A Dream Disconfirmed

March 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

What happens to a dream disconfirmed? Does it dry up, a dream no longer? Or does it make commitment even stronger?

Ever since When Prophecy Fails, the 1956 study of a flying saucer cult, we’ve known the answer. People will reshape what they know and what they feel in order to preserve an idea that no longer squares with reality.

Failed prophecy was also the theme of a wonderful segment by Zoe Chace on This American Life two weeks ago. She had been spending time in South Carolina in the months before the primary there, and one of the people she met, Alex Chalgren, director of the state’s Students for Trump, was too good a story to pass up. Listen to the podcast (here), and you’ll get a sense of how remarkable and likable he is. You’ll also get a sense of how strongly he supported Trump.

You wouldn’t expect Alex Chalgren to be a Trump supporter. He’s not an angry White man. He is a male, but he’s a high school kid, eighteen years old. He’s not angry, and he is Black.

His early years were rough. He was bounced around from his biological parents to foster homes and back, to group homes and back to foster homes. Then, after a year of asking, he got his teacher in the third grade to adopt him. She later married, and now Alex has two loving parents, both White.

Alex shares the usual conservative talking points – hard work, not handouts; a wall against illegal immigrants; destruction of ISIS – and like his parents he’s an evangelical Christian. But then why not support Ted Cruz as his parents do?

There’s one issue that separates Trump from the Cruz and the others, and for Alex that issue makes all the difference – gay marriage.  “Trump is fine with gay marriage,” Alex tells Chace back in January.
“I'm gay. And so it’s big for me. And everyone knows I’m gay. . . . My parents know. Everyone knows. . . .  Trump is fine with gay marriage, thank goodness. And he’s a realist. He knows that as society moves on, we must move on. . . .   My biggest concern is gay marriage and the economy. For example, if it comes down to Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, I might not vote or I might vote for Bernie Sanders.”

Now comes cognitive dissonance. The source of the dissonance was not his family – their love for one another clashing with their strong differences about homosexuality. They’d gotten past that. It was Trump.

As Chace says, Trump’s statement contradicts his previous position. Worse, it would seem to leave Alex in a Wile E. Coyote moment. He looks down and discovers that his grounds for supporting Trump have vanished. But unlike Wile E. Coyote, Alex can exercise the powers of mind over what matters. For example, he can say that what he sees and hears is merely a mirage and that Trump doesn’t mean what he’s just said. He can also deny that Trump’s statement is of any importance since it will not reverse the upward arc of gay marriage, and besides, some things are more important than even gay marriage – things like “the survival of our country.”

When people are faced with evidence that contradicts a strongly held idea, they adjust their perceptions and interpretations so as to protect their beliefs. When the flying saucers did not appear at the appointed hour, the members of the flying saucer cult in When Prophecy Fails did not stop believing. They came up with an explanation just as Alex did when Trump hedged his position on gay marriage. This tweaking of cognitions is not surprising. But the members of the UFO group also had a collective emotional reaction, one that was less predictable. The immediate despair and doubt gave way to enthusiasm as they took to spreading the word about the imminent arrival of UFOs. 
The sequence goes something like this
  • public commitment to an idea
  • disconfirmation of that idea
  • stronger and more emotional commitment to that idea (as long as there is a group to support that sustained commitment)
Alex seems to have gone through a similar transformation.

His main reason for supporting Trump has been disconfirmed, but his commitment is even stronger. He has raised the stakes from a rational support of Trump’s politics to a personal identification with Trump himself.  “You see how I do my hands here? That’s like Trump. He does this.”*

* Needless to say, this was before the leading candidates of the party of Lincoln became obsessed with the length of Trump’s fingers and what that length might betoken.

(Earlier posts on reactions to failed prophecy are here  and here.)

Ignorant, Apathetic . . . and Realistic?

March 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a multiple-choice question:

1. Voting by people like me
    a.  doesn’t really affect how the government runs things
    b. gives people some say about how the government runs things

Yesterday, Pew (here) told us how we answered this question.

The Pew survey was concerned mostly with how people are getting their news about the presidential campaign. But yesterday’s report focused on those few Americans (9%) who are content to let a week or more go by without getting any news about the election.

“Half of this group thinks that their vote doesn’t really affect how the government runs things.”

The two sentiments – about the news and about one’s own influence – seem to be part of a more general feeling of alienation from government. The General Social Survey used to ask about this alienation with the variable ANOMIA7, which asks people to Agree or Disagree with the statement, “Most public officials (people in public office) are not really interested in the problems of the average man.” A clear majority – never less than 65% agree.

The GSS hasn’t asked this one since 2006, and the time before that was 1994 (maybe that “average man” has something to do with it.) A similar item in the 2102 GSS allowed for a more nuanced response.

