) has provided some data on medical costs showing why there might never be a US version of Madeline. The tab for an appendectomy here runs to $13,000, four times what it costs in France.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

No wonder the US spends twice as much as France on health care.  In 2009, the US average was $8000 per person; in France, $4000.  (Canada came in at $4800). Why do we spend so much?  Ezra Klein (here) quotes the title of a 2003 paper by four health-care economists:  “it’s the prices, stupid.”

And why are US prices higher?  Prices in the other OECD countries are lower partly because of what US conservatives would call socialism – the active participation of the government.  In the UK and Canada, the government sets prices.  In other countries, the government uses its Wal-mart-like power as a huge buyer to negotiate lower prices from providers.  (If it’s a good thing for Wal-Mart to bring lower prices for people who need to buy clothes, why is it a bad thing for the government to bring lower prices to people who need to buy, say, an appendectomy? I could never figure that out.)

There may also be cultural differences between the US and other wealthy countries, differences about whether greed, for lack of a better word, is good.  Is it an unlimited good?  Are there realms, medicine perhaps, where it is not good?  Klein quotes a man who served in the Thatcher government:
Health is a business in the United States in quite a different way than it is elsewhere.  It’s very much something people make money out of. There isn’t too much embarrassment about that compared to Europe and elsewhere.
So we Americans roll along, paying several times what others pay for medical procedures, doctor visits, and drugs.**

Ludwig Bemelmans died a half-century ago, but Madeline lives on.  If publishers are considering an American version – like what Hollywood did in “The Birdcage,”  “Dinner for Schmucks,” and other Americanized remakes of French movies – I’ve finished the first draft of my manuscript (rough and in need of editing, I admit).  Here’s the ending.
And all the little girls cried, “Boohoo,
we want to have our appendix out, too!
We want a real scar
Not just some tattoo.”

“Good night, little girls!
Let this fantasy drop.
Appendectomies here
Cost thirteen g’s a pop.

“And that’s not including
The hospital stay –
The US average:
Sixteen big ones a day,

“And that pretty penny
For hospital care is
Four times as much
As the price back in Paris.

So please go to sleep!
Let’s have no more drama. There
Might be improvement ahead
With Obamacare.

*  See Steven Brill on the bitter pill of the medical bill - here.)

** The most viewed SocioBlog post ever was this one from 2009.  It consisted mostly of four graphs on health care costs.  It got Boinged because of one line: “Our Lipitor must be four to ten times as good as the Lipitor that Canadians take.”

Grand Olds Party

March 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

Jeb Bush told CPAC that the Republican party had an image problem.
Way too many people believe that Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker.
People have good reason to believe those things. But the “way too many” suggests that the GOP’s problem is not image or brand, it’s demography. For five years or longer, the Republican faithful have been complaining that “their” country was being taken away from them, and they were going to take it back. (See my “Repo Men” post from 2011.)

They were right. Their country, a country dominated by older white men, is fading in the demographic tide. The groups whose numbers in the electorate are on the rise don’t look like them.  Andrew Gelman (here) recently published these maps on who votes Republican and who votes Democrat. The maps are an update to his 2009 Red State, Blue State.

(The exit poll the data are based on sampled only in the 30 most competitive state. Texas and Georgia are large, and they have significant non-White populations. But demographic changes there are unlikely to have much effect on which party gets their electoral votes.)

The non-White proportion of the electorate will continue to grow. The female proportion may also increase, especially as education levels of women rise (more educated people are more likely to vote than are the less educated).  The key factor is party loyalty.  And, at least in presidential elections, people do remain loyal. I think I once read, “If you can get them for two consecutive elections, you’ve got them for life.”  Or words to that effect.  If that’s true, the age patterns of the last two elections should be what the Republicans are worrying about.

Trying to make themselves more attractive to younger people will not be easy. Oldsmobile tried it not so long ago (a post on that campaign is here).  “This is not your father’s GOP” might have similar lack of success.  But insisting that this is still your father’s GOP (or more accurately, some white dude’s father’s GOP) seems like a formula for failure.