Poverty – Race, Ryan, and Rhetoric

March 18, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Poor Paul Ryan – he said what he really thought. That’s not always dangerous, but this time it was about why Black men don’t work, and Rep. Ryan’s explanation was that there’s something wrong with the men, their families, and their culture.

You can’t blame Ryan for his statement. His guard was down. He was among friends, being interviewed by William Bennett, a whale of a conservative. Bennett set the ball on the tee:
We’re setting records in terms of people not working. . . . There’s a cultural aspect to this . . . Boys particularly learn how to work. Who teaches boys how to work. . . . A boy has to see a man working, doesn’t he?
And Ryan took a swing:
Absolutely. . . . We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
When a reporter (lauren victoria burke of Crew of 42 - here) later asked Ryan about the racial implications in his statement, Ryan first tried the standard dodge” “it was taken out of context.” Then he went for total denial:
This has nothing to do whatsoever with race. It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever.
Rep. Ryan was using here a rhetorical device known as “a lie.”

The context for the Bennett interview was Ryan’s recent report on poverty programs, particularly those that encourage “dependency” rather than work.  Nor did Ryan embellish or add relevant ideas that were left out of the quote. So the statement was perfectly in context. As for race, the term “inner city” is so often to mean Black that it can’t even be considered a code word; it’s a synonym.

When burke (in a West-Wing-like walk-and-talk) pointed out the racial implications, Ryan suddenly remembered that poverty and unemployment were not purely inner city problems
This isn’t a race based comment. It’s a breakdown of families, it’s rural poverty in rural areas, and talking about where poverty exists — there are no jobs and we have a breakdown of the family.
Ryan’s second thoughts are accurate.  In fact, rates of poverty are higher in rural areas than in metro areas.  The difference is slight in most regions, probably because metro areas have so many people who are not poor. But in the South, the rural-urban difference is unmistakable.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

As several others have pointed out, it was only when Ryan’s image of poverty expanded to include rural Whites that his explanation expanded to include what should be obvious – the lack of jobs.  We can't really know the implicit associations in Rep. Ryan’s mind.  But it certainly looks as though they go like this:  Why are inner-city Black people poor? Because of their culture – they haven’t learned the value of work. Why are Whites in Appalachia poor? Because there are no jobs.

HT: Eric Volsky at ThinkProgress for the graph.

(An earlier version of this post had Ryan as a Senator. He is in fact a Representative. What could I have been thinking.?)

Jazz and Rap, White and Black

March 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Dave Brubeck Was The Macklemore Of 1954,” wrote Patrick Jarenwattananon, NPR’s jazz blogger (here), after Macklemore’s post-Grammy text apologizing to Kendrick Lamar.

Sixty years earlier, Time magazine put Dave Brubeck on the cover, and in 1954 being on the cover of Time was a big deal. Brubeck’s quartet  was on tour with the Duke Ellington orchestra at the time, and Brubeck felt, as did many others, that if any jazzer was going to be on the cover of Time, it should be Duke. (Time put Ellington on the cover two years later.)

Jarenwattananon hears in these stories a recurrent motif in American popular music:
Both also fit into a longstanding narrative in American popular music. White musicians play music of black community origin. Then, buoyed by systemic privilege, they enjoy mainstream success prior to the black artists they were initially inspired by. And they attempt to allay the guilt by deferring to said black trailblazers.
That’s almost certainly true of Brubeck. His popularity owed much to Whiteness. It wasn’t just that Brubeck himself was White. His music was White. (The frequent criticism of Brubeck among jazzers was that he didn’t swing – a valid criticism.*) In the early 50s, he set out to popularize his music by touring colleges, and in that era, college campuses were nearly all White. That success enabled him to move from a small label (Fantasy, with its translucent wine-colored records) to Columbia. His first record for that label was  “Jazz Goes to College.”

But the Brubeck and Macklemore stories are different in some important ways.  Jazz, unlike rap, has never had widespread appeal, especially among Whites.  So the audience for jazz à la Brubeck was a lot bigger than the audience for what Black jazz musicians, including Ellington, were playing. If Time was looking for someone emblematic of the surge (tiny though it was) in the popularity of jazz, Brubeck was the likely candidate.  Besides that, Time is a news magazine, and in 1954, Ellington  was not new; Brubeck was.

Does any of this apply to Macklemore?** He works in a genre that, even in its least White forms, is already popular among Whites. The White audience for rap is huge.*** Also, it’s not as though the White media have been ignoring Black rappers. Many a Grammy had been awarded to Black rappers before Macklemore. But in 1954, only one other jazz musician of any color had been honored with a Time cover. That honoree was Louis Armstrong.

Others who know more about rap and the Grammys than I do can correct me, and obviously it depends on who votes.  But my impression is that Macklemore’s Grammy did not have so much to do with “systemic privilege.”  Nor do I think he won because he “enjoy[ed] mainstream success prior to the black artists [he was] initially inspired by.”

Hat tip to a regular reader and erstwhile copy editor of this blog for referring me to the NPR story.

* To swing is a term that defies precise definition – perhaps the difference between swinging and not swinging amounts to a matter of microseconds in the length of notes and perhaps the choice of tonalities – but jazzers know it when they hear it. And when they don’t.

** I know almost nothing about Macklemore and his music – only that our sartorial preferences run to similar sources. Fuckin’ awesome.

*** You frequently hear the claim that the rap audience is  70-75% White.  The  WSJ’s “numbers guy” Carl Bialik checks it out as best he can (here) and concludes, “Conventional wisdom, for once, turns out to be mostly correct – with the caveat that theres a lot we don't know about race and rap sales.” 

Losing Their Religion - And So . . .?

March 13, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today,” sang Paul Lynde in “Bye-Bye Birdie.” That was 54 years ago.

Paul Lynde is gone, but we now have N. Bradley Wilcox (here) fretting about the Millenials.  Kids . . .
[their]ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak.
Not as tuneful, but it’s the thought that counts.

Wilcox is professor of Sociology and the University of Virginia, also, according to the bio on the NRO article, director of the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, so he ought to know.  He looks at data from the Pew Survey and the General Social Survey and concludes that the Millenials unless they change their ways as they grow older, will lead the country to political and economic disaster.*

Philip Cohen, on his Family Inequality blog (here), has already pointed some of the problems with Wilcox’s interpretation of the data on work and trust. Philip also provides a link to his earlier criticisms of Wilcox’s assertions about family.

It’s the “civil society” part that interests me. But how to measure engagement in civil society? Voter turnout among the young?  That was slightly higher in 2012 than it was a quarter-century earlier.  Wilcox does not use that. Nor does he use rates of volunteering. Instead he uses a measure of how religious a person is. Here is the graph he borrows from the Pew Survey.

Wilcox puts faith on a par with work and family.  But what benefits does personal religious conviction bring to the society?  Wilcox suggests that a willingness to trust others is a general social good.  And among younger people, the very religious are more trusting, though even among the Very Religious, those distrustful outnumber the trusting by more than two to one.

