Freedom and Freeloaders

March 11, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston
A Wall Street Journal op-ed heralded Wisconsin’s “right to work” (RTW) law that Gov. Walker signed earlier this week. The column carried the byline of  Luke Hilgemann and David Fladeboe of Americans for Prosperity, which gets a ton of money from the Koch brothers, so their support of the anti-union measure is no surprise.

One of their arguments is that RTW states see a greater growth in jobs and income. Or put another way, capital will move to where labor costs are low. If a corporation shifts its work to a low-wage country like Mexico or a low-wage state like Arkansas, Mexico or Arkansas will see a growth in jobs. The wealthier and non-RTW country or state will see a decrease. Mexico or Arkansas will also see an increase in wages since the corporation, to attract good workers, may have to offer higher-than-average wages.

There’s a methodological problem here, for Wisconsin is not Mexico nor is it Arkansas. Because of its history, a history which includes unions, Wisconsin's workers are fairly well paid. Will RTW laws mean greater incomes for Wisconsin workers? Hilgemann and Fladeboe don’t say. They compare states - those with and without RTW laws. They do not compare workers  - those represented by unions and those who are on their own.

Currently, states with RTW laws have lower per capita incomes, not a great prima facie case for busting unions, but Hilgemann and Fladeboe say that taking cost of living into account reduces and reverses this difference. But with or without the cost-of-living adjustment, state per-capita income may not be such a great measure of workers’ wages.*

The better comparison would be between workers’ wages before and after the passage of anti-union laws. Wisconsin’s RTW law is only a few days old, and it will mostly affect workers in the private sector. Public sector employees have already lost their unions. A 2010 law known as Act 10 prohibited public sector unions from collective bargaining for their members. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages , the 2010-2013 increase in the average weekly wages for local government employees (which, I think, includes most of Wisconsin’s teachers) was about 2.6%.  I compared this with the figures for neighboring state Minnesota, whose public employees still had the right to be represented by unions, and with the national average.  Those increases were higher – 3.8% and 4.7% respectively. 

For state employees, US and Wisconsin salaries increased by about 7.2%, Minnesota by 5.4%, though Minnesota salaries started from a higher point, remain higher, and show a larger increase in the most recent year in the BLS database. As the chart shows, the dollar gap between Wisconsin and Minnesota has widened since Wisconsin Republicans disenfranchised public sector unions.  

Hilgemann and Fladeboe find their own evidence on the economic benefits of of RTW laws very convincing. Your mileage may vary. But it’s not really the money that makes RTW laws so glorious, they say. It’s Freedom. “these economic benefits . . .  pale in comparison with the individual freedom that right-to-work laws provide.”
Their evidence that workers want to be free of unions comes mostly from Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s government employees similarly left unions when given the opportunity in 2011. Nearly 70% of the state’s 70,000-member state employees union have since chosen to leave. The powerful American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association saw their ranks decline by more than 50% and 30%, respectively.

This is just a tad disingenuous. If the state passes a law that says your union cannot represent you, would you continue to pay dues? That’s what happened in Wisconsin. The decline in membership (and Hilgemann and Fladeboe’s numbers are probably inflated) surely is much less a matter of workers seeking freedom from unions than their sensible decision not to join an organization that by law can bring no benefits. If a law were passed forbidding corporations to pay dividends and forbidding shareholders to sell at a higher price than they bought, many people would exercise their freedom to get out of the stock market.

Union dues are often compared to taxes. Everyone pays dues, everyone gets the benefits. Under RTW laws, you still get the benefits, but you don’t have to pay. Basically, you’re a freeloader. If there’s a union where you work, and you don’t pay dues, not only to you get the wages and other benefits that union members get, but the union is legally obligated to represent you if you have a grievance.  The freedom so beloved of RTW advocates does not include the freedom of the union to represent only its members and to ignore freeloaders.

It’s like making taxes optional.  If that happened, many Americans would no doubt seize the freedom not to pay. Those who continued to pay their taxes would feel like schmucks and would sooner or later (probably sooner) defect, with the result that government would be unable to provide the things that governments in advanced societies provide. No doubt, economic conservatives would herald this change. What is government after all but coerced collectivism? But people who send their kids to public schools, who prefer to drive on roads with few potholes, who enroll in Medicare, who pay lower tuition at state universities rather than private ones, etc., might be less enthusiastic about this increase in their freedom.


* For their statistics the authors round up numbers from right-wing sources like  ALEC, Arthur Laffer, and Stephen Moore. It’s possible that less partisan sources (e.g., BLS) have other statistics to measure differences between states and between workers.

Homo Promo

March 9, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Moslem clerics and Christian evangelicals are often united in their opposition to sex ed, as Roger Zimmerman notes in today’s New York Times (here).  These are not such strange bedfellows.  They share the idea that sex ed will “promote homosexuality,” a phrase which has acquired a certain currency. Google it, and you'll see this.

Along with media forces like Ellen DeGeneres and “Modern Family,” sex ed promotes homosexuality by showing homosexual as nice, normal, endearing people.

[It] will convince many school children that engaging in homosexual behavior is perfectly normal and thus creating [sic] a self-fulfilling prophecy of developing more homosexuals.(source here)

Powerful stuff that. What’s puzzling is that these jihadis and crusaders attribute to homosexuality such great powers of attraction. Even letting kids know that it exists creates a nearly irresistible temptation.

The obvious Freudian explanation is that the anti-gay extremists are responding to their own repressed homosexual impulses, but I would guess that only a handful of them answer to that description.

The other curious leg of the religionist anti-gay argument is that homosexuality is “unnatural.” If homosexuality is not in our nature, why must we be so careful to make sure that all evidence of it remains out of sight? The argument embraces both the “essentialist” and the “constructionist” take on sexuality. On the one hand, if homosexuality is unnatural, then heterosexuality is ordained by Nature. Nature (or God) created most of us as heterosexuals, and it is not in our nature to be otherwise. But if homosexuality is a constant temptation that must be conquered or kept hidden, then sexuality is infinitely open to construction and reconstruction. Just a few words from schools or celebrities can alter a kid’s sexual path in the same way that nutrition courses and Wheaties endorsements might change his choice of breakfast foods.

“Have you triiiied Wheaties?” asked the old jingle and then added “Won’t you tryyyyy Wheaties?” – an irresistible invitation. I mean, I found it irresistible and wound up eating a lot of Wheaties when I was a kid. But then again, my classmates were not beating me up or otherwise humiliating me on account of my cereal preference.

Private Troubles and Public Op-eds

March 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about an op-ed by criminologist James Alan Fox that suffered from lack of data. That’s an occupational hazard for op-ed writers, though social scientists writing op-eds should know better. At least Fox didn’t try to pass his own views off as those of “the country” as some editorialists do. A post I did back in 2010 (here) showed David Brooks projecting his own concerns onto “the public” and “the country.” Brooks is far from alone in that. Many columnists conflate their own views with those of “America.”

When the topic is politics and policy, the lack of data just means that the author might be wrong. But when a writer does the same thing about less political and more personal matters, it can feel downright embarrassing. 

David Brooks opened his Monday column with this: “So much of life is about leave-taking: moving from home to college, from love to love, from city to city and from life stage to life stage.”

