April 13, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Does anyone remember what Charles Murray said about Black political choices in his 1984 book Losing Ground – the part where he says that African Americans had been “screwed”?

Call it “Jesse Jackson-ism” – the willingness of Blacks to support demagogues like Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. It goes along with a general attitude of resignation and alienation. These are expressions of a lot of legitimate grievances that Blacks have with the ruling class in this country. Those grievances include  the cultural disdain that the White ruling class has for Blacks. Those grievances include the nature of the labor market for Blacks – the loss of manufacturing jobs, the relegation to the least secure and lowest paying sectors, and, as has been shown in study after study about hiring and promotion, employers’ preference for Whites. Basically, it’s all the ways in which, if you’re Black and working class, you’ve been screwed.

Of course you don’t remember that passage. I made it up. I based it on what what Murray actually did say recently about Whites who support Trump

Trumpism is the expression by the White working class of a lot of legitimate grievances that it has with the ruling class – everything from the cultural disdain that the elite holds the working class in to the loss of all kinds of manufacturing jobs, the importation of low-skilled labor – all the ways in which, if you’re a member of the working class, you have, over the last thirty forty years, been screwed. [from a walk-and-talk interview with Paul Solman on PBS].

What Murray actually did say in 1984 about Blacks was that while “discouragement” might explain the alienation, unemployment, and decreasing labor force participation of rural populations, “it is not possible to use discouragement as an explanation for the long-term trend [in Black labor force participation].”

The problem was not in the kinds of jobs available to working-class Blacks.

The problem with this new form of unemployment was . . . that young black males – or young poor males . . . moved in and out of the labor force at precisely that point in their lives when it was most important that they acquire skills, work habits, and a work record. [p. 82.]

In Murray’s view, everything in the US was fine. The trouble was not that people had been screwed by forces they had no control over. The trouble was that these Black guys turned their backs and refused to seize opportunities – skills, work habits, a work record.

Murray’s divining rod for finding dysfunction used to point to poor people themselves. Now, it hovers over more abstract sources – the culture, the economy. Some see this change as evidence of Murray’s racism – one kind of explanation for Black poverty, another for Whites. But there are geographic differences – urban, non-urban – and maybe the economy is different in important ways than it was thirty years ago.

Not all Murray’s conservative brethren shift their attention to these broader forces to explain Trumpism. For readers who might be getting nostalgic for “It’s their own damn fault”  – the idea that poor people and their culture are to blame for poverty and its attendant miseries – I close with an excerpt from Kevin Williamson’s recent fire-and-brimstone sermon in The National Review :

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. . . .  The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.

Sins and Solutions

April 9, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Where Americans see sin that should be punished, Europeans often see a problem that needs a solution. Drug policy is the obvious and important example. Our forty-year prison-bulging moral panic contrasts with policies in the Netherlands, for example, which focused less on righteous punishment for offenders and more on reducing harm.

The same rational, non-moralistic approach applied to sex was the topic of a recent “Friday Flashback” post by Lisa Wade at Sociological Images (here), posted originally in 2010. Lisa mentioned Dutch government policies on prostitution – Amsterdam’s red-light districts for legal and regulated prostitution may be more famous even than the cannabis-selling coffee shops. But her example was from Scotland

Julieta R. sent in this picture, shot by her friend at the Aberdeen Pub in Edinburgh, Scotland. Sex in the bathroom, it appears, had begun to inconvenience customers. But, instead of trying to eradicate the behavior, the Pub just said: “Ok, fine, but just keep it to cubicle no. 4.”

This flashed me back to post here from 2007. I’m not too proud to recycle my garbage, especially since our moralistic approach to problems came up in class last week. So here is that post again in slightly altered form.
*          *          *         *         *          *         *

Men can be slobs, especially at the urinal.

At airports, for example, jet lagged travelers, men at least, tended to be, how shall we put it, careless? aimless?

What to do?

Americans tend to frame problems in moralistic terms. If something is wrong, drug use for example, punish the wrongdoers.  And if that doesn’t work, make the penalties even harsher.  Applied to the problem of spillage and splash in the men’s room, we might expect to see signs warning: “No Spillage or Spraying. Penalty $500 fine.”

The Dutch have a more practical approach, more focused on solving a problem than on punishing evil.  The Dutch also have a reputation for cleanliness.  Around 1970, when the men’s rooms at the Amsterdam airport were looking and smelling like, well, like men’s rooms, Schiphol, the company that runs the Amsterdam airport, looked into the problem. And the problem was  that most men weren’t looking.  They simply didn’t watch where they were going.  So Schiphol came up with a simple and non-punitive solution:

It’s that black spot (I’ve added the red outline).  Click on the photo for a larger view, and you will see that it’s a fly.  Or rather, it’s a realistic picture of a fly.  The idea was that men would aim for the fly – the stream would go from one fly to another (I’m sure this pun doesn’t translate to Dutch) – and the men’s room would stay cleaner.