(Click on a graph for a slightly larger view.)

Interestingly, the Not Religious are more trusting than are the two middle categories, Moderate and Slight.  (The differences, with 900 people in the sample, are not quite statistically significant at the .05 level. The differences between Very Religious and Not Religious do not come close to significance.)

The religious dimension produces its largest difference in rates of marriage.

The Very Religious are the most likely to be married, the Not Religious the least. Wilcox and other conservatives see marriage as good for society and for the individual, and it is . . . in some ways.  Married people are more likely to say that they’re happy. But on other measures, like work, education and income, being religious seems to lose its advantage. 

Work: Wilcox says “full-time work remains the best way to avoid poverty and to chart a path into the middle class.” It also brings “an important sense of dignity and meaning.”  But according to GSS data, religiousness is unrelated to full-time work.

Education: Wilcox says almost nothing about education. Most Americans assume that it’s a good thing for both the individual and the society. School is also one of the important institutions of our society, so presumably staying in school indicates a commitment to civil society.  But it is the Not Religious who get higher degrees, while the Very Religious are more likely to drop out.

Income: Money is obviously a good thing for the individual. But it also matters for civil society.  Most measures of civic engagement (voting, participation in organizations) rise with income. Again, the Not Religious come out on the positive end of the scale.

The Not Religious are more than twice as likely as the Very Religious to have incomes of $80,000 or more. Or as Sen. Marco Rubio might interpret the data, losing your religion increases your chances of being rich by 116%.

In sum, except for being married, religiousness is either not related to the “core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment,”or the direction of the relation contradicts the way Wilcox would like the variables to align.

My point is not that Wilcox is wrong about a lack of civic engagement among the young. When my questions in class about current front-page political issues or important events in US history meet blank stares, I too have my Paul Lynde moments. I wonder: did students a generation or two ago know more about such things? I don’t trust my memory on that.

But whatever civic engagement is, and whether the Millenials have less of it, I don’t think we find that out by asking people about their religious convictions.

* “a generation of young adults ‘unmoored’ from the institutions of work, family, and civil society, and distrustful of their fellow citizens, can end up succumbing to the siren song of demagogues, especially if the economy dips into a depression.”

Pryor Convictions

March 12, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday, I posted about the conservatives’ tendency to celebrate killing – so long as the killing is, in their view, justifiable.  When the moderator at a Republican primary debate cited the record number of people executed in Texas under Governor Perry, the audience cheered.


We don’t know how long the applause would have continued if Brian Williams hadn’t interrupted.

I’m now reminded of a similar audience reaction – the inmates at Folsom Prison listening to Johnny Cash and cheering at this line in “Folsom Prison Blues”

To paraphrase the journalist I quoted asking about the people lining up for George Zimmeman’s autograph:  Who are these people cheering when Cash sings “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”?” The answer is simple. They’re criminals; some of them are killers.  That’s why they’re in prison.

And to quote Richard Pryor, “Thank God we got penitentiaries.”

(The line comes early in the clip from “Live on the Sunset Strip” (1982) . (If it doesn't load, go here). But if you have forgotten, as I had, just how good Pryor was, watch the whole thing.)

I imagine how Pryor might react these days:
Y’know, but there’s a difference. Them motherfuckers yelling about shootin’ a man in Reno – they was in the joint.  They get out, they can’t even vote. Motherfuckers cheering for killing more people with executions and stand your ground and shit – they run half the states in the country.

Righteous Slaughter

March 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

George Zimmerman was signing autographs at a gun show in Orlando this week. Liberal blogs are all over it. Conservative bloggers seem not to have noticed.* (Google “George Zimmerman autograph” and see if any red staters turn up.) 

Zimmerman is not the issue. It’s his supporters. Only 200 showed up for the meet-and-greet or SigSauer-and-Signature or whatever it was called.  But Zimmerman has many supporters around the country, and, as Jonathan Capeheart says:
This leads to what should be an inevitable question: Who are these people glorifying the killer of an unarmed teenager in one of the most racially polarized incidents in recent history?
I keep wondering how Jonathan Haidt would explain this conservative embrace of Zimmerman. The liberal reaction presents no problems. Haidt says that liberal morality rests on two principles (he calls them “foundations”)
  • Care/Harm
  • Fairness/Cheating. 
Killing someone certainly qualifies as Harm, and, almost literally, getting away with murder is not Fair.

The Zimmerman side is that he shot in self-defense. That argument persuaded the jury, or at least created sufficient reasonable doubt. But it doesn’t explain why some people on the right see him as a hero. What moral principle does he represent? 

In Haidt’s schema, conservatives take Harm and Fairness into account but balance them with three others:
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
(A sixth foundation - Liberty/oppression – underlies both the liberal and conservative side.)

It’s hard to see how any of these describe the autograph-seekers.  What else might explain that reaction?

The obvious candidate is racism. If the races had been reversed – if a Black man had confronted a White teenager, killed him, and then been acquitted on self-defense grounds – would the left have hailed him as a hero? I doubt it. Would those same autograph hounds in Orlando have sought him out? I doubt it.  And if Black people had then turned out to get his autograph, can you imagine what the reaction on the right would have been?

But it’s not just racism. It’s a more general willingness to do harm, great harm, to those who “deserve” it.  The liberal view (Harm/Care) is that while in some circumstances killing may be necessary or inevitable, it is still unfortunate.  But over on the right, killing, torture, and perhaps other forms of harm are cause for celebration, so long as these can be justified. In 2008, Republicans cheered Sarah Palin when she stood up for torture. (See this post from 2008.) In 2011, they cheered Rick Perry for signing death warrants for record numbers of executions (here). When Wolf Blitzer hypothsized a young man who had decided not to buy medical insurance but now lay in the ICU, and Blitzer asked “Should we let him die?” several people in the Republican audience enthusiastically shouted out, “Yes.” (here)

My guess as to the common thread here is a dimension Haidt doesn’t include as a foundation of morality – boundary rigidity. In those earlier posts, I referred to this, or something similar, as “tribalism.”
Morality is not some abstract universal that applies to all people.  Tribal morality divides the world into Us and Them.  What's moral is what's good for Us.  This morality does not extend to Them.
Could it be that as you get farther out on the right, you find more people whose boundaries are more rigid?  They are the hard liners who draw hard lines. Once those lines are drawn, it’s impossible to have sympathy – to extend Care – to someone on the other side. If you imagine that you live in a world where an attack by Them is always imminent, defending those boundaries becomes very important.

That seems to be the world of gun-rights crowd lionizing Zimmerman.  Their cherished scenario is the defense of boundaries against those who are clearly Not Us.  They stand their ground and defend themselves, their families, their houses and property, even their towns and communities against those from the other side of the boundary (including Obama’s jack-booted thugs).  It is a story they never tire of, repeated time after time in NRA publications.  Zimmerman is a hero because his story, in their view, embodies the narrative of righteous slaughter. 