The rest of the column was about the leaver and the left behind.  It featured “facts”  without evidence
to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their child’s transition into adulthood
 moral prescriptions
The person being left has to grant the leaver the dignity of her own mind, has to respect her ability to make her own choices about how to live and whom to be close to
and thoughts about how technology has changed break-ups
Communications technology encourages us to express whatever is on our minds in that instant. It makes self-restraint harder. But sometimes healthy relationships require self-restraint and self-quieting, deference and respect.
If you knew nothing about Brooks, you could shrug it off or take it to heart, whatever your personal experiences, opinions, and situation might warrant. But if you knew even a little about Brooks’s personal life, you might have wondered if you really should be reading this.  As cartoonist Tom Tomorrow tweeted:

Tomorrow could have tweeted the same thing in late January when Brooks wrote (here) about the difficulties people who meet online face in their transition to in-person relationships.

I found myself reconsidering a Brooks column from 2009 that I sometimes use for teaching. The class exercise is to turn data-less assertions into testable hypotheses. The Brooks column, about online dating, was good source material. But the content now suggests something in addition, not just theorizing about technology but personal hopes and experiences. Online dating, Brooks says, can impose “structure” and “courtship” on romance – exactly the sort of things an old-fashioned, values-oriented conservative guy might be looking for. The pronoun “I” does not appear even once in that column. But now I wonder whether that column too was autobiographical.

Any good therapist, listening to a client talking in generalities about “people” will hear the unvoiced first-person pronoun. That’s the therapist’s job. But as an op-ed reader, I’d rather have at least a thin layer of actual data between me and the writer’s personal problems.

Is That Evidence in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Writing an Op-Ed?

February 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nobody looks to USA Today op-eds for methodologically scrupulous research. Even so, James Alan Fox’s opinion piece this morning (here) was a bit clumsy. Fox was arguing against the idea that allowing guns on campus would reduce sexual assaults.

You have to admit, the gunlovers’ proposal is kind of cute. Conservatives are ostensibly paying attention to a liberal issue – the victimization of women – but their policy proposal is one they know liberals will hate. Next thing you know, the “guns everywhere” folks will be proposing concealed carry as a way to reduce economic inequality. After all, aren’t guns the great equalizer?

What makes the guns-on-campus debate so frustrating is that there’s not much relevant evidence. The trouble with Fox’s op-ed is that he pretends there is.

However compelling the deterrence argument, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to victimization figures routinely collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the sexual assault victimization rate for college women is considerably lower (by more than one-third) than that among their non-college counterparts of the same age range. Thus, prohibiting college women from carrying guns on campus does not put them at greater risk.

You can’t legitimately compare college women on college campuses with non-college women in all the variety of non-college settings. There are just too many other relevant variables. Even if more campuses allow concealed carry, comparisons with gun-free campuses will be plagued by all the methodological problems that leave the “more guns, less crime” studies open to debate.

The rest of Fox’s op-ed about what might happen is speculation, some of it reasonable and some of it not. “Would an aroused and inebriated brute then use his ‘just in case of emergency’ gun to intimidate some non-consenting woman into bed? Submit or you’re dead?” 

But also pure speculation are the arguments that an armed student body will be a polite and non-sexually-assaultive student body.  Well, as long as we’re speculating, here’s my guess, based on what we know from off-campus data: the difference between gun-heavy campuses and unarmed campuses will turn up more in the numbers of accidents and suicides than in the number of sex crimes committed or deterred, and all these numbers will be small.

Predicting the Oscars

February 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Of the films nominated for Best Picture, “American Sniper” is the clear winner at the box office. But will it will win Best Picture? or Director? or Actor?  Nobody thinks so, even its ardent supporters on the political right. How do they know?

It’s not like elections, where a hundred polls blossom to survey voters. Google Consumer Surveys did as the public (though not a random sample), and Sniper easily picked off the competition. David Leonhardt at the New York Times (here) provided this graph:

(Click on a graphic for a larger view.)

But the Oscars are decided not by the public but by the Academy. Nobody is polling them. Their views are not those of the public (or those on both the right and left put it, they are “out of touch”). So we are left with the equivalent of what readers of the racing from know as “past performances” - other races against the same competition. That means the critics’ ratings, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and SAG. In all these the Sniper crew were pretty much left out in the desert.

We also have the prediction markets, where the price of an investment reflects roughly the collective wisdom of the bettors. Several posts in this blog have contrasted this  “wisdom of crowds” with the views of “the smart money,” a relative handful of professional bettors. By watching the moves of the point spread, you can make a pretty good guess as to which side the crowd is on. If you had bet against their wisdom on NFL games this past season, you’d be well on the plus side.

With the Academy Awards, while the public may have an opinion, they do not place bets, except in office pools. My guess is that the action at the prediction markets comes mostly from a much smaller and better-informed number of participants.  It’s all smart money. And they do not think much of Sniper’s chances.  Predictwise has “Birdman” as having a 67% chance of winning, “American Sniper” only a 0.3% chance. The comparable figures at Betfair are 60% and 1.5% respectively.

The prices at Hollywood Stock Exchange tell a slightly different story.

How do the HSX bettors decide what to bid? I don’t know. I thought that history of the price changes might provide a clue. In some cases, the betting suggests a kind of cascade. People see the price going up and follow what they assume is smart money. The performances of J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore were no better – relative to the competition – yesterday than they were a month earlier. But in that month the price of Arquette relative to that of Felicity Jones has gone from about 2.5-1 to 9-1.*

Other changes are more puzzling. Here are the prices for “Birdman” and “American Sniper.”

On  Jan. 23, a bet that would pay $25 if  “American Sniper” won cost $8.91, while a similar bet on “Birdman”was only $1.51.  Now a “Birdman” bet costs six times as much as “American Sniper.” What happened on Jan. 23? I don’t know. It wasn’t the announcement of winners at BAFTA, Golden Globes, or SAG.  Maybe some more knowing reader can provide some enlightenment.

UPDATE: Feb. 22, 8:30 p.m. EST.  Since I  grabbed those HSX graphs yesterday, the bettors have been hitting “Birdman”and abandoning “Boyhood.”  As the market moved to the close, “Birdman” would have cost you another $10. “Boyhood” was cheaper by a similar amount. If this were football, I’d be going with “Boyhood.”

* Simmons, Arquette, and Moore now look like sure things. For my favorite anecdote about Oscar predictions, see this 2007 post  about the time I put a multiple-choice question on the midterm asking what would win Best Picture.

My Sweet Old et al.

February 15, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some fashions trickle down through the social class lattice.  It’s as though people look to those just above them to see what they’re wearing or what names they’re giving their kids. I see the same process with some words, though the crucial dimension is not wealth but apparent intelligence or education. You hear someone use the word fortuitous. It sounds so much more sophisticated than fortunate, and it seems to mean the same thing. So you swap out the more pedestrian term, and the next time you catch a lucky break, you say that it was fortuitous.

When something is perfect, why say that it’s merely ideal when you could say that it’s idyllic? It sounds similar, and you hear people use it in a context where ideal would also work, so it probably means the same thing. It just sounds so much more like a word the very well educated would use.  That’s why when I serve the salad, I ask my guests for their choice of dressage, which has the added advantage of sounding French.