This looks more like the uninformed Pew respondents – evenly split between “None/A Little” and “Some or more.”

But which side has the correct answer to that multiple-choice question? The disaffected, alienated citizens, the ones who don’t care to find out about the election and don’t think their vote or ideas matter – they are ignorant and apathetic. But might they also be realistic? And those of us who watch the news and the debates, who check out the political tweets in our Twitter feed – we’re certain to vote come November. We want to make a difference. But are we fooling ourselves?

In their 2014 paper (here) which got some attention even in the popular press, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page looked at 1779 policy decisions to see how the actual outcomes lined up with the preferences of three different types of people or groups
  • organized interest groups
  • “economic elites”
  • average citizens
They graphed the results to show how likely a policy was to be adopted at each level of support from each type of source.  For interest groups, they counted up the interest groups that favored a policy and subtracted the number that opposed it.

The more that interest groups were relatively unanimous in favor of a policy, the more likely the government was to adopt that policy.  (The preferences of interest groups were frequently similar to those of elites and to those of the public, so the authors statistically controlled for this overlap. The graphs show the effect of just one variable controlling for the effects of the other two.)

The data on economic elites showed the same kind of influence. The more that rich people were together on an issue, the more likely they were to get their way.

What about the average citizen?

The slope is close to zero. Ninety percent of average citizens may favor or oppose some policy, but  their preferences have little impact (unless, of course, these preferences are also those of interest groups or, especially, economic elites). These folks may be citizens united, but they are also citizens powerless.
As Gilens and Page summarize their findings.

Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic-Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential—more so than any other set of actors studied here—in the making of U.S. public policy.

When I first looked at the Pew data on the alienated non-voters, I thought about it in terms of cognitive consistency. If you don’t feel that your vote makes a difference, it makes no sense to bother finding out about the candidates.

The same logic applies to the “good” citizens. If you follow the news, if you develop a preference for a candidate, if you think it’s important who gets elected, then you will be more likely to vote. And if you’re going to vote, it would make sense to also think that your vote made a difference. So the news followers develop a false sense of efficacy. If the Gilens-Page study is right, however, if you want to have any influence at all, voting is far less important that other things you might do, like aligning yourself with an interest group, or getting rich – really, really rich.

Sic Transit Gloria

February 29, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 1970, the day after National Guard troops killed four unarmed protesters at Kent State University, students at Southern Illinois University went to the local McDonald’s and demanded that the flag be lowered to half staff.  The franchise owner complied.

Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s got wind of this and told the franchise owner to raise the flag back up to full staff. When he conplied, the students threatened to burn the place down.

The whipsawed franchise owner phoned McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner asking what to do. If Turner’s response isn’t part of the canon of management courses, it ought to be:  “The next delivery truck that arrives, have him back in to the flag pole and knock it down.” [Source.]

Lands’ End now finds itself in a similar position but with no flagpole and no trucks.

You may have noticed that the most recent Lands’ End catalogue looks different from the other 273 they’ve sent you this year. Lots of people in a tableau rather than close ups of one model in merch. And palm trees. Palm trees? From Wisconsin? The paper too is less slick, with more of a matte finish. But what has landed Lands’ End in hot water is the four-page interview with Gloria Steinem wearing Lands’ End gear.

(The text in the upper right begins, “Introducing the Legend Series, our ode to individuals who have made a difference . . . .”)

Lands’ End is in trouble – profits and sales way down – and the new CEO wanted to change the look of the catalogue if not the clothes. But that was the beginning of more trouble. First, conservatives got word of it and started criticizing Lands’ End for celebrating a woman who not only spoke out in favor of legalized abortion but who had actually had an abortion and said so.

Lands’ End responded:  “It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw the recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense.”

Besides apologizing, they also wiped the Gloria material from their website. (So far, they haven’t yet asked me to return my catalogue, but who knows?)

Then the pro-Gloria forces took to Facebook and Twitter.

“I don’t intend to teach my children that anyone should do business with a company that is ashamed to even talk about feminism,”

The Washington Post says that Lands’ End, in its attempt to retroactively duck the issue, is tacking away from the trend. Companies, says WaPo, have now become “unapologetic in their stance on social issues.” Big companies –Target, Gap, Visa, Cheerios, etc. – have supported the Supreme Court decision on gay marraige or criticized Trump’s denigration of Latinos. Sears and Wal-Mart came out against the Confederate flag.

The message of these earlier moves seemed to be that the companies were willing to stake out a position they felt strongly about, even if it meant alienating some customers. Lands’ End, it appears, may have a different mindset.