* A local Fox outlet did a sympathetic interview with Zimmerman (here)– sympathetic in the sense that it tried to cast Zimmerman as victim. After two sentences describing the event, the story continues:
Fox 35 met up with him to talk about why he was at the store and what life has been like after his acquittal.

Fox 35's Valerie Boey: "You've always been concerned about your safety. Are you concerned about your safety today?"

Envy, Anger, Greed, Sloth - (4 Out of 7 Ain’t Bad)

March 8, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many people in the US are concerned about the great increase in economic inequality. They point out, for example, that 95% of all income gains since 2008 have gone to the 1%.  Are they motivated by envy?

Arthur Brooks thinks so. His latest op-ed in the Times is “The Downside of Inciting Envy.”

Claiming to know what a person is feeling when the person himself denies that feeling is always a tricky business. When you’re attributing emotions to others, you ought to have pretty solid evidence

Undoubtedly, inequality has gotten much more attention lately. But is that attention borne on a rising tide of envy in the US? Here’s Brooks’s evidence:
  • the percentage of Americans who feel strongly that “government ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” is at its highest since the 1970s. (GSS data)
  • 43 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that government should do “a lot” to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.” (Pew data)
  • the percentage of Americans who feel that “most people who want to get ahead” can do so through hard work has dropped by 14 points since about 2000. (Pew)
  • In 2007, Gallup found that 70 percent were satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard; only 29 percent were dissatisfied. Today, that gap has shrunk to 54 percent satisfied, and 45 percent dissatisfied.
First, Brooks’s reading of the GSS data is barely true. Respondents mark their opinion on a 7-point scale.  In 2012, 24.3% chose #1, the most redistributionist option. That was only slightly higher than in 1990 (22.6%) and 1986 (22.7%). (Using #1 and #2 combined puts 1990 highest.)

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

It’s understandable that in the Great Recession years, economic hardship would inspire more people to look to government to assuage inequality.  But before then, the average redistributionst sentiment in Republican years (Reagan-Bush41, Bush43) is higher than in Democratic years (Clinton). This might be relevant for Brooks’s assertion
we must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation.
Do Republicans foment bitterness for their own political ends? Do Democratic presidents reduce envy? More to the point, do any of Brooks’s indicators really measure envy?

Two of the items are not about envy, they’re about policy. Two others are about economic reality. (Technically, one is about satisfaction with economic reality.) That too is not envy. 

Suppose Brooks had sampled attitudes about poverty and low income.
  • Should the government reduce spending on food stamps, unemployment insurance, and welfare? 
  • Do safety-net programs encourage people to avoid work and become dependent on government?
Some people will say that those programs encourage sloth and that we should cut those programs. Are these people envious of the poor (“they’re getting government handouts, and I’m not”)?  Or rather, do these questions merely tap beliefs about the effects of government policy? In my hypothetical questions and in Brooks’s real ones, it’s probably some combination – emotion (anger, envy, resentment), and beliefs about what policy would be best for the country as a whole.

Dissatisfaction and even anger are not envy. Teabaggers and others on the far right are very dissatisfied, and they vent a ton of anger at Obama. Does that mean they are envious of Obama’s political power? No, they just think that they and the country would be better off if one of their own were president. Are the Occupy people envious of the wealth of the Wall Street oligarchs? I doubt that any of the Occupiers in Zucotti Park wanted a bank account with gazillions of dollars. They just wanted what they see as a fairer tax structure and more government action to create jobs. Nevertheless, Brooks and many others automatically assume that those who are concerned about increasing inequality are motivated by personal envy.

Meanwhile, inside the Wall Street buildings, those who occupy the trading desks and offices have been known to complain (here, for example) about their mere $3 million bonus because someone else got $5 million. Now that’s envy. And greed.

(An Esquire article based on their own highly unscientific sampling of Wall Street workers had this graphic on satisfaction with the year-end bonus.)

Mixing Oscars and Exams

March 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s my Oscar story, relevant here only because it happened in a sociology class.  File it under Pedagogy, or Test Construction, or better yet Teachers’ Misperceptions of Students.

In the Spring 1992 semester, I had a Monday night criminal justice class (SOCI 323). The night of the midterm turned out to be Oscar night, which was always a Monday back then.  Exams aren’t much fun, so I put the following as the last question in the multiple-choice section of the exam:
Tonight, the Academy Award for best picture will go to
a. Beauty and the Beast
b. Bugsy
c.  JFK
d.  The Prince of Tides
e.  The Silence of the Lambs
 I thought students might find it faintly amusing, a break from the real questions. Boy was I wrong.  Hands were raised, as were voices. “That’s not fair.” “How can you expect us to know the answer to that?” and so on. These lambs were not silent. I apologized and assured them that the question was just for fun and that I would not count it in their scores.

It was the only question on the exam that everyone got right.

Now, two decades later, I find it of interest in light of Gabriel Rossman and Oscar Schilke’s recent article on Oscar bait. “The Silence of the Lambs” would probably not score high on their Oscar algorithm. The director had no previous nominations. Its keywords do not include “family tragedy,” “whistleblower,” “Pulitzer Prize source,” “physical therapy,” “domestic servant.”  It does, however, come close to “zombie,” which eats away Oscar-worthiness as does the genre classification “horror” (“thriller” too, I would guess, though I’m not sure.) And it was released in February. 

But “The Silence of the Lambs” won everything – picture, director, actor, actress, screenplay, sound, editing, gourmandise – in short, the works. I still can’t figure out why there hasn’t yet been a Broadway musical version. Maybe I should get to work. I feel a song coming on.

ESS - Student Posters

February 28, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five Montclair undergraduates had posters accepted for the ESS meetings in Baltimore last weekend.  Here they are.

Ian Callahan, Noel Rozier, Luis Bernal, Rachel Druker, Lisa Kaiser

There were 130 posters presented in five sessions (the MSU five were all in the Friday afternoon session).  Of those 130, five students were selected for awards. One of those was Ian Callahan.

 Looking to study education and attitudes, I turned to the General Social Survey (1972-2006) for some data and some inspiration.  I stumbled upon a series of questions that measured respondents' attitudes towards 'non-traditional educators,' namely militarists, homosexuals, anti-religionists, and communists.

I like “stumbled upon.” It’s another example of research serendipity.  The problem that becomes the focus of research is a path that branches off from the road you set out on. But you never would have found it had you not started walking and looking.

The focal question was this:
How have attitudes toward non-traditional university educators (anti-religionists, communists, militarists, and homosexuals) changed in America from 1972-2006.

(If negative attitudes towards those groups carried the day, not many of our department would still be around, though I don’t think that was on Ian’s mind.) 

The trend was what you’d expect – generally liberalizing trend – as were the demographic correlates – education, gender, political views, region, marital status.  What made the research awardworthy was its sophisticated method – a stepwise model that untangled simultaneously occurring predictors – and its integration with theory (e.g. “cohort replacement”) .