And now we have Gwyneth Paltrow trying to jack up the tone of her advice just a notch. Here is a report from The Guardian.

(Click for a slightly larger view.)

It wasn’t the Mugwort the got me. It was the Latin. What happened to etc.Et (and) cetera (the rest of these things).  Et al. is for when the too-numerous-to-mention are people rather than things. They are alia – others. In the footnotes, et alia (“and other people”) gets abbreviated to et al. 

Needless to say, et al. is the province of the very educated –  the kind of people who talk about articles that have multiple authors. Etc., by contrast, seems so ordinary. Everyone uses it. So to give your Mugowrt advice a more scholarly aura, use et al.  Like idyllic, it’s gotta mean the same thing as the ordinary version.  Except it doesn’t. Steaming your vagina to “cleanse your uterus, et al.

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?

The Very Reasonable Dutch

February 11, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

An early post on this blog (here) compared two ways of framing bad behavior – as an evil to be punished or as a problem to be solved. The behavior was trivial and hardly evil – men peeing carelessly rather than mindfully, with reeking men’s rooms the result. The Amsterdam solution exemplified the Dutch problem-solving approach. Americans, I imagined, would have relied on punishment.

Peter Moskos has taken his Cop in the Hood blog to Amsterdam for a short while, and he reports on a similarly rational approach to a real problem. Amsterdam has long be a Mecca for pharmaco-tourism, and two tourists had died recently from wrongly identified drugs (heroin sold as cocaine).

The city put up signs to warn tourists. It may seem like common sense, but what American city would do this?

See the full post here, complete with pictures of the signs and most impressively, a letter from the mayor – a letter whose reasonable tone is hard to imagine from an American mayor faced with a similar problem.

Making Memories

February 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

An article in the Science section of today’s New York Times (here) says pretty much what I said in the previous post about memory and Brian Williams.  The author, Tara Parker-Pope, even uses the same metaphor – that most people think of memory as a video camera.

Here is how Parker-Pope puts it:

But the truth is our memories can deceive us — and they often do.

Numerous scientific studies show that memories can fade, shift and distort over time. Not only can our real memories become unwittingly altered and embellished, but entirely new false memories can be incorporated into our memory bank, embedded so deeply that we become convinced they are real and actually happened.

She then quotes  Elizabeth Loftus, the doyenne of eyewitness-testimony research, whose studies are also very relevant to questions about memory.

“You’ve got all these people saying the guy’s a liar and convicting him of deliberate deception without considering an alternative hypothesis — that he developed a false memory. . .  It’s a teaching moment, and a chance to really try to get information out there about the malleable nature of memory.”

Good luck with the teaching and really getting the word out. When Science goes up against ideology and common-sense, don’t bet the ranch on Science.

A more interesting question arises if Williams’s helicopter story is not a one-off but just the latest in a series of anecdotes that exaggerate the dangers he faced.  As with the helicopter story, it doesn’t mean that Williams was deliberately lying.  I would also imagine that all of us, when we unknowingly alter our memories, do what Williams did. We make them consistent with our image of ourselves and the world. 

Still, individuals differ, and while we all edit our memories and mistake the most recent version for the original, some people may revise the past more extensively and frequently.  Maybe Williams is doing what we all do but on a larger scale. As someone said of Warren Beatty in his Hollywood Lothario days, “He puts his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. He just does it more often.”*


*Even if more helicopter-like stories turn up, there are other possible explanations:

  • Williams’s enhanced memories are no more frequent than yours and mine,, but now since the helicopter imbroglio, his entire folder of stories is getting far more attention than anyone else’s.
  • Williams’s faulty memories are no more frequent, but they have much greater exposure.  Williams is called on (and paid well) to speak publicly about his work; he tells the stories audiences want to hear, and these often involve danger, drama, and important events.  My stories don’t have those elements; do yours? So no far fewer people will hear them. And although our stories may suffer from inaccurate memory, the cannot be easily fact checked. Williams’s stories can and are.

Ah Yes, I Remember It Well

February 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t think Brian Williams was lying.  Obviously he wasn’t telling the truth. The helicopter he was in was not hit by an RPG. But a lie is a deliberate falsehood – telling people something that you know to be untrue. Surely Williams is not so stupid as to think that he could get away with such a fabrication. He would have little to gain, and, as we are seeing, much to lose.

Instead, I think it was what Williams says it was – messed-up memory.  At some point in his recalling and recounting of the incident, he swapped in someone else’s experience for his own. After all, he was in the same place, he was in a helicopter, and did talk with the soldiers whose chopper was hit. So maybe he was feeling roughly the same emotions that he imagined they felt.

Once that idea became embedded in his mind, he constructed a story that fit. And the more often he told that story, the clearer and sharper it became both as a coherent narrative and as a memory.

Robert Krulwich too is a non-print journalist. He’s worked at ABC, CBS, and NPR.  Take four and a half minutes and watch this video. It’s an animated version of a “This American Life” story showing how Krulwich appropriated an anecdote that happened to his wife. He would regale friends with the anecdote, recounting it as an eyewitness, when in fact he had only heard about it second-hand from his wife. Yet he was absolutely convinced that he was there.

Should Krulwich be banned from the media? Should we distrust everything that he has ever reported?

What Krulwich and Williams did is something we all do. Forty years of research about memory has shown that memory is not a camcorder; it’s an editing program. We edit – dropping some details, altering, sharpening, and even adding others. We hit “Save,” and when we next call up the memory, we are opening not the original but the most recent edit of the file.

Unfortunately, most people still think of memory as a camcorder, and they are convinced that if someone remembers something that is not true, he must be lying and is therefore untrustworthy.* They’re wrong, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t see how Williams is going to survive this one.


* Reaction to bad memory is not quite so simple. In this case, politics plays a part. Over on the right, the air is thick with schadenfreude over Williams’s troubles. Those same delighted folks were much more forgiving of Ronald Reagan’s memory lapses and conflation of movies with reality.


February 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

For Seattle fans, it was what poker players call a “bad beat” – a big pot and a hand that’s nearly sure to win but then loses on the final, unlikely card. A loss like that can dampen enthusiasm for things beyond football, at least in the short run. On the other hand, a sudden and satisfying victory can whet other appetites.

PornHub, which purports to be the most popular place for porn, ran its data on traffic before, during, and after the big game (their full report is here). The chart below shows the data for the home cities of the two teams plus Phoenix, where the game took place.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

As you might expect, the Super Bowl took a bite out of porn, and more so in Boston and Seattle than in other cities.  The folks who would ordinarily be checking in to PornHub started leaving early for an hour or two of pre-game hype, and of course they stayed for the real game.  Even Katy Perry held their attention at halftime.

But after Pete Carrol’s game-losing call and Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception, porn paths parted. The seekers in Seattle hurried back online while those in Boston apparently stuck with their TVs for some of the post-game ceremony.

Then, about an hour after the game, porn traffic in Boston rose and didn’t begin to taper off until after midnight. But in Seattle, the post-Bowl bump was shorter lived. Even though the night was young (8 p.m. PST) the Seattle fans lost their interest in PornHub. Phoenix, in the Mountain time zone,  is a useful comparison. Even though the hour was later, Phoenix pornophiles were still checking in as their disheartened Seattle counterparts were logging out.