Is it Lands’ End, or is it the issue? After the Charleston Church Massacre of June 2015, retreating from the Confederate flag became the majority view even in the South.

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

The trend on gay marriage has also made acceptance a safe bet.

But on abortion, the public is still split. and the issue is still salient.

Lands’ End was caught between equally strong opinions. Their dilemma on Gloria reflects their dilemma on clothing and clientele. Lands’ End wants to attract younger shoppers, who lean towards the pro-choice side, but not lose their older customers, who lean the opposite direction.
Here at the SocioBlog, we’re proud to show our colors – a bright orange Lands’ End sweater.

Donald’s Delegate Condition

February 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

USA Today carried this front page graph showing just how completely Donald Trump was routing the competition for the Republican presidential nomination. (I have re-created the page with the text blanked out so as to make the graph easier to see.)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

I’m not sure what to make of this. Trump certainly has by far the greatest number of the 125 delegates now committed. But the Republican convention will have nearly 2500 delegates. When you plot the current delegate count against the number needed to win, Trump’s current lead looks a bit less overwhelming.

Trump no longer looks like the obvious winner.  His 64-delegate lead over Cruz and Rubio doesn't look so insurmountable.

Maybe the Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina do reflect the sentiments of their counterparts in the other 46 states. The prediction markets now (I’m writing this just before this evening’s debate) have Trump as a heavy favorite, more than two to one.

Maybe the crowd is truly wise. Or maybe, now is the time to short Trump and buy Rubio, hope that Tuesday’s primaries reduce the gap, and take your profits.

Oh, Those Hypersensitive Students

February 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Liberals, as Jonathan Haidt has documented, argue on the basis of only two principles or “moral foundations”: Hurt and Fairness. Conservatives add other bases for their positions: Loyalty (vs. betrayal), Authority (vs. subversion), and Sanctity (vs. degradation). Also Liberty, which Haidt later added to the original five. (A summary of Haidt's moral foundations is here: http://moralfoundations.org/.)

So conservatives have lots of ways to justify what they want. If hurt and unfairness are not in plain sight, conservatives can fight against betrayal or subversion. But liberals, absent real hurt or unfairness, must have recourse to finding micro-hurts and micro-unfairness from micro-aggressions.

This week’s example comes from Georgetown law school (source: Inside Higher Ed).  Justice Scalia was an undergrad at Georgetown and made several visits to the law school. Shortly after Scalia’s death, a law professor (Prof. G___ , to use a 19th century construction) sent out an e-mail to students and faculty eulogizing Scalia – his jurisprudence, his wit, his writing, and his refusal to trim his sails to the winds of political correctness. Scalia, said Prof. G____, stood steadfast in putting Constitutional principles ahead of the particular interests of classes of people, classes based on race, gender, or economic standing.

Some other professors objected to this e-mail, not for its content but for its effect on students.

Some of them are twenty-two-year-olds, less than six months into their legal education. Leaders of the Black Students Association, the Latino Law Students League, and two women’s groups reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor G____’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for those who disagree with Scalia.  How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?

I think most people would doubt that students at a top law school would be “traumatized” by a professor stating his views about Scalia. Are these ambitious 20-somethings such delicate flowers that they must be protected from legal positions they disagree with lest they be “traumatized, hurt, shaken”? If so, maybe they should choose a different profession. Lawyering ain’t beanbag. And must a law professor, in the interest of fairness, pretend that all opinions are equally valid?

Conservatives will probably tell these students to stop their whining and sniveling and to man up (or attorney up). Conservatives could also argue on the basis of Liberty. People, even professors, should be free to expound their opinions; nobody should censor them.

There’s nothing new here, except . . .

It was the other way round. I reversed the actual facts. The Georgetown law professor who sent the e-mail, Gary Peller, came to criticize Scalia not to praise him. The faculty who then accused Peller of traumatizing the students are Scalia supporters. The hothouse flowers in need of protection are the student conservatives and libertarians.  (“Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students.”)

When the claims of injury and intimidation on one side and the accusations of hypersensitivity on the other are bouncing back and forth like this, it’s hard to tell the pot from the kettle.

Saoirse’s Choice

February 20, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a course I taught long ago, I would give students the set-up of a movie – act one – and ask them to write a plot summary of the rest of the film. When they had finished, I would tell them how the actual film went. It unfolded to something completely different from what they had thought up. That’s because it was French.

The students were very bad at thinking like a French cineaste, but they did a top-notch job of filling in the predictable character types and plot elements of American movies.