The puzzling part was that religiosity did not make the cut – no statistical significance to confirm the obvious.  Were the measures of “religiosity” flawed? Was the regression model not up to the task? Or were the deeply religious equally tolerant of “non-traditional” professors?

Back in New Jersey, in their capstone seminar on Thursday, some other students organized a party in honor of the Fab Five.  What a great bunch of student we have.  Asked to say a few words, the department chair cited the Yiddish phrase “shep naches” – to derive pleasure or pride from the accomplishments of someone else’ (usually your children).  “We’re pleased and proud,” he said, “but you’re the ones who did it.”

(Photo credit: Janet Ruane)

Wonks Nix Pic Survey

February 18, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How could we get evidence for this?” I often ask students. And the answer, almost always is, “Do a survey.” The word survey has magical power; anything designated by that name wears a cloak of infallibility.

“Survey just means asking a bunch of people a bunch of questions,” I’ll say. “Whether it has any value depends on how good the bunch of people is and how good the questions are.”  My hope is that a few examples of bad sampling and bad questions will demystify.

For example, Variety

Here’s the lede:
Despite its Biblical inspiration, Paramount’s upcoming “Noah” may face some rough seas with religious audiences, according to a new survey by Faith Driven Consumers.
The data to confirm that idea:
The religious organization found in a survey that 98% of its supporters were not “satisfied” with Hollywood’s take on religious stories such as “Noah,” which focuses on Biblical figure Noah.
The sample:
Faith Driven Consumers surveyed its supporters over several days and based the results on a collected 5,000+ responses.
And (I’m saving the best till last) here’s the crucial survey question:
As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie – designed to appeal to you – which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood?
As if the part about “replacing the Bibles core message” werent enough, the item reminds the respondent of her or his identity as a Faith Driven Consumer. It does make you wonder about that 2% who either were fine with the Hollywood* message or didn’t know. 

You can’t really fault Faith Driven Consumer too much for this shoddy “research.” They’re not in business to find the sociological facts. What’s appalling is that Variety accepts it at face value and without comment.

* The director of “Noah” is Daniel Aronofsky; the script is credited to him and Ari Handel.  For the Faith Driven Consumer, “Hollywood” may carry connotations in addition to that of industry and location – perhaps something similar to “New York sense of humor” in this clip  from “The West Wing” (the whole six minutes is worth watching, but you’ll get the idea if you push the pointer to 2:20 or so and watch for the next 45 seconds). Or look at this L.A. Times column by Joel Stein.

(HT: @BrendanNyhan retweeted by Gabriel Rossman)

I Heard It Through the Grapevine

February 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Valentine’s Day was Friday – that is like so last week.

Because I used to love her, but it’s all over now, baby blue. Still,, we have to ask what becomes of the broken-hearted? When they’re down and troubled and need a helping hand, have they got a friend? The answer seems to be yes, but only for a couple of days.

Facebook has been publishing some research they’ve done on their big data, particularly on relationships.  The day after Valentine’s day, they published a graph showing the change in FB interactions* that people have in the month before and after a break-up.** (The full post is here.)

The baseline (1.0)  is the average interaction activity for an individual. For some, that 1.0 might mean 2 interactions per day, for others 20 or 200. What the graph shows is the change relative to that baseline. 

Most obviously, a breakup is the occasion for a huge increase in FB activity – more than triple the usual amount.  Presumably, these are heartfelt expressions of support and sympathy from FB friends. But the sentiment, or at least its expression on Facebook, is short-lived – a huge dropoff after the first day. Apparently FB friends think anyone can have another you by tomorrow.  Or maybe these were not the “desert-island, all time, top five most memorable split-ups” of High Fidelity. Whatever. In a few days, the interaction level is back to what it was the day before the breakup. How come u don’t message me any more?

The other interesting pattern is the slight increase in the two days before the break up and the generally elevated level – about 50% higher –  in the month after. The Facebook researchers do not provide any specific content (they are using anonymous, aggregate data – damn), so we don’t know whether the newly decoupled are looking to start new romances or whether they just have more time for general online sociability. 

* Interactions included the “number of messages they sent and received, the number of posts from others on their timeline and the number of comments from others on their own content.”  

** To be in the breakup sample, people had to have been “in a relationship” for at least for weeks and then changed that relationship status. 

Miner Disagreement

February 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” was published in 1956 (here) and is still widely reprinted. It’s a classic, a golden oldie – the “Stairway to Heaven” of intro anthologies.  It does a wonderful job of making the familiar seem strange – a useful exercise in social science. It forces us to question our taken-for-granted behaviors and ideas.

People and societies have quirky ideas about the body, but we notice that strangeness only in others.  Miner does us a service by making our own taken-for-granted body practices and ideas seem bizarre. He makes us question them and the norms, beliefs, and values that go along with them.  We see that some of those ideas are purely cultural. For example, Miner says of the “shrine” found in each house, “the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret.”  Right. There’s no rational, scientific basis for this segregation.

It’s the use of the term ritual that I have trouble with.  That may be why, in a recent class discussion of ritual, Miner completely slipped my mind, even though the examples students brought up included brushing your teeth and brushing your hair.  In Miner’s essay, these are all rituals.  My students weren’t so sure. 
“But could they be ritualistic?” I asked.  “What’s the difference between brushing your hair ritualistically and doing it non-ritualistically?”

That finally got us to the main idea: If you’re doing it non-ritualistically, what matters is the result – attractive hair (or, if you’re rushing to class, acceptable, hair). But if you’re doing it ritualistically, what matters is that you do it correctly – exactly 50 strokes of the brush through your hair.  Rituals, whether personal or social, are not about rational goal-attainment.

That’s the part that always bothered me about the Nacirema essay.
The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite [which] involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.
If we brush our teeth ritualistically, as Miner suggests, then we stress the process, not the results.  But I think that most Americans (oops, Nacirema) brush their teeth in order to make their mouths “feel fresh and clean” (or whatever the ads say) and to prevent tooth decay. We don’t ask “did I brush correctly?” but “does my mouth still feel and smell like a chicken slept in it?”

The same goes for Miner’s account of dentistry
The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client's view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.
Ritual? magic? If the same tooth still hurt or was still sensitive to cold, we’d judge the filling a failure, even though the dentist followed all the right procedures. And we might seek out a different holy-mouth-man. 

In part, Miner’s essay is about language. It shows what you can do by choosing language usually reserved for unfamiliar peoples and practices. But calling a bathroom a “shrine” does not make it one. Nor does calling  pharmaceuticals “magic” mean that their effectiveness is caused by magic rather than rational, scientifically verifiable processes. (Miner uses magic or magical a dozen times in an essay of 2300 words, lightly longer than 4 journal pages.)  True, most of us may not really know how  a medication works, and in this sense our belief in its efficacy can resemble the belief in non-scientific cures. Let’s face it, most people’s understanding of germ theory isn’t much different from a third-grader’s theory of cooties. Miner is making an “as if” observation. We behave as if we had these ideas.  What we call hygiene may share elements with non-scientific and religious body ritual.* We may even act as if we believed in magical causes and effects. But we know that our important beliefs do have a basis in real science, not magic.