In the end, it was Seattle that was deflated.

A Most Unreflective Businessman

February 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I won’t do business in New York,” my father once told me.  When I asked why, he described how New York customers would cheat in order to push down the price they paid for his steel.

I hadn’t thought about that for a while. The memory came back just after I saw “A Most Violent Year” set in the grimy and graffiti-covered New York of 1981. The hero, Abel Morales, is trying to expand his heating oil business, but someone is out to thwart him. His trucks are hijacked, the oil stolen. His employees are threatened and beaten up.  In addition, the DA trying to clean up the heating oil business has gotten a 14-count indictment, and the bank withdraws the loan they had agreed to.

My father’s customers did nothing violent or illegal, just unethical and dishonest.  Why would they do that, I asked my father. I was young and naive. “Guys in New York,” he said, “it’s a tough market.”

I was amazed that he could be so understanding.  But he recognized that people in business acted not solely on the basis personal morality. In some markets, you had to be a little dishonest in order to survive. That’s the point that both Abel and the “A Most Violent Year” try very hard to ignore.  Instead, the movie, at least on its surface, seems to be trying to convey the message – that cliche that runs from old Westerns to the latest thrillers – that even in a corrupt world, an honest man acting honorably can come out on top. The bad guys may lie, cheat, steal, kill, kidnap, or whatever, unconstrained by any moral sense; yet the good guy, using only honorable means, will win. The good guy’s goodness and the bad guy’s wickedness are never in doubt. Doubt, in fact, is usually irrelevant.

Because Hollywood prefers this simplified view of morality, we have very few honest films about business. In “A Most Violent Year,” at least we see a more realistic businessman – successful, even wealthy, but not all powerful, running a small company, dealing with everyday crises, trying to negotiate loans so he can stay afloat. More often in Hollywood films, businessmen are the sinister, greedy, and powerful CEOs of large corporations. The Montgomery Burns caricature in “The Simpsons”  is not too distant from executives in serious movies.

I can think of only one movie centered on a businessman who faced with moral problems that have no simple, untainted solution – “Save the Tiger” from 1973.

“A Most Violent Year” could have been such a movie, but Abel never admits to himself that his motives and actions are anything but pure. The trailer gives some suggestion of his resoluteness. 

Others recognize that the the heating oil business is a compromised and compromising world. “Everyone in this room is fully capable of lying to their own mothers on their deathbeds,” says Peter Forente at a meeting of the fifteen important players in the business. Forente is the son of a mobster now in prison, but Peter is trying to do things differently to the extent he can. When Abel asks him for a much-needed loan, Peter tells him, “I don’t want you to be in this position. We are not nice people to borrow three quarters of a million dollars from.”

Abel’s wife – her father too was connected to organized crime – is aware of how that world works.  She has been keeping two sets of books, and she’s been skimming money over the years, apparently without her husband – the head of the company – knowing.  She has put  enough money aside that Abel won’t have to borrow from the “not nice people.”  She shows him a slip of paper with the sum on it.

What do you expect me to do with this?
Use it.... Abel...
Is it clean?
It’s as clean as every other dollar we’ve ever made.
That’s a fucking bullshit answer.

[a few moments later]

I’ll get it done. And it won’t be as a cheat.
(Yelling, but controlled enough to not wake the kids.)
Oh you are too much. You’ve been walking around your whole life like this all happened because of your hard work, good luck, and charm. Mr. Fucking American Dream. Well this is America... but it’s not a dream, and that wasn’t good luck helping you out all those years... IT WAS ME! Doing the things you didn’t want to know about...

Somehow, Abel acts as though he still does not to know about those things, continuing to believe in his own rectitude. In fact, compared with the other oil dealers, he is more honorable. Yet, despite the phony books (which he helps to hide under his house), despite the felony indictment, despite all those dollars he made being equally clean (i.e., not so clean), he fails to confront or even acknowledge the moral ambiguities. Abel is like so many other protagonists in American films.  All conflict is external. Life is about solving problems. Self-doubt would only get in the way.

No Pass on the Passive

February 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The idea that the passive voice must be avoided at all costs is of course wrong-headed. Still, passive voice remains a refuge for writers who would rather not say who’s doing what.

Ross Douthat, in his column today (here) on the causes of political correctness, twice says that liberal economic policy proposals “are mostly blocked.”

the paths forward for progressive economic policy are mostly blocked — and not only by a well-entrenched Republican Party, but by liberalism’s ongoing inability to raise the taxes required to pay for the welfare state we already have.* Since a long, slow, grinding battle over how to pay for those commitments is unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination, it’s not surprising that cultural causes — race, sex, identity — suddenly seem vastly more appealing.

In that first phrase, Douthat allows that it’s the Republicans who are doing the blocking, but then he adds a clause about the “liberalism’s inability” to pass economic legislation as though this inability were something different from the Republican Party. This is a little like talking about “the Colts inability to score points” without mentioning the Patriots defense.

A few paragraphs later, when Douthat repeats this idea, he doesn’t even bother to go beyond the passive voice: “because the paths to economic distribution are mostly blocked, the more plausible way . . .”  How about this rewrite: “Because Republicans block all tax and spending proposals that might discomfit the rich. . . .”

I am not saying that Douthat is wrong about the relation between the Republican’s disproportionate** dominance and the cultural left’s attention to political correctness – I think it goes beyond even what he’s talking about. But I hope that Douthat’s attempt to obscure the role of Republican legislators, in part by using the passive voice, has not gone unnoticed.***

* Douthat announces this “we can’t afford it” view of Medicare and Social Security (which account for most of “welfare state we already have”) as though it were undisputed fact. It isn’t. Nor is there agreement as to how long it will be until these programs become unaffordable if nothing is changed.

** At the national level, more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans.

*** Yes, I am well aware that this sentence breaks not only the rule against passive voice but also the rule outlwawing “not-un–” construction.

Patriots and Scoundrels

January 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sunday, and no football. But we’ll always have Belichick and Brady.

I’m not saying that the Patriots are out-and-out liars. But they are outliers.

The advantage of an underinflated ball, like the eleven of the twelve footballs the Patriots used last Sunday, is that it’s easier to grip. Ball carriers will be less likely fumble if they’re gripping a ball they can sink their fingers into.

We can’t go back and measure the pressure of balls the Patriots were using before the Colts game, but Warren Sharp (here) went back and dug up the data on fumbles for all NFL games since 2010.  Since a team that controls the ball and runs more plays has more chances to fumble, Sharp graphed the ratio of plays to fumbles (values in red squares in the chart below) along with the absolute number of fumbles (values in blue circles). The higher the ratio, the less fumble-prone the team was.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

One of these things is not like the others.  That’s what an outlier is. It’s off the charts. It’s nowhere near the trend line. Something about it is very different. The variables that might explain the differences among the other data points – better players, better weather or a domed stadium, a pass-centered offense – don’t apply. Something else is going on.

As the graph shows, when the teams are rank ordered on the plays/fumbles ratio, the difference between one team and the next higher is usually 0-2, there are only two gaps of 5 until the 9-point gap between #3 Atlanta and #2 Houston. From the second-best Texans and to the Patriots there’s a 47-point jump. 

Sharp also graphed the data as a histogram.