I remembered this after I saw “Brooklyn.” It’s certainly a pleasant hour and fifty minutes. The film is set in the early 1950s, but it cleaves so closely to America’s immigrant-story cliches that it could be taking place any time.  The trailer summarizes the story.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) must decide between two countries, Old Ireland and New America, and between two men, one in Enniscorthy, one in Brooklyn. In Ireland she lives in a small town and works for a particularly nasty shopowner, a snoop who uses her knowledge of everyone’s secrets as weapons. Eilis comes to America, an open land of opportunity where she works hard at her job and takes classes to improve her abilities. Predictably (i.e., just like in the movies) she keeps moving up.

The man she meets on her return trip to Ireland is at the top of the town’s social ladder. The man she meets in America is a working-class Italian, a plumber, but he has plans to start his own construction company (to build what we know will become the new suburbs). Like Eilis, Tony too is on the path to success.

In a post nine years ago (here) I speculated that all American movies, even romantic comedies, are really about achieving success. “Brooklyn” is firmly in that tradition. The movie presents both men as ideal, someone any girl would want to marry, and Saoirse Ronan is able to convince us that the choice is agonizing. But while Eilis may feel torn between the man who has already inherited a life of comfort and the man who is getting there through honest work, we in the audience, schooled on scores of American movies, know immediately who is preferable.

“Brooklyn” lays out its cards in such a familiar arrangement that the movie’s real achievement is in making us believe that the sides in this choice are nearly equal. It does that mostly with the pull of family obligations.  Eilis’s mother needs care, and now that Eilis’s sister has died, Eilis is the only family she has left. But that also means that an aging mother is the only family that Eilis herself has, her only real human bond to Ireland. Even if we weren’t Americans rooting for America, we know what the right choice is, and “Brooklyn” does not disappoint. To its credit, the movie avoids the impossibly perfect solution, the “Hollywood ending,” which might have been for Eilis to bring her mother to America to live happily ever after.

On the podcast “Culture Gabfest,” Julia Turner comments that “Brooklyn” could almost be a silent movie. This is said in praise of Saoirse Ronan’s acting – her face tells so much. But it could be a silent movie also because the plot and characters are so familiar – the spiteful shopowner, the kindly priest, the Italian family – that the dialogue doesn’t add anything to our understanding of them.

That said, the film is very good for what it is. It looks terrific, the story is well told, and Saoirse Ronan deserves her Oscar nomination. But “Brooklyn” is the movie equivalent of comfort food – familiar, pleasant, and easy to digest.

Polish Joke

February 16, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I am not all familiar with Freeman beauty products, but I am somewhat familiar with the French language. So I wonder: how did this happen? (Note the English and French lines below “Goyave.”)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The translation gaffe was soon corrected (I assume that the Salt Scrub on the right is the later version*). But how could polishes ever become les polonais (Polish people)?

Google Translate had no problem with it, though it preferred softening the skin to smoothing out the wrinkles.

The linguists at Language Log haven’t checked in on this one, and until they do here’s my guess: Freeman is a privately held company. I imagine it as a family operation – a mom-and-pop beauty products company. Old Mr. Freeman, the founder, ponders the new product, and says, referring to his grandson, “Little Ryan is taking French – they start ’em in fourth grade nowadays – let’s give him a shot at this one.” So Ryan, a not-so-adept student in Beginning French, looks up polish and finds le polonais, pl. les polonais.

My keen-eyed colleague Lois Oppenheim points out that in the somewhat-corrected version the accent on protége [sic] is aigu when it should be grave.

Hat Tip: Polly-vous Français

Margin of Error – Mostly Error

February 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s the sort of social “science” I’d expect from Fox, not Vox. But today, Valentine’s Day, Vox (here) posted this map purporting to show the average amount people in each state spent on Valentine’s Day.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

“What’s with North Dakota spending $108 on average, but South Dakota spending just $36?” asks Vox. The answer is almost surely: Error.

The sample size was 3,121. If they sampled each state in its proportion of the US population, the sample in the each Dakota would be about n = 80 n = 8. The source of the data, Finder, does not report any margins of error or standard deviations, so we can’t know. Possibly, a couple of guys in North Dakota who’d saved their oil-boom money and spent it on chocolates are responsible for that average. Idaho, Nevada, and Kansas – the only other states over the $100 mark – are also small-n. So are the states at the other other end, the supposedly low-spending states (SD, WY, VT, NH, ME, etc.). So we can’t trust these numbers.

The sample in the states with large populations (NY, CA, TX, etc.) might have been as high as 300-400, possibly enough to make legitimate comparisons, but the differences among them are small – less than $20.

My consultant on this matter, Dan Cassino (he does a lot of serious polling), confirmed my own suspicions. “The study is complete bullshit.”