* My cousin Powers, when his kids were young, used to ask them before bed, “Have you finished your ablues?” (short for ablutions).

What Does “That Word” Mean?

February 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

1.  I wonder if hip-hop is taking some of the nastiness and venom out of the word “nigger” (or “nigga”).

I was at a Sweet Sixteen party last weekend in New Rochelle. The kids were mostly White or Hispanic.  Some of them knew “Livin’ La Vida Loca” – I could see them singing along to the music.  They also were singing along at the end of the evening when the DJ, in a patriotic mood I guess, put on “Empire State of Mind.”
You should know I bleed blue, but I ain't a Crip though
I got a gang of niggas walking with my clique, though
I was impressed watching these kids recite by heart the rapid-fire lyrics, and I realized they could do the same for lots of other rap hits. Those songs too have this same taboo word. Yet there they were, these sweet sixteen and fifteen year old girls, rapping along with Jay-Z about their gang of niggas. 

In this context, the word is not the supremely offensive racial epithet;* instead, it suggests affiliation and even affection.  Yes, as Jay Smooth brilliantly explains:
The meaning and impact of our words and the boundaries around them are always determined in part by the relationships involved. . . . Black people . . . have one particular kind of relationship with it. Everybody else has a different relationship with it. . . . We judge [a conversation] differently when there are different relationships involved. [The video is here – and if you are not familiar with Jay Smooth, you should watch this video now, and any of his other videos you can find.]
Relationships to “that word”** have always been different.  For White people.  “Nigger” was a taboo object – exotic, dangerous, and powerful.  But now a generation of White kids has grown up with this additional and more mundane meaning of the word.  Maybe, as this new meaning becomes more widespread, the other, more hateful meanings will ebb.

2.  And maybe not. As I was walking to the subway in Penn Station yesterday, I saw this ad poster on the wall near the Metrocard booth. I immediately noticed the graffiti.

The commuters rushed by not bothering to notice. Even when I stopped and took out my camera, nobody paused or turned to see what I was taking pictures of. What would they have thought if they had noticed?

3. Change in language is slow; change in racial attitudes even slower. It will be interesting to see how these play out in the generations for whom hip hop and its language are just another part of the culture.   Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that a change is gonna come.

A friend went to watch her grandson, age twelve,  in a kids’ hockey tournament in western Massachusetts. The teams were from Vermont and western Connecticutt and Massachusetts.  One of the kids on the team has a Black father and White mother. At the end of the game, as the kids were coming off the ice, one of the kids on the other team called him “nigger.”  Yes, that word, and there was nothing friendly about it.


*In the classic SNL with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase, a job interview turns into a tense confrontation as they hurl racial epithets back and forth, the nastiness of the terms steadily increasing – "Junglebunny," "Peckerwood" "Burrhead," "Cracker," etc. until the ultimate:
Interviewer: "Jungle Bunny!"
Mr. Wilson: [ upset ] "Honky!"
Interviewer: "Spade!
Mr. Wilson: [ really upset ] "Honky Honky!"
Interviewer: [ relentless ] "Nigger!"
Mr. Wilson: [ immediate but slower and deliberate ] "Dead honky!"
YouTube has only low-quality versions done with a camcorder pointed at the TV –  this one, for example.

** Unlike Jay-Z, Jay Smooth is reluctant to utter the word “nigger” (or “nigga”) and instead refers only to “that word.” A third Jay (Livingston) is ambivalent. In the title for this post, I cautiously chose “that word.” But the text is different. If you can’t use a word when you are talking about that word, then the terrorists have won.

Super Bowl Post – Crowds, Birds, Horses

February 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have posted frequently – maybe too frequently – about the “wisdom of crowds” in sports betting (in this post, for example, which has links to earlier posts going back to the early days of this blog).  For those of us who doubt that wisdom, today’s Superbowl looks like a notable opportunity.

The initial line two weeks ago from most bookmakers was pick ’em or even the Seahawks favored by a point.  The crowd, in its alleged wisdom, jumped all over the Broncos.  The bookmakers, desperate for Seahawks action to balance their ledgers moved the line, and by early in the week the Broncos were 2½-point favorites.  Betting is still going 75% for the Broncos.*

Of course, a single game (n = 1) is not a good test of this betting strategy.  Still, as Damon Runyon said, the race is not always to the swift, but that’s the way to bet ’em.

It’s two hours till game time, and although this may be the year of the horse, I’m going with Seattle.

UPDATE, Monday, Feb. 3: Well, that was easy. Rarely is the crowd so decisively unwise. Their Broncos handed the Seahawks a two-point lead on the first play of the game, and after that it was all downhill. The Seahawks won 43 - 8. 

 *Bookmakers are leery of raising the line to 3 to attract Seahawks money because if the Broncos do win by 3 (the most common margin in football outcomes), those new bets will be result in a push rather than a win for the books. The books will pay Broncos bettors, who only gave 2½ points, but they will not collect from Seahawks bettors who took the 3 points.  So instead, the books are lowering the vigorish (in effect, the surcharge on losing bets) from 10% to 0% for Seattle bettors but raising it to 15% or 20% for Broncos bettors.

What Never? No, Never.

January 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

A survey question is only as good as its choices. Sometimes an important choice has been left off the menu.

I was Gallup polled once, long ago. I’ve always felt that they didn’t get my real opinion.
“What’d they ask?” said my brother when I mentioned it to him.
“You know, they asked whether I approved of the way the President was doing his job.”  Nixon - this was in 1969.
“What’d you say?”
“I said I disapproved of his entire existential being.”

I was exaggerating my opinion, and I didn’t actually say that to the pollster.  But even if I had, my opinion would have been coded as “disapprove.” 

For many years the American National Election Study (ANES),  has asked
How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right – just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?
The trouble with these choices at that they exclude the truly disaffected. The worst you can say about the federal government is that it can be trusted “only some of the time.”  A few ornery souls say they don’t trust the federal at all. But because that view is a write-in candidate, it usually gets only one or two percent of the vote. 

This year the ANES included “Never” in the options read to respondents.  Putting “No-way, no-how” right there on the ballot makes a big difference. And as you’d expect, there were party differences:

Over half of Republicans say that the federal government can NEVER be trusted.

The graph appears in this Monkey Cage post by Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph. Of course, some of those “never” Republicans don’t really mean “never ever.”  If a Republican becomes president, they’ll become more trusting, and the “never-trust” Democrat tide will rise.  Here’s the Hetherington-Rudolph graph tracking changes in the percent of people who do trust Washington during different administrations.