It’s pretty much a bell curve centered around the mean of 105 plays-per-fumble. Except for that outlier. And the chart shows just how far out it lies.

The Patriots play in a cold-weather climate in a stadium exposed to the elements.  Yet their plays/fumble ratio is 50% higher than that of the Packers, 80% higher than the Bears. They have good players, but those players fumble less often for the Patriots than they did when they played for other NFL teams. 

Usually, the statistical anomaly comes first – someone notices that US healthcare costs are double those of other nations – and then people try to come up with explanations.  In this case, it wasn’t until we had a possible explanatory variable that researchers went back and found the outlier. As Peter Sagal of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” said, “The League became suspicious when a Patriots player scored a touchdown and instead of spiking the ball he just folded it and put it in his pocket.”

UPDATE, Jan. 28: Since I posted this, there has been some discussion of Sharp’s data (“discussion” is a euphemism – this is sports and the Internet after all). If you’re really interested in pursuing this, try Advanced Football Analytics  or this piece  at Deadspin “Why Those Statistics About The Patriots’ Fumbles Are Mostly Junk,” (to repeat, “discussion” is a euphemism, and if you want more strongly voiced views, read the comments).  Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight  links to some others.  In sum, the evidence is not as strong as what Sharp’s version suggests. (One of the difficulties I suspect is that a fumble is a rare event. The difference between the teams with the surest grip and the most butterfingered is about one fumble every couple of games.

Ward Swingle (1927-2015)

January 23, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Not sociology but, to borrow Chris Uggen’s term, “self-indulgery.”)

Ward Swingle died last week. A few weeks earlier, I had been listening to this video of Andras Schiff playing the Bach C-minor partita, and I heard him play a wrong note in the Sinfonia. Maybe not wrong, but not what Bach wrote – a C instead of a B♭.*  Ward Swingle was the reason I knew.

In 1963, Phillips released “Bach’s Greatest Hits” – Bach compositions done the Swingle Singers, a vocal octet, plus drums and one of Europe’s top jazz bassists, Pierre Michelot). I listened to that record so often enough that I knew every note in the Sinfonia. I even got the music since the left hand was mostly eighth notes at a slow tempo, I could play it in my own clumsy fashion.**

Here are the Swingle Singers lip-synching to that record. Funny, but what sounded so cool then, now sounds thin, even cheesy, especially with the drums, and I think it would be better a capella.

Because the Swingle Singers were based in Paris (many of them had been in the Double Six de Paris), I was surprised to learn from the obits that Swingle himself was not French (he grew up in Mobile, Alabama) and that Swingle really was his name rather than a nom-de-disque he invented because of its jazzy overtones.

* It comes at about the 2:00 mark.

** I am entirely self-taught (i.e., untaught) at the piano, and my left hand is pretty much useless for anything but chords.

What You Mean, “We”?*

January 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do we mean when we say “we”? Or more to the point, what does the president mean when he uses that word? 

The Atlantic has an interactive graphic (here) showing the relative frequencies of words in State of the Union addresses. (“Addresses” because I’m choosing my words carefully. These were not “speeches” until Wilson. Before that, it was written text only.) Here “we” is.

(Click on thechart for a larger view.)

The rise of “we” seems to parallel the rise of big government, starting with Wilson and our entry into a world war, followed by a brief (10-year) decline. Then FDR changes everything.  “We,” i.e., the people as represented by the government, are doing a lot more. 

Sorting the data by frequency shows that even in the big-We era, big-government Democrats use it more than do Republicans.  (JFK used We less frequently than did the GOP presidents immediately before and after him. But then, it was JFK who said not to ask what the government could do for us.)

Other words are less puzzling. Freedom is a core American value, but of late (the last five or six presidents), it’s the Republicans who really let it ring. 

As with We, Freedom gets a big boost with FDR, but Freedom for Reagan and the Bushes is not exactly FDR’s four freedoms – Freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear – especially the last two. Nor is it the kind of freedom LBJ might have spoken of in the civil rights era, a freedom that depended greatly on the actions of the federal government.  Instead, for conservatives since Reagan, freedom means the freedom to do what you want, especially to make as much money as you can, unbothered by government rules, and to pay less in taxes. 

Freedom in this sense is what Robert Bellah** calls “utilitarian individualism.”  As the word count shows, freedom was not such a central concern in the first 150 years of the Republic. Perhaps it became a concern for conservatives in recent years because they see it threatened by big government.  In any case, for much of our history, that tradition of individualism was, according to Bellah, tempered by another tradition – “civic republicanism,” the assumption that a citizen has an interest not just in individual pursuits but in public issues of the common good as well. 

That sense of a public seems to have declined. Even the “collectivist” Democrats of recent years use the term only about one-tenth as much as did the Founding Fathers. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison – their SOTUs had more than ten publics for every freedom.

I checked one other word because of its relevance to the argument that the US is “a Christian nation,” founded on religious principles by religious people, and that God has always been an essential part of our nation.

God, at least in State of the Union addresses, is something of an Almighty-come-lately. Like We, He gets a big boost with the advent of big government. FDR out-Godded everybody before or since, except of course, the Bushes and Reagan.

That is the end of this post. Thank you for reading. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.***

* For those who are very young or have led sheltered lives, this title is the punch line spoken by Tonto in an old joke, which you can Google.

** See his Habits of Heart, written with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton.  Or get a brief version in this lecture.

*** Update: I just noticed that the two “Gods” in that sentence work out to a rate of 200-300 per million. If tag lines like that are included as part of the text, that accounts for the higher rate since FDR. It’s not about big government, it’s about radio. Prior to radio, the audience for the SOTU was Congress. Starting with FDR, the audience was the American people.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether these closing lines, which have now become standard, are included in the database. If they are included, the differences among presidents in the radio-TV era, may be more a matter of the denominator of the rate (length of speeches) than of the numerator (God).  FDR averaged about 3500 per SOTU. Reagan and the Bushes are in the 4000-6000 range. Clinton and Obama average about 7000. So it’s possible that the difference that looks large on the graph is merely a matter of a one God-bless or a two God-bless at the end of the speech.

This  audience factor might account for some of the increase in the use of we. A president addressing the nation rather than reporting to Congress might use we far more often.

Dissed Again

January 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociology is the Rodney Dangerfied of social science. The latest insult comes from economist Noah Smith. On his Noahpinion blog, he posted two pictures of faux zoo animals: a dog that a Chinese zoo tried to pass off as a lion; and a “panda” in an Italian circus that was really a chow painted black and white.

But why did Smith say that his post was “a blaze of amateur sociology”?*

Smith does not mention sociology in the post, nor does he use any sociological terms, as if to suggest that the amateur sociology dig is so obvious that it needs no explanation.  But I’m confused.  Is he saying that these clumsy attempts to pass domestic dogs off as exotic animals are amateur sociology? Or is he saying that his pointing out frauds that are this obvious is amateur sociology? Or is he saying that amateur sociology (if not all sociology) is tries to pass off the commonplace as something of real interest.

Either way, we don’t get no respect.