UPDATE February 24, 2016: Andrew Gelman (here) downloaded the data did a far more thorough analysis, estimating the variation for each state. His graph of the states shows that even between the state with the highest mean and the state with the lowest, the uncertainty is too great to allow for any conclusions: “Soooo . . . we got nuthin’.”

Andrew explains why it’s worthwhile to do a serious analysis even on frivolous data like this Valentine-spending survey. He also corrects my order-of-magnitude overestimation of the North Dakota sample size. 

More Good News About Kids

February 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five weeks ago I asked

When’s the last time you read an op-ed or magazine article that began, “Kids today are just so much better than kids of a generation or two ago.” 
That post (here) had some data showing that in crime, drug use, unwanted pregnancy, and other categories, today’s youth were doing much better than their counterparts of earlier generations.
Now, the answer to that question (“When was the last time you read . . ?) is “Today.”

Today, Vox has an article called “Today’s Teens Are Better Than You, and We Can Prove It” (here). It has data on the variables I mentioned plus meth and other drugs, carrying guns to school, fighting, and other things most of us are glad to see less of. There’s even an interactive function where you can compare kids today against your own cohort – if you are under 45.

The article begins, “The kids are all right,” an obvious line that I had to try very hard to avoid in my post. But take a look at the data.

The article makes no attempt to pinpoint the causes of these changes, so feel free to attribute the good news to whatever factors you favor.

Fairway Farewell?

February 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Update: Three months ago, I blogged (here) about Fairway, a New York food market. Things had not been going well for Fairway since its buyout by a private equity firm, and especially since the IPO in 2013. “That’s private equity for you,” said one of their former managers.

Now Fairway is looking at bankruptcy. The New York Post reports that Fairway has lost over $300 million in the last five years. The Wall Street Journal  says, “Fairway—a high-end chain with 15 stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut—said that there is substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.”

Auteur, Schmauteur

February 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Despite the maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, we usually like what’s familiar.  With music for example, familiarity breeds hits in the short run and nostalgia in the long run. The trouble is that it’s tempting to attribute our liking to the inherent quality of the thing rather than its familiarity.  With movies, film buffs may make this same conflation between what they like and what they easily recognize.

That’s one of the points of Scott Lemieux’s takedown (here) of Peter Suderman’s Vox article about Michael Bay.

Suderman hails Bay as “an auteur — the author of a film — whose movies reflect a distinctive, personal sensibility. Few filmmakers are as stylistically consistent as Bay, who recycles many of the same shots, editing patterns, and color schemes in nearly all of his films.”

But what’s so great about being an auteur with a recognizable style? For Lemieux, Michael Bay is a hack. His movies aren’t good, they’re just familiar. Bay’s supporters like them because of that familiarity but then attribute their liking to some imagined cinematic quality of the films.

My students, I discovered last week,  harbor no such delusions about themselves and the songs they like. As a prologue to my summary of the Salganik-Watts MusicLab studies, I asked them to discuss what it is about a song that makes it a hit. “Think about hit songs you like and about hit songs that make you wonder, ‘How did that song get to be #1?’” The most frequent answers were all about familiarity and social influence. “You hear the song a lot, and everyone you know likes it, and you sort of just go along, and then you like it too.” I had to probe in order to come up with anything about the songs themselves – the beat, the rhymes, even the performer.

Lemieux cites Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Circles and Squares” (1963), a response to auteur-loving critics like Andrew Sarris. She makes the same point – that these critics conflate quality with familiarity, or as she terms it “distinguishability.”

That the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgment. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?

Often the works in which we are most aware of the personality of the director are his worst films—when he falls back on the devices he has already done to death. When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don't think about the director's personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch.

Assessing quality in art is difficult if not impossible. Maybe it’s a hopeless task, one that my students, in their wisdom, refused to be drawn into. They said nothing about why one song was better than another. They readily acknowledged that they liked songs because they were familiar and popular, criteria that producers, promoters, and payola-people have long been well aware of.

“In the summer of 1957,” an older friend once told me, “My family was on vacation at Lake Erie. There was this recreation hall – a big open room where teenagers hung out. You could get ice cream and snacks, and there was music, and some of the kids danced. One afternoon, they played the same song – “Honeycomb” by Jimmie Rodgers – about twenty times in a row, maybe more. They just kept playing that song over and over again. Maybe it was the only song they played the whole afternoon.”

It wasn’t just that one rec hall. The people at Roulette Records must have been doing similar promotions all around the country and doing whatever they had to do to get air play for the record. By the end of September, “Honeycomb” was at the top of the Billboard charts. Was it a great song? Assessment of quality was irrelevant, or it was limited to the stereotypical critique offered by the kids on American Bandstand: “It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.” Of course, this was before the 1960s and the rise of the auteur, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter.