This one seems to show three things:
  1. Trust took a dive in the 1960s and 70s and never really recovered.
  2. Republican trust is much more volatile, with greater fluctuations depending on which party is in the White House.
  3. Republicans really, really hate President Obama.

“A Pony Here Someplace”

January 29, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Great Recession has brought out all the pessimists with their hand-wringing complaints about economic hardship.  We need a few more optimists pointing out the silver linings.  Like this
When people can’t keep up the payments, their cars get repossessed.  But many people appear to be developing an appreciation for public transit and just plain walking.  The silver lining in this financial pain is a healthier life style.  Without cars, people produce less carbon emissions. That’s good for the health of their neighborhoods, their cities, and the planet. It’s also good for them as they will enjoy the many health benefits of walking. 

As Herman Schmidt of Moline, IL told the Moline Sentinel, “After they repo-ed my Explorer, it took me a while to get used to walking that two miles to the Wal-Mart [there’s no local bus route he could take], what with my bad knee and all, and in this weather lately I got a touch of frostbite, but I don’t buy as much ’cause I can’t carry it. Since 2009 when I got laid off, I’ve lost four pounds.”

No doubt some of these people, if their incomes rebound, will get another car. But some of them just might use part of that money to buy a treadmill.
OK, it’s just my snarky spoof.  The template for it is Bradley Wilcox’s various writings (here for example) about the wonderful effects the recession has supposedly had on marriage. Wilcox seems think that any marriage is better than divorce.  So if divorce rates fall in hard times, well, hey, that means that more people are staying married.  Wilcox says things like,
But there may be a silver lining in all this financial pain. . . .The divorce rate is actually falling.
the Great Recession is leading some spouses to develop a renewed appreciation for the social and economic solidarity engendered by marriage and family life
For evidence, he offers this:
But anecdotal evidence suggests that other couples have responded to the recession by rededicating themselves to their marriages. “I had one couple who started to file for divorce but put the proceedings on hold because the husband lost his job," Florida family attorney J.J. Dahl told the Orlando Sentinel. Eventually, the couple decided to remain married. "They said, 'We made it through this tough time, and we learned how to compromise, so we've decided to stick it out.'”
Wilcox’s rosy view extends to other virtues. Do people have less money to buy stuff?
The recession has encouraged Americans to rediscover the virtue of thrift.
Wilcox seems to assume that the foregone purchases were frivolities rather than things like clothes for children. 

When households had two people working, time constraints forced them to grab meals at restaurants.  But now
They are also eating at home more often.
Where others might be looking at the reality of families at or below the margin, the families in Wilcox’s vision seem to be something out of TV – sure, there’s been some economic setbacks, but we’re all gathered round the dinner table, pulling together happily to overcome it.

Philip Cohen at his Family Inequality blog has been taking issue with some of these claims, and he is far less less sanguine.
With marriages in a recession, more are miserable, yet the bar for divorcing is raised (or lowered) by the costs relative to income. So there are more miserable marriages not ending in divorce.
He is also more honest in his use of data and more modest in his claims about what the data can allow us to conclude:
It is very common, yet wholly unjustified, to always assume falling divorce rates are good. As I argued before: We simply do not know what is the best level of divorce to maximize the benefits of good marriage while mitigating the harms caused by bad marriage.

Dating a Stereotype (Getting to Know You – Not)

January 26, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The useful thing about cultural stereotypes is that to some degree, they’re often accurate – a convenient shorthand.

(Sorry about the lousy sound, but this was the best clip I could find, and it does have subtitles.)

The Woody Allen character learns her name, her thesis topic . . . and all the rest follows. Note also that Allison (my neighbor Carol Kane) doesn’t say that Woody is incorrect.  

What reminded me of “Annie Hall” (the Annie character too is a cultural stereotype) was this:

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

 The three axes are percentages: 
  • Width - seeking a one-night stand 
  • Depth - had same-gender sex
  • Height - say God is important to them)
The graph is a typology of women – women on OK Cupid, the dating site founded by four Harvard math majors.*  The graph appears in this Wired article about Chris McKinlay, a 35-year old guy who took nerditude to the n+1th  degree, creating bots to Hoover up data on responses to the hundreds of questions OK Cupidians can answer.** Eventually, he had six million answers from 20,000 women.  But how to analyze the big data?
A modified Bell Labs algorithm called K-Modes. First used in 1998 to analyze diseased soybean crops, it takes categorical data and clumps it like the colored wax swimming in a Lava Lamp. With some fine-tuning he could adjust the viscosity of the results, thinning it into a slick or coagulating it into a single, solid glob.

He played with the dial and found a natural resting point where the 20,000 women clumped into seven statistically distinct clusters based on their questions and answers.
The names of the clusters –Tattoo, Dog, etc. – are basically cultural stereotypes. 
In the younger cluster, the women invariably had two or more tattoos and lived on the east side of Los Angeles. In the other, a disproportionate number owned midsize dogs that they adored.
The article also has graphics on how the seven stereotypes differed from one another in four areas. (The “Green” tag is not political; Greens are merely recent arrivals at OK Cupid. They are also the most sexually adventurous. As the placement of the green ball on the graph shows, 50-60% would be comfortable with a one-night hook-up, and 40-50% have had same gender sex. Not surprisingly, they do not find God to be an important part of their lives.)

The stereotypes, based on clusters, were very useful for finding, well, clusters. McKinlay tailored his two OK Cupid profiles to maximize his chances of getting a response  so he would do better than the six OK Cupid dates he’d managed to get in the previous nine months. He did.  His scientifically customized profile was getting 400 hits a day.

Cultural stereotypes may get you into the right room (and save you a lot of time wandering into wrong rooms), but they’re no guarantee of compatibility with an actual person. McKinlay went on more than 50 first dates – a big improvement over six in nine months – but only a handful of these led to a second date, and none went further. 

Given this data, most of us would figure that it was time to start thinking about our interpersonal skills or perhaps our grooming and hygeine. Wired says merely that McKinlay “had to question his calculations.” 

But finally, something clicked, and the story seems to be heading towards a happy ending – a year-long relationship, some of it long-distance since the woman is on a one-year fellowship in Qatar.
on one of their daily Skype calls . . . McKinlay pulls out a diamond ring and holds it up to the webcam. She says yes.
* Previous posts on OK Cupid are here and here

** The technical details:
he set up 12 fake OkCupid accounts and wrote a Python script to manage them. The script would search his target demographic (heterosexual and bisexual women between the ages of 25 and 45), visit their pages, and scrape their profiles for every scrap of available information: ethnicity, height, smoker or nonsmoker, astrological sign—“all that crap,” he says.
The phrase “Python script” of course poses a tremendous challenge for me to avoid the obvious joke – surely one made so often that it has long been an ex-joke. 

Another Opening, Another Show

January 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

My first class of the semester is tomorrow.  I’ll begin, as usual, with Durkheim and suicide and rates of behavior as social facts.  Rates, I’ll remind the students, are made up of individual cases.  That’s basic skills math.  But those rates, unlike the individual cases, have a strange constancy. If 42,000 people in the US killed themselves last year, the number for this year will be close to 42,000.  Why?   It can’t be the same people.