* Smith changed the title, but the original still shows up in blog aggregtors like my G2Reader and in the URLfor the post:

Gifted and Talented – Academics and Athletes

January 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can women be brilliant?  Apparently, academics don’t think so, at least not according to some research reported in The Chronicle (here). 
New research has found that women tend to be underrepresented in disciplines whose practitioners think innate talent or "brilliance" is required to succeed.
Women might be successful in those fields, but while the top men in those fields will be seen as having some ineffable je ne sais quoi – in the words of the survey questionnaire, “a special aptitude that just can’t be taught” – women achieve their place the old fashioned way– hard work.  The Chronicle interviewed Sarah-Jane Leslie, one of the authors of the study.

It’s easy to find portrayals of men with a “special spark of innate, unschooled genius,” like various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes or television’s House, M.D. But accomplished and smart women—think Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series—are typically depicted as simply hard-working.

That reminded me immediately of a similar issue in sports, where the key variable is not gender but race. (See this HuffPo piece.) The observation has become almost a cliche. Blacks are perceived to have natural talent while Whites achieve a place on the All-Star team through diligence and perseverance. Or to paraphrase Ms. Leslie and The Chronicle:

It’s easy to find portrayals of Blacks with a “special spark of innate, unschooled genius,” like Michael Jackson or Magic (note that name) Johnson. But accomplished Whites – Larry Bird or Steve Nash – are typically depicted as simply hard-working.

Oops, We Did It Again

January 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How many times can you lose your innocence?

I was listening to a podcast of an old (June, 2000) episode of the BBC’s “In Our Time.”  It was about America, and on the panel was Christopher Hitchens, the British journalist who had relocated to Washington, DC.  The moderator’s first question was about American idealism, and this is what Hitchens had to say:

Here is a transcript, but you should really listen to the audio clip, if only to catch Hitchens’s tone and to hear him spin out long, perfect sentences with the ease that most of us have for answering questions like “What time is it?”

The one that amuses me the most is the reference that you get about once a year to the American loss of innocence, as if this giant, enormous, powerful, slightly vulgar society ever had any innocence to lose, let alone could regain it and lose it again. I’ve heard the loss of innocence attributed to: the Spanish-American War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the assassination of President Kennedy’s brother, the war in Vietnam, the disclosures made at Watergate, through the discovery, which is in Robert Redford’s movie “Quiz Show,” that the quiz shows in the fifties were fixed – that was apparently a great American loss of innocence – and on the front page of the New York Time, when he died, in the obituary of Frank Sinatra, the idea that Frank Sinatra’s songs represented the loss of innocence for America. . . There is . . . a danger of self-regard, of narcissism in that.

That was in 2000, so you could add 9/11, the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, the torture report.

If we keep losing our innocence so often, we never really lose it.  We might be temporarily careless with it, but we find it again very quickly and forget that we’d ever lost it. We return to an idealized view of ourselves as a nation whose motives are 100% pure.  As Randy Newman puts it in his song “Political Science,
No one loves
I don’t know why
We may not be perfect,
But Heaven knows we try.
With such a view of ourselves, each revelation of anything that departs from the ideal is a new shock. One immediate reaction is denial.  And when the facts become undeniable, we react wtih something like the disbelief and regret of the morning-after drunk who had blacked out.* “I really did that? Oh, gee, I’m sorry.  Killing millions of indigenous people and taking their land? I really did that?  Slavery? Atomic bombs?** We really did that?”  Why not face it: we’re not that innocent.

Forgetting (in Freudian terms, repression) and denial allow us to retain our innocence, at least in our own minds, but with the result that we’re less likely unlikely to change.  For example, many White Southerners today want to enshrine the Confederate flag, the flag of a country that was based on the enslavement of Blacks and that waged a war that killed a greater proportion of the United States population than did any other war.** “We really did that?”

James Baldwin once said, “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart.” 
* I think Philip Slater may have made this same analogy. If so, maybe his inspiration was the same as mine – Shelly Berman.

**When my brother taught world history in high school, he included this question on a test:

Which is the only country that dropped an atomic bomb on another country?
a.  Russia
b. Germany
c.  Japan
d.  the United States
Only about half the students got it right.

*** In absolute numbers, more US soldiers died in World War II.

This American Life Sociology Syllabus

January 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the ASA meetings in 2013, when Ira Glass and “This American Life” were given the award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues, Donald Newman hailed the show for providing such good material for his classes but regretted that the show was so short on theory.

No, no, Ira protested. What the show wants is stories, especially stories with interesting characters, who, almost by definition, are not typical.  Sociological principles and generalizations, Ira said, are the last things we want.*

But that means that the show is a great resource for us professors. It provides the stuff that will grab students’ attention. Then we come in and show how sociological concepts spin a larger web that includes other stories that at first might not seem related.

Last weekend’s edition (the podcast is here) is a case in point. The show, given over to Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel of NPRs new “Invisibilia” podcast, was about “expectations.”  Miller and Spiegel begin with a laboratory rat they had smuggled into the NPR offices. They would show people the rat and ask,
Do you think that the thoughts that you have in your head – your personal thoughts – can influence the way that rat moves through space?
Nearly everyone said no.

 “Ask Bob Rosenthal,” I said to myself. I had taken methods with him not so long after he had done the famous experiments – grad students told that their rat was either “maze bright” or “maze dull.” The rats were, of course, the same, but the results were different.  And Miller and Spiegel did ask Bob Rosenthal, who described those experiments. They also asked Carol Dweck, who extended the idea, listing other examples of expectation influencing performance.

But the phrase coined by sociologist Robert Merton, “Self-fulfilling prophecy,” isn’t mentioned, though it covers an even wider range of behaviors.  

Then Miller and Spiegel moved to a different question:
Could my expectations make a blind person – who literally has no eyeballs – see?
Even Bob Rosenthal says no. The question led to a segment on Daniel Kish, who is blind – no eyeballs – but who, using a kind of echolocation he taught himself, was riding a bike by age six. He climbed trees and fences, walked to school, made his own breakfast and lunch, and couldn’t imagine living any other way.

In fifth grade, Daniel meets another blind kid, Adam.

Adam completely unnerved him because he was so incapable of getting around on his own. . . He had simply never needed to get around on his own before.
ADAM: I went to this school for the blind from age five to age seven.
And there he was taken around on someone’s arm almost all the time. In the lunchroom, people brought him his food, carried his books, helped him tie his shoelaces.
ADAM: I don’t know why people did things for me. They just did.

Robert Scott, The Making of Blind Men, I said to myself.  I’d read it decades ago. It’s about agencies for the blind, adult versions of Adam’s school. I tried to remember how Scott put it.  People arrive thinking that they are normal people who have a lot of trouble seeing; the agency teaches them that they are blind people who have some residual vision.

Sure enough, just as the program called Bob Rosenthal to talk about his experimenter-effect experiments from the 60s, now they had Bob Scott talking about his research from roughly the same time.  Again, the program takes you right up to the edge of sociological concepts and generalizations and then stops.  It mentions the idea that blindness might be a “social construction,” but by this they seem to mean, as Spiegel puts it, “that blindness is mostly in our head.”

Talking with Scott, they couldn’t very well miss the role that agencies for the blind played.  Lulu Miller says that Scott, in the course of his research, started to see that what organizations for the blind were doing was to communicate to them the message, “Blind people can’t do those things.”