Hollywood uses the same principle when it churns out sequels and prequels – Rocky, Saw, Batman. They call it a “franchise,” acknowledging the films had the similarity of Burger Kings. The audience fills the theaters not because the movie is good but because it’s Star Wars. Kael and the other anti-auteurists argue that auteur exponents are no different in their admiration for all Hitchcock. Or Michael Bay. It’s just that their cinema sophistication allows them to fool themselves.

(Big hat tip to Mark at West Coast Stat Views.)

What Are the Odds?

February 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’d just picked this book from off the shelf – the “New Books” shelf, though I could see it was a paperback so not entirely new.

The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles,
and Rare Events Happen Every Day
by David J. Hand

I read the intro chapter, put it down, intending to get back to it some time. A few days later, at the library for the performing arts at Lincoln Center I saw the posters from their latest show – an exhibit about the plays of Shakespeare. They’d asked a lot of people in the theater – musicians, writers, actors, set designers – to talk about their loves and their dislikes: which characters, which plays, which lines, which scenes.

Jane Alexander, often overlooked but one of our truly great actresses, had this to say about her line in “As You Like It” as Rosalind in drag.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Every night when Orlando had left the stage and I turned to Celia and swooned, “O coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love,” the four hundred years that separated Elizabethan England and me simply vanished.

It is indeed a time-transcendant line. But Shakespeare has many, many more, and alas, I know so few, so I moved on to see what other people had to say. There were perhaps a dozen on display. Several didn’t quote lines. Instead they’d note a scene, a character, or cherished production. Alan Cumming hated “Timon” but loved Miranda played by Felicity Jones to Helen Mirren’s Prospera (renamed).

Cumming’s not Alexander, and I’m sure  he’s never been a Rosalind, and yet of all the lines in all the plays in all of Shakespeare, what line did he choose? From “As You Like It,” “pretty little coz.”

I still can’t help but ask, what are the odds?

Cruz-Jews News

February 6, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

When Ted Cruz says “New York,” does he really mean “Jewish”?

In a Republican debate in Iowa, Maria Bartiromo asked Ted Cruz what he meant when he referred to Donald Trump’s “New York Values.” My response (the blog post is here) was the same as Toby’s on “The West Wing” when a conservative professional Christian balks at Josh’s “New York sense of humor”: he means Jewish.

Not everyone agreed, maintaining the we should take Cruz’s remarks at face value, and that any dog-whistle overtones about Jews were in the ears of the listeners. Now Cruz himself has pretty much cleared up the question of whether he was equating “New York” with all things Jewish.  He was responding to the accusation from Trump and others that he and his wife had borrowed money from Goldman Sachs, where Mrs. Cruz works – an arrangement that puts at least a small question mark on Cruz’s claims to being a stalwart battler against Wall Street.

Dana Milbank in the Washington Post reports:

Cruz, asserting that Trump had “upward of $480 million of loans from giant Wall Street banks,” said: “For him to make this attack, to use a New York term, it’s the height of chutzpah.” Cruz, pausing for laughter after the phrase “New York term,” exaggerated the guttural “ch” to more laughter and applause.

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word. It is “a New York term” only if you equate New York with Jewish. New York sense of humor, New York values, New York phrases.

So we can put to rest the debate about whether in the mind and speech of Sen. Cruz, New York is conflated with Jewish.  Thanks to the senator for settling the question.

Pittsburgh Hip

February 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A friend/colleague/co-commuter sent a link to this article.

I especially appreciated the gesture since the dude is a diehard fan of all things Seattle (we commiserated about playoff defeats). Although the article was at a Pittsburgh booster Website , the original source was ThrillList, which ranked Pittsburgh in “The next Portland: 8 Cities All the Cool Kids Are Moving To.” The list includes Missoula, Louisville, Boise, etc. ThrillList, after a shoutout to Pittsburgh’s “several expert-vetted breweries” and “superior cocktail bars,” had this to say about my home town.

There is a fake robot repair shop inside the airport, which is a totally, totally reasonable thing to have in an airport, and if you’re after artisan stuff, Handmade Arcade  – “Pittsburgh's first and largest independent craft fair”  – will have all of the trinkets and tchotchkes you definitely don’t need.