I’ve been teaching this for years, yet I still find it eerie.

More important, I will tell the class, the ideas that explain individual cases don’t work so well in explaining the rate that those cases add up to. It’s very likely that people who commit suicide are less happy than those who don’t. But does happiness explain suicide rates?

International suicide rates are not hard to find.  Now, fortunately, we have international data on happiness – The World Happiness Report.

So I put together a simple scatterplot of European countries (I added the US since I thought the locals here might be curious to see where we stand.)

The overall correlation is about –0.24. More happiness, less suicide, but only slightly less. Sad and suicidal Hungary is the hero for the happiness hypothesis.  Remove Hungary and the correlation drops to –0.15. As for the rest, those northern, social-democratic countries (Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, in addition to the ones identified in the chart) may be the happiest, but their rates of suicide are not noticeably lower than those of less happy countries like Bulgaria.  (What’s up with Bulgaria anyway?)

OK. Now that we’ve put those individual-level ideas in their place, let’s spend the next couple of months doing sociology.

Correlation and Causation: Marriage, Poverty, and Teeth

January 15, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is dentistry destiny?

A couple of days ago, I commented (here) on the idea that marriage was the solution to poverty.  Or as the Heritage Foundation (and Sen. Rubio) put it,
Being raised in a married family reduced  child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.
The evidence for this assertion was a comparison of two-parent and single-parent families. Sure enough, a higher percent of single-parent families were poor. That was enough for PolitiFact to give Rubio a “Mostly True.” And now The Wall Street Journal has given Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer space to repeat this idea (“How to Fight Income Inequality: Get Married” - here).

Rubio, Heritage, Fleischer, and PolitiFact are committing a fallacy most undergraduates would see through in two seconds – mistaking correlation for causation. 

Here’s an analogy that comes via the Christian Science Monitor (here – it first appeared in October, but I discovered only yesterday):

“What is your social class? Take our quiz to find out!”

The quiz has thirty items, including this one

16. Have you visited a dentist in the past year?

A “Yes” answer counted towards the upper end of the social class scale. 
people with more than a high school education were twice as likely to have visited the dentist in the past year. Those living below the poverty line or without a high school education were also twice as likely to be edentulous, or toothless.
Or as Heritage-Rubio would put it, “Visiting the dentist once a year reduced a person’s probability of being poor by 50%.” 

Using the same conservative perspective, we can easily see the logic of the dentistry-poverty connection and its implication for policy.  People with bad teeth or no teeth wind up with bad jobs or no jobs. They are not attractive as potential employees. Because of their poor personal decisions regarding dental care, they suffer economically. If only they would visit the dentist annually, they would almost certainly rise from poverty. Needless to say, the government should not do anything directly to alleviate their poverty or dental care.  These are matters of personal virtue, and the government’s role should be only to exhort them to visit the dentist regularly.

That almost sounds reasonable. But the reverse causation is so much more likely. It’s not that having bad teeth causes poverty. It’s that taking yourself and your kids to the dentist regularly costs money – something poor people don’t have a lot of.

The dentistry-marriage analogy isn’t perfect, but it does illustrate the fallacy of assuming causation. It also points to something in the real world. The correlation between single parenthood and poverty is not automatic. It depends on government policies. In countries that provide low-cost childcare, medical care, and other benefits and services, single parents and their children will not suffer economically as they might under more punitive policies. Many countries have seen large increases in unwed parenthood – much greater than in the US – and their rates of single parenthood are greater.  (The graph is part of this CDC report.)

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

But how are children in these countries faring?  The comparison of poverty rates shows a negative correlation – the higher the rate of unwed parenthood, the lower the rate of child poverty.*

(Child poverty data are from this OECD report.)

The question is not whether marriage and regular dental check-ups and other matters of personal virtue enhance economic prospects for parents and their children.**  The question is what governments should do for children who made the mistake of choosing parents who were not financially well-off, educated, healthy, and virtuous. 

* The OECD measure of poverty is relative rather than absolute – the percentage of children in families with incomes less than 50% of the national median.  The measure could more accurately be termed a measure of inequality. However, in surveys in the US, when people are asked what they think the poverty line should be – i.e., what’s the minimum amount a family around here needs to just get by – the answer is usually a number that is about 50-55% of the median income.  So the OECD number does reflect widely-held ideas about poverty.

** The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative consisted of “federally-funded relationship skills training programs to promote marriage among unmarried parents.”   Philip Cohen at the Family Inequality blog outsourced the analysis of the Intiative to Kristi Williams, who writes (here) of these programs: “The conclusion: They have failed spectacularly.”

Location, Location, Location

January 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a much more important story than Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge. But it’s the Bridge that’s getting far more attention in the media. 

Anne Marie Cox has a good piece in the Guardian (here) about “how it came to be that Bridgegate continues to attract punditry while West Virginia only generates the kind of sympathetic-if-distant coverage we usually grant far-off and not too devastating natural disasters.”
In West Virginia, there are 300,000 people without useable water, and an unknown number who may fall ill because the warning to avoid the tainted supply came seven hours after the leak was discovered – and perhaps weeks after it happened. (Neighbors of the plant have told reporters they detected the chemical’s odor in December.)
Surely, that’s more important than four days of traffic jams, which, truth be told, are hardly a strange and new horror for New York and New Jersey drivers.

Cox has several explanations for the disproportionate weight given to the Christie story. Not only might Christie be president in a couple of years, but he’s known. He’s a political celebrity.* And for some reason, stories about the personal deeds and misdeeds of celebrities are newsworthy. Apparently we prefer a story about personalities rather than about policy (especially policy that involves science, especially environmental science). 

Cox lists other reasons, but the one I think is most telling is geography.**
It is taking place in the literal backyard of most national political reporters. It has very little to do with.
In the old days – with no satellite transmission, with no Internet –  stories from New York, Washington, and perhaps a few other places dominated the news because that’s where the news business was located. Stories from other places were more expensive to produce and transmit.  Film would have to be flown to production studios in New York. 

Today, remote stories do not run up costs. And in many ways the chemical spill should make for better news – the visuals are potential more striking, the potential interviews with the plain folks who are affected, the corporate baddies (it doesn’t get much better than “Freedom Industries”), the political influence, etc.

But it’s not just the cost. The sophisticated, cosmopolitan news people turn out to be just as provincial in their own way as are the rubes they tacitly disdain.  If the 4-methylcyclohexane-methanol had been polluting the Hudson or the Potomac, it would have been a national story.  As it is, the unstated message in the media coverage is, “Forget it; it’s only West Virginia.”

* Christie’s celebrity status is not an accident. One of the nuggets that the investigation has unearthed is that in choosing an ad campaign for the state to show its miraculous post-Sandy recovery, Christie chose a $4.7 million ad campaign over one that cost about half that much.  The pricier PR job Christie chose gave much greater prominence to Christie himself.