But the larger point is that expectations are not just personal and interpersonal (“mostly in our head”). They are institutional. “Social constructions” are more than just conventions or shared definitions. Once they become built into the architecture of institutions, they become real in a way that makes them much more difficult to question.

So** for the sociologist, a one-hour podcast fills in several open spots in the course outline – self-fulfilling prophecy, social construction of reality, institutions, self-concept and the self, and perhaps more.

*I’m working from memory here. Ira might not have said this so explicitly.

** Lulu and Alix (pronounced uh-LEECE) start most of their sentences with “so.” They’re not alone. I hear it all the time now, and since I can remember a time before this trend, I notice it. And I wonder: so when did this start?

Poverty, Perceptions, and Politics

January 9, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

My mother used to tell the joke about the story written by a girl from a rich family, a third grader at a fancy private school: “Once upon a time there was a very poor family. Everybody was poor. The mommy was poor, the daddy was poor, the butler was poor, the maid was poor . . . “

The recent Pew survey (here) doesn’t use the words rich or poor. Instead it talks about “financial security,” a new measure of the same concept. The financially secure have bank accounts and IRAs; the financially insecure have food stamps and Medicaid. 

The basic finding is that the well-off have no idea what it’s like to be poor. More than half of the financially secure think that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

I’m curious about the 29% of the least financially secure who also agree with that statement, but Pew provides only the basic statistical breakdown.

If you have that perception of poor people and government, the policy question is a no-brainer: Don’t spend any more government money on the poor.

The top two groups* are far more likely say that the US government can’t afford to do more for the needy.  A Washington Post writer, Roberto Ferdman (here) looks at the data and asks, “Why the surprising lack of compassion?”

Lack of compassion, yes. But surprising? Don’t WaPo writers know about the Tea Party? Or the GOP victory two months ago? Much of that success was based on the idea that the government should do less for the poor in order to reduce taxes on income for the non-poor. (The biggest tax breaks in the actual proposals would go to the very richest, though the GOP doesn’t advertise that in its public statements.)  The poor often have incomes that, after deductions and credits, are so low that they fall below the threshold for the income tax.  The Wall Street Journal famously referred to these poor people as “lucky duckies.”

We choose perceptions that fit with our ideologies. WSJ sees the poor as lucky, the Tea Party sees them as moochers. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for compassion.

It’s hardly surprising that the financially secure** have no idea of what it’s like to be poor. The lives of the different social classes rarely intersect, and even when they do, it’s unlikely that the relationships are close enough that people would talk about their financial problems. Instead, we get a TV news reporter showing that he can buy caviar and lobster with food stamps.

Maybe what’s surprising is that aid to the poor has survived at all.  Policy is up to politicians, and politicians get far more votes from the financially secure than from the insecure. The Pew report is called “The Politics of Financial Insecurity,” and one of the basic political facts is that poor people don’t vote. 

The poor also do not think much about political issues, so they do not have much of a coherent political ideology. 

The financially secure were nearly three times as likely to have a firm political viewpoint -- 32-33% compared with only 12% among the financially insecure.

If politics and voting are ways of securing interests and ideas, those who have no firm point of view will give politics and voting a low priority (unless there is some single issue that stirs them).  The financially insecure have little motivation to sense of connection to electoral politics. Asked which party they support, they are more likely to say they’re “unsure” than to pick the Democrats or Republicans.

I had just been reading Alice Goffman’s On the Run, and when I saw the Pew report, I remembered something she says in her methodological (and autobiographical) note. She had spent years living among poor Black people in Philadelphia. Her book is mostly about the young men in trouble with the law, but she also hung out with “clean” people. When she steps out of that world to enter graduate school at Princeton, she is a cultural and political fish out of water.

Since I’d been restricting my media only to what Mike and his friends read and watched and heard, I couldn’t follow conversations about current events, and learned to be silent during any political discussions lest I embarrass myself.

Goffman is educated (very well educated), White, and financially secure. Yet living in the world of the insecure, she gradually acquired their view of politics, which is almost no view at all. In that world, politics is unknown and unseen.


* The top two levels comprise perhaps 35-40% of the population. That’s a guess because the Pew report gives no information on the middle groups. It says only that the top group is about 25% and the bottom group 20%.

** In the 2012 presidential campaign, Anne Romney in an interview talked about her and Mitt being poor in the years as young marrieds, this despite Mitt’s wealthy father. My mother must have been looking down from above and remembering her joke. In any case, the advantage of Pew’s variable is that it distinguishes between income and financial security. The young Romneys may have had a low income, but they were not financially insecure.

Crowds – Blinkers vs.Thinkers

January 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the wisdom-of-crowds post in this blog have been about sports betting. The trouble there is that no matter how many people are betting,  they have only two choices – the favorite or the underdog. To see whether the crowd is wiser than the experts, you’d need data on many, many games.

The original wisdom-of-crowds test was a weight-guessing contest, so the crowd had an infinite number of choices – not just Colts or Bengals but all weights from one pound on up.

Plymouth, England, 1906. On display is an ox, slaughtered and dressed. How much does it weigh? Fairgoers submitted their guesses. A statistician, Francis Galton, happened to be there and recorded the data. Galton was also a eugenicist, so he was certain that the guesses of the masses would be less accurate than those of the experts. But it turned out that the crowd, as a group, was far more accurate. The average of all the guesses (n=787) was within one pound of the actual weight (1,198 lbs). No individual guess came that close.

In a blog post many years ago, I mentioned (here) that I was going to try to replicate the study with the students in my class replacing the fairgoers, and instead of ox, a jar of M&Ms.  I did, but the class mean was way off, mostly because of one outlier, a girl whose guess was an order of magnitude higher than the others. Besides, the sample size, about 20 students, was too small.

Now, Erik Steiner, a geographer at Stanford, has gone Galton using the coins his parents had been tossing into a jar for the last 27 years.  Steiner crowdsourced guesses to the entire Internet. He posted the contest on the Stanford Website, and then Wired reposted it.

Photo: Susie Steiner

He got 602 guesses,* not exactly the entire Internet, but enough for data analysis. Here is his summary:

I won’t bore you with the finer points of asymmetric non-parametric one-sample T tests, but let’s put it this way: The crowd was waaaay off.

The value of the coins in the jar was $379.54. The average of the guesses was $596.12 – a difference of $216.58, or 57%.

Steiner’s results don’t give much support to the crowd. But the experts, those who tried to be the smart money, were even shorter on wisdom.

. . . people who claim to have done some math were far less accurate (X =$724.81) than those who made a snap judgment (X =$525.02). This may explain why estimates submitted from .edu or gmail addresses were less accurate than guesses submitted from hotmail and yahoo addresses.

Here is Steiner’s chart of the data.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

Steiner refers dismissively to “all that Gladwellian snap-judgment stuff.” But even he has to admit that the blinkers did better than the thinkers. In fact, the crowd median, rather than the mean, was pretty close to the actual value.  Without those thinkers who “actually did the math,” the median and mean would have been even closer to the mark.

(Steiner’s write-up, along with charts and links to the data, are at Wired – here.)

* I’m not sure what to make of these response rates. Steiner sent his query out to potentially the world, but his crowd turned out to be smaller than the one that wrote down their guesses one day at a fair. I guess it’s a matter of whose ox is scored.