I would think that a healthy economy must be prerequisite for hipness. Not that prosperity is any guarantee. Back when Pittsburgh had steel, and the mills were glowing night and day, the city was economically healthy but hardly hip. Now the mills are malls, and the main employer (and owner of real estate) seems to be UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Yes, if your tastes don’t run to craft beer, you can still get Iron City – “a bottle of iron” (pronounced “ahrn”) is what you ask for – and you can wave your terrible towel for the Steelers. But absent tradition and trademarks, the local beer would be a bottle of Imaging, and Mike Tomlin would be coaching the Medics.*

Has Pittsburgh really improved? Brookings has a nifty interactive site that ranks the largest 100 cities on three dimensions
  • Growth (Jobs, GMP (gross metro product), total wages)
  • Prosperity (GMP per job, GMP per capita, average wages)
  • Inclusion (median wage, poverty relative to median wage, employment/population ratio)
Here’s how the former Steel City has changed in the last decade.

It comes off much better in the rankings than do Boise and Louisville.

The Brookings app and data are here. You can check out the other “hipster cities” – Salt Lake (who knew?), Asheville, the other Portland – or your own home town, hip or not.

* According to Wikipedia, Pittsburgh also has “established itself as a technology hub.” And here’s a personal note about that not-always-perfect transition. My father was in the steel business in the good years – the 40s and 50s. In the early 60s, a friend, an engineer at Westinghouse, was quitting the big company, taking a couple of other impatient engineers with him, and forming what we now call a tech start-up, an electronics company, Milletron. My father was persuaded to cash in his steel business and join. He would handle the non-tech business side of things.

The Regional Industrial Development Corporation had recently been formed by private interests who could see the handwriting on the steel-mill walls and wanted to push the local economy towards diversity and modernity. The RIDC provided some financing and helped them secure loans. The company struggled along. The contracts they got never quite paid all the bills, and they had other projects that required a little more time and a little more cash. After  three or four years, the RIDC finally pulled the plug. Milletron was no more. And my father, once well off, was more or less broke. “You lost a lot of money?” I asked him once, a few years later. “Yeah, he said, but the banks lost a lot more.”

Decadence Anyone?

January 31, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five years ago, I borrowed Stephen Colbert’s title I’m America, and So Can You for a post on the tendency of some columnists to attribute their own views to “Americans,”  “the public,” “the country,” or some other collective mind. “The public seems to be angry about values,” wrote David Brooks at the time. So much for “I-statements.” (That blogpost is here.)

Once you become sensitive to this rhetorical tactic, you can’t help noticing it. In his New York Times column today (here), Ross Douthat writes.

What are Trumpistas and Bern-feelers rebelling against? They’re rebelling against decadence.

Is decadence really the problem that is roiling the Trump and Sanders supporters? I don't recall seeing that term on any of their signs and slogans ( “Down With Decadence,” “Trump Trumps Decadence”).
A Lexis-Nexis search for “Trump” and “Decadence” in the last seven months turned up only one article in the US press linking these two –  a Times op-ed a month ago with the title “Cracks in the Liberal Order.” It was written by Ross Douthat. 

Swap out “Trump” for “Bernie Sanders,” and you get only this same Douthat column.

There was one article (Rochester, MN Post-Bulletin, Jan. 13) referring to a “Trump-style tower in giddy display of decadence.” And an editorial in the Providence Journal by Jay Ambrose said that Sanders and progressives generally should “stop their decadent way of supposing that people are poor because others are rich.” But these were saying that Trump and his would-be emulators and Sanders and his fellow progressives were themselves decadent, not that they were responding to decadence.

Despite the months of pre-primary coverage, journalists turn up no voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, or anywhere else who complained they were troubled about decadence in America. The Obama-haters compare him to Hitler, not Caligula. The Sanders supporters are rallying against inequality, not iniquity.

Decadence is in the eye of the beholder, and the only eye that seems to be beholding it belongs to  Ross Douthat.

Too Good to Be True

January 26, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some findings that turn up in social science research look good to be true, as when a small change in inputs brings a large change in outcomes. Usually the good news comes in the form of anecdotal evidence, but systematic research too can yield wildly optimistic results.

Anecdotal evidence?  Everyone knows to be suspicious, even journalists. A Lexis-Nexis search returns about 300 news articles just in this month where someone was careful to specify that claims were based on “anecdotal evidence” and not systematic research.

Everywhere else, the anecdotal-systematic scale of credibility is reversed. As Stalin said, “The death of a million Russian soldiers – that is a statistic. The death of one Russian soldier – that is a tragedy.” He didn’t bother to add the obvious corollary: a tragedy is far more compelling and persuasive than is a statistic.

Yet here is journalist Heather Havrilesky in the paper of record reviewing Presence, a new book by social scientist Amy Cuddy:

This detailed rehashing of academic research . . . has the unintended effect of transforming her Ph.D. into something of a red flag.

Yes, you read that correctly. Systematic research supporting an idea is a bright red warning sign.