It worked.  A study by Schiphol’s social science team found that fly urinals had an 80% reduction in spillage.  Some years after that, JFK hired Schiphol to run the International Arrivals Building there.  So now at JFK too, the urinals have the target flies.  At the Newark airport, I saw urinals with a cartoon-like bee (a realistic bee might have might have triggered a counterproductive startle and flinch). [This post is from years ago. Things at these airports may have changed.]

More recently, urinal targets have gotten even more playful.  For the Europeans, there’s soccer.

This was still before soccer was at all popular in the US. So an American company, not to be outdone, encouraged men to piss a field goal through the uprights.

Good clean fun.


Update, April 10: Language Log had a post yesterday not exactly on the same topic  – it’s really about the perils of translation  – but it does focus on signs intended to improve the aura of men’s rooms, and it’s too good to pass up. 

For more information on the mis-translation go here.

AKD 2016

April 8, 2016 
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Monday, April 4, we had our annual induction for students joining AKD, the sociology honor society.  These are our best – the students who, when they’re in your class, make you think that maybe this teaching thing is a pretty good gig.

We were lucky to get Syed Ali as our speaker. Syed is co-editor of Contexts, the sociology journal whose valiant and successful efforts make sociological knowledge accessible to people outside of the academy. No “contextualization of the instersectional nuances of multiple discourses.”

Accordingly, Syed’s talk “Life Hacks From Sociology” told students and their parents what practical advice can be gleaned from research findings. For example, peers matter a lot more than parents, which translates to, “Don’t hang out with those kids; hang out with these kids.” Similarly, when Syed cited the strength of weak ties, one of the most frequently cited articles and phrases, he added, “that’s another way of saying ‘networking.’”

And since we had a roomful of sociology majors, we also used the occasion to salute our wonderful secretary Susan O’Neil, who is retiring at the end of this semester. She has done so much for all of us – faculty and students.

Here is the complete list of inductees. Not all of them could be there for the ceremony.

Taulant Asani
Cheyenne Borkowski
Christina Castillo
Scarlett Cruz
David Falleni
Dion Glover
Kevin Ha
Shanna-Gay Lewin
Tara Mahady
Briana Matthews
Valerie Neuhaus
Claudia Rodriguez
Erika Rodriguez
Taylor Smith
Jessica Soares
Janet Vichkulwrapan
Johnathan Zipf

NCAA — Hoops and Hopes

April 3, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

March Madness ends tomorrow night when the student-athletes from the University of North Carolina match up against the student-athletes from Villanova. I’m being ironic about the “student” part, UNC providing one of the most recent and egregious cases. These players are different from most other students. When they were making their choices about higher education, scholarliness had little to do with it. The crucial variables was the quality of the basketball team.

When I ask my students why they came to college, the answer is usually, “To get an education.” When I ask why they would want an education, the answer is, “So I can get a good job.” When I ask what makes a job good, the first response is “money.” My students are student-earners.

How much will they earn? Take a look at the scorecard – the Obama administration’s recently created College Scorecard  (here). It shows median yearly earnings ten years after a student first enrolls. Here’s how the NCAA final four stack up.

(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

Villanova wins handily. But it’s a small private school. Its students come from better-off families, and when its graduates look for jobs nearby, the salary scale is going to be much higher than in Oklahoma. We need something like the Sabermetrics WPA (win probablity added). Fortunately, over at Brookings, Siddharth Kulkarni and Jonathan Rothwell rated the teams in the NCAA bracket on a sort of $PA that adjusts for family income, location, test scores, and other factors that might affect the income of graduates.

Now the NCAA final four look not so evenly matched,and UNC, only a 2½-point underdog on the floor tomorrow night, trails Villanova in the earnings-added tournament by a considerable margin.

College basketball is not life. It’s not even earnings ten years after freshman year. Kulkarni and Rothwell played through the brackets as drawn for the basketball tournament, using the earnings scores rather than basketball scores.  Only Villanova made it to the final four in both tournaments.

These four were not necessarily the highest-rated schools. Southern University, for example, scored a 95 – higher than Utah’s 94 – but the luck of the draw put them up against Duke in the Sweet Sixteen round. Here is the entire tournament.


The Kulkarni-Rothwell article is here with links to the scores of lots of schools, both 2-year and 4-year.  Not all schools appear in the interactive function. If your school does not appear there, download the spreadsheet data and go to column CW.