Becker in Paris

January 5, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

You know what the real problem with Bourdieu was? The real problem with Bourdieu was that he was a schmuck – power-hungry and mean in spirit and obsessed with career.

Now that I’ve got your attention . . .  Yes, I suppose that’s the money quote in Adam Gopnik’s profile of Howie Becker in the latest New Yorker (here). Most of the article, thankfully, is not about character assessment (or assassination). It’s about sociology, American sociology as practiced by Howe Becker.

Gopnik interviews Becker in Paris – at his apartment in the 5ème and at a nearby resto. I had not known that Becker has a following in France, unexpected given his preference for starting with ground-level data – what people do and say.

The important difference between Becker and European sociologists (and many American sociologists too) is Becker’s commitment to “exotic beauties of empiricism” (Gopnik’s phrase, not Becker’s). “He’s resolutely anti-theoretical and suspicious of ‘models’ that are too neat.”

Becker never starts by laying out theoretical concepts; he starts with people doing something together – playing music,* getting high, studying medicine. When he does move to a slightly more theoretical plane, it’s to point out something that is fairly simple but that most people seem to be overlooking. Until Outsiders (1963), much writing about deviance and crime started from the question, “Why do those people do those weird or bad things?” Becker reminded us that deviance is a process; it involves not just breaking rules but also creating and enforcing those rules, and that we should study the motives and methods of the “moral entrepreneurs” as well as those of the deviants.

The “why” question focuses all attention on the deviant. It also leads to theoretical abstractions. Becker asks “how,” which focuses attention on what people actually do.

Gopnik, by the way, is sensitive to this France/America divide over the primacy of facts or theory. As an American journalist in Paris, he had to fact-check an article, only to find that the French were completely unfamiliar with this job.  “What do you mean, une fact checker?”

There is a certainty in France that what assumes the guise of transparent positivism, “fact checking,” is in fact a complicated plot of one kind or another, a way of enforcing ideological coherence. That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity; it would be naive to think otherwise.**

For Becker, checking the facts, even the ordinary ones, and thinking carefully about them is not only necessary; it is what eventually leads to sociological insight.

*I had always assumed that Becker was a competent but ordinary jazz pianist. In Outsiders, he refers to the musicians he played with (and got high with) as “dance musicians.”  Now, thanks to Gopnik, I discover that he studied with the extraordinary Lennie Tristano.
**From Paris to the Moon (2000). An earlier blog post on facts and theory in France and the US is here.

The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money - Again

January 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Several posts in this blog have looked at the “wisdom of crowds” in football betting. In brief, the wisdom of crowds idea asserts that the collective opinions of the many are more accurate than the opinions of a few experts. (For a fuller explanation, see this post from 2009.)

Today’s playoff game between the Bengals and the Colts provides an example. The crowd loves Indianapolis.  Two-thirds of bets have been coming in on the Colts, who opened as 4-point favorites.  Nevertheless, early in the week, the line went down to 3 ½.  Apparently, the bettors who the bookies most respected, were taking the Bengals, even though the Bengals' star receiver, A. J. Green will not be playing.

Today, the public has continued to bet the Colts, with the result that some books have raised the line back to 4. 

The smart money is still on the Bengals. But if you believe in the Wisdom of Crowds, you should be on the Colts.

UPDATE:  The smart money wasn’t. The crowd was wise. The Colts easily beat the Bengals 26-10.

Names Ending in N

January 3, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A post at FiveThirtyEight (here), by Nate Silver and Allison McCann, has the title, “How to Tell Someone’s Age When All You Know Is Her Name.”* But if the person in question is a male, you might make an equally good guess with one letter – the final one.

In a 2009 post (here), I had some graphs showing the rise of boys names that end in the letter N.

 That trend that had gone largely unnoticed, probably thanks to the availability heuristic.  It’s much easier to think of names and words that start with a given letter rather than those that have that letter elsewhere. Especially with names, we’re more likely to think in terms of initials.

Those data were from 2006. The trend has continued in strength. The FiveThirtyEight post shows the historical change in a slightly different way. Instead of looking at the popular names in each year, Silver and McCann show the age range of people with each name.  Here are the twenty-five oldest names.  The graph shows the median and the inter-quartile range. For example, the median Willard is 65 (the median for all males is about 37); half of all Willards are between ages 51 and 75.

And here are the youngest 25.

Among the oldsters, only Norman and Herman sport the final N. But in the 3-10 median age group, 14 of the top 25, including eight of the eleven youngest, end in N. 

I am at a loss as to how to explain this. It could just be one of those cases of unintentional and unconscious influence. With some names, the imitation with slight variation is more overt – Aidan, Jayden, Brayden, Kayden, et al. But for those others – Landon, Mason, Julian, and the rest – maybe there’s something about that final N that, like the music of Mumford and Sons or Kings of Leon, sounds just right to the ears of 21st-century parents.

* The post appear May but was recently tweeted, which is how I discovered it.

Police, Protests, Police Protests, and Legitimacy

January 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Steve Anderson, the police chief of Nashville deserves some kind of an award.

The city of Nashville had protests about the shootings in Ferguson and elsewhere. The police department respected the rights of the demonstrators. The department even blocked of part of the Interstate for them and provided them with hot chocolate. No violence or destruction of property resulted.

Not everyone in Nashville was happy with the policy. You really have to read the letter he wrote explaining his policy to a disgruntled citizen.  Actually, he explains a lot more. The page (here) starts with Chief Anderson’s message to his police officers (nice, but not required reading), followed by the citizen’s letter (very civil in tone). (MNDP is probably Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, THP Tennessee Highway Patrol).

The Chief’s answer is a gem. Matching the civility of the citizen, he nevertheless points out the empirical and logical flaws. He writes in plain English, slightly formal but with no academic terms. Still, I would guess that he has some background in political theory, cognitive psychology, and sociology.

I did not find much that seemed directly relevant to the recent police actions and inactions here in New York. But there is this: Anderson starts by quoting the citizen.

“I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks "Why are the police allowing this?" I wouldn't have a good answer.”
[The Chief responds:]
It is somewhat perplexing when children are injected into the conversation as an attempt to bolster a position or as an attempt to thwart the position of another.  While this is not the type of conversation I ordinarily engage in, here are some thoughts you may find useful as you talk with your son.

First, it is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures.  However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected.  The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people.  Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.

You have to admire the Chief for nailing the citizen’s rhetorical strategy (“I have a son . . .”).  More important is the chief’s understanding of the relation between the police and the government.  Adding in the NYC conflict,I would go further. The police have a unique power – the general right to use force and violence. But that power is legitimate only if the police serve the government – a duly and democratically elected government. If the police use that power to oppose the government, to engage in partisan politics, to give vent to their petulance, or to further their self-interest (the police union is still in negotiations with the city over their contract), they risk losing their legitimacy. 

It would also be interesting to see how the opinioneers on the right and the left are framing these issues. As Peter Moskos* (here) and perhaps others have pointed out, it’s complicated. The tangle of ideology includes strands labeled Government, Police, Race, Unions, and now Crime and Broken Windows. But perhaps the underlying or ultimate issue, one not explicitly spoken of, is legitimacy.

HT: Peter is also my source for the Nashville letters.