** Social scientists and media experts who know more than I do about how news is made must have written about this, but I have not come across any posts on these two stories.

Get a Spouse (sha-na-na-na. . . )

January 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

A bumper sticker I used to occasionally see said, “I fight poverty. I work.”

In this fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, we should remember the difference between individual solutions to individual problems and societal or governmental solutions to social problems.  Yes, you’re less likely to be poor if you have a job. But exhorting the unemployed to go out and get a job is unlikely to have much effect on overall rates of poverty. 

The same can be said of marriage. In a recent speech, Sen. Marco Rubio offered the conservative approach to poverty.  The Rubio bumper sticker would say, “I fight poverty. I have a spouse.”  Here’s what he said:
 the greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn't a government program. It's called marriage.
His evidence was drawn from a Heritage Foundation paper by Robert Rector.  Rector used Census data showing that poverty rates among single-parent families were much higher than among two-parent families – 37.1% vs. 6.8%.  “Being raised in a married family reduced child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.”

As Philip Cohen (here) pointed out, the same logic applies even more so to employment.
The median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.
Philip apparently thought that this analogy would make the fallacy of the Rubio-Rector claim obvious, for he didn’t bother to spell it out. The point is that singling out marriage or employment as a cause ignores all the reasons why people don’t have jobs or spouses. It also implies that a job is a job and a spouse is a spouse, and that there is no difference between those of the middle-class and those of the poor.  (Philip should have spelled out the obvious. These logical problems did not bother PolitiFact , which rated Rubio’s claim as “mostly true.”)

According to Rubio, Rector, and PolitiFact, if all poor women with children got married, the child-poverty rate in the US would decrease by 82%.  Or at the individual level, if a poor single woman got married, her children would be nearly certain (93.2% likely) to be un-poor.

To illustrate the society-wide impact of marriage on poverty, Rubio-Rector look at the increase in out-of-wedlock births.  Here is a graph from Rector’s article.

The rate rises from about 7% in 1959 to 40-41% today.  If Rubio is right, rates of child poverty should have risen steadily right along with this increase (almost invariably  referred to as “the alarming” increase) in out-of-wedlock births.  The graph below shows poverty rates for families with children under 18.

Both show a large decrease in poverty in the first decade or so of the War on Poverty – between 1959 and 1974, the rate for all families was cut in half.  Since then the rate has remained between 9% and 12%.  The line for unmarried mothers shows something else that Rubio and Rector ignore: the effects of forces that individuals have no power over, things like the overall economy.  In the good years of 1990s, the chance that a single mother would be below the poverty line fell from nearly half (47%) to one-third.  Her marital status did not change, but her chances of being in poverty did.  The number of families in poverty fell from 6.7 million to 5.1 million – despite the increase in population and despite the increase in percentage of children born out of wedlock. There were more single mothers, but fewer of them were in poverty.

Addendum, January 12:  The title of this post refers to the classic oldie “Get a Job” (Silhouettes, 1957). The final lines of that song could, with only some slight editing, apply to Sen. Rubio and his colleagues:

In the Senate and the House
I hear the right-wing mouths,
Preachin’ and a cryin’
Tell me that I’m lyin’
’Bout a spouse
That I never could find.
(Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na.)

Negative to Positive

January 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Orwell disliked the “not un-” formation because it tried to make the banal sound profound. It’s a not unjustifiable complaint, and when Orwell says that, I couldn’t fail to disagree with him less.

I, too, try to avoid the “not un-” construction.  I’m not worried about being nailed for trying to pass off my banality as profundity. I just want to avoid double negatives. That sentence in the above paragraph has four negatives - couldn’t, fail, disagree, less – and  I’m still not sure whether it means I agree with Orwell or disagree with him. The thicker the multiple negatives, the harder it is for the reader to grope through them to the meaning of the sentence.

Even the writer can stumble. I read a recent blog post on how FDA regulations make it difficult for food companies to label their foods “Not Genetically Modified.” It linked to a WaPo story with this example:
[The FDA] told the maker of Spectrum Canola Oil that it could not use a label that included a red circle with a line through it and the words “GMO,” saying the symbol suggested that there was something wrong with genetically engineered food.
Here is what the comment* said:
it would be nice to buy products that were labeled GMO-free. I can’t buy them – not because there’s no demand for them, not because no manufacturers are unwilling to sell me products so labeled, but because the GMO industry has managed to change the rules to make that transaction impossible.
“Not because no manufacturers are unwilling to sell . . . ”  takes us into triple-negative territory. Even the person who wrote it must have been confused.  A half-hour later, the writer corrected the second part: “not because no manufacturers are WILLING. . . .” 

As an exercise in the power of positive thinking, I tried converting the negatives into affirmatives.
I can’t buy them, but why not?  The demand is there. The manufacturers are willing to sell me products so labeled. But the GMO  industry has managed to change the rules to make that transaction impossible.
It may sound less profound, but I think it’s clearer.

* I use this example only because it happened to be close at hand.  It’s a casual comment, probably written in haste and not proofread. But I’ve run across the same kind of writing in more formal venues. 

(An earlier post on a more common version of this – “cannot be underestimated” – is here .)

I Keek a Touchdown

January 4, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two observations on the NFL playoffs this weekend.

1.  Longer, Better.  Field goals are important. The line on the Saints-Eagles game today and on the 49ers-Packers game tomorrow is three points – a field goal. That was the margin in 15% of all NFL games this season. (I think that the usual percentage is closer to 10%, but it’s still the most frequent margin.)

The Saints just cut Garret Hartley, the place kicker they’ve had all season. He hit only 73% of his attempts, the second worst percentage in the NFL. Twenty years ago, that percentage would have put him ahead of one-third of all kickers.  In 1965, with 73% he would have been at the top. The best field goal percentage that year was 67%.

Gin and Tacos  has a nice discussion on how and why kicking has increased in distance and accuracy. And don’t miss the link to his companion piece on the first wave of European kickers in the NFL. (I had always thought that “I keek a touchdown! I keek a touchdown!” was an apocryphal comedy bit that started with Alex Karras and wound up on Johnny Carson.  But apparently Garo Yepremian actually said it.)

2. The Wisdom of Crowds.  Occasional posts here dating back to 2006 have looked at the match-up between The Wisdom of Crowds and The Smart Money.  Today offers another example.  The Chiefs started as a 2½-point underdog to the Colts. The crowd has been all over the Chiefs, and as we approach game time, the books have made KC the favorite by two or even three points.  The smart money was betting the Colts earlier in the week despite having to lay a point or two.

UPDATE, January 5: The Colts pulled off an incredible comeback to win 45-44. The crowd (i.e., Chiefs backers), who mostly bet on Sunday or late in the week and gave up points, lost. But the smart guys, who bet earlier in the week and gave up 1½-2½ points also lost. Looks like this was a very good game for the bookies.