Amy Cuddy, for those who are not among the millions who have seen her TED talk, is the social psychologist (Ph.D. Princeton) at the Harvard Business School who claims that standing in the Wonder Woman “power pose” for just two minutes a day will transform the self-doubting and timid into the confident, assertive, and powerful. Power posing even changes levels of hormones like cortisol and testosterone.

Havrilesky continues.

While Cuddy’s research seems to back up her claims about the effects of power posing, even more convincing are the personal stories sent to the author by some of the 28 million people who have viewed her TED talk. Cuddy scatters their stories throughout the book. . . .

Systematic research is OK for what it is, Havrilesky is saying, but the clincher is the anecdotal evidence. Either way, the results fall into the category of “Amazing But True.”

Havrilesky was unwittingly closer to the truth with that “seems” in the first clause. “Cuddy’s research seems to back up her claims . . . ” Perhaps, but research done by people other than Cuddy and her colleagues does not.  As Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung detail in Slate, the power-pose studies have not had a Wonder Woman-like resilience in the lab. Other researchers trying to replicate Cuddy’s experiments could not get similarly positive results.

But outside the tiny world of replication studies, Cuddy’s findings have had a remarkable staying power considering how fragile* the power-pose effect was. The problem is not just that the Times reviewer takes anecdotal evidence as more valid. It’s that she is unaware that contradictory research was available. Nor is she unique in this ignorance. It pervades reporting even in serious places like the Times. “Gee whiz science,” as Gelman and Fung call it, has a seemingly irresistible attraction, much like anecdotal evidence. Journalists and the public want to believe it; scientists want to examine it further.

Our point here is not to slam Cuddy and her collaborators. . . . And we are not really criticizing the New York Times or CBS News, either. . . . Rather, we want to highlight the yawning gap between the news media, science celebrities, and publicists on one side, and the general scientific community on the other. To one group, power posing is a scientifically established fact and an inspiring story to boot. To the other, it’s just one more amusing example of scientific overreach.

I admire Gelman and Fung’s magnanimous view. But I do think that those in the popular press who report about science should do a little skeptical fact-checking when the results seem too good to be true, for too often these results are in fact too good to be true.

* “Fragile” is the word used by Joe Simmons and Uri Simonsohn in their review and replication of Cuddy’s experiments (here).

Word Association. I Say “Focus Around Money and Media”; You Say . . .

January 15, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

What does “New York” mean?

Previously on “The West Wing,” on the first episode in fact  . . .  

“That New York sense of humor. . . . They think they’re so much smarter. They think it’s smart talk, but nobody else does,” says the character Mary Marsh. Josh’s demurral that he’s from Connecticut seems a bit disingenuous. Like everyone else in the “West Wing” White House, Josh is incredibly smart and savvy, so Toby’s explanation is more directed at the TV audience.

“She means Jewish.”

Did she? Josh derails that train of thought before Marsh has to answer. What might she have said? Maybe what Ted Cruz said.

Anyone familiar with this scene must surely have remembered it when Ted Cruz used “New York” as a similar kind of slur in last night’s debate.

What does Cruz mean by “New York values”? His initial evasion (“I think most people know exactly what New York values are”) and the laughter of the Iowa Republican audience suggest that the meaning is something everyone knows but would rather not say.

The message is that “New Yorkers” are different. They are not part of what Sarah Palin called “real America.” The next exchange amplifies that idea.  “You’re from New York? So you might not [understand].” Again the audience laughs and applauds appreciatively. The joke is that New Yorkers are so not American that they don’t even know how non-American they are. They are like some race of UFO aliens who imagine that they are successfully passing themselves off as humans. But of course the real humans know better.

Cruz then hauls out the “some of my best friends are . . .” trope.  “And listen, there are many, many wonderful, wonderful working men and women in the state of New York.” Of course, these people are not “New Yorkers.” They merely live in New York state, far away from the city.  These “wonderful working men and women” are different from New York City people, who are not wonderful and apparently don’t work.

Finally, Cruz explains: “But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.”

It reminds me of Lee Atwater’s famous quote: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can't say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

In 2016, you say stuff like “New York values” and “socially liberal” and “focus around money and the media.”

You can’t say “nigger” and you can’t say “Jew.” But you can say, as Cruz did just before Bartiromo asked him the values question, “There’s a reason, when Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer came after our right to keep and bear arms, that I led the opposition, along with millions of Americans — we defeated that gun control legislation.”

There’s Obama and his kind, and there’s Schumer and his kind. And then there are “millions of Americans.” Get it?

In the sci-fi movies, the real humans eventually expose, outwit, and triumph over the alien impersonators. So too, in Cruz-land, Americans, real Americans, will triumph over those others, the “New Yorkers.”

UPDATE January 16 

I wasn’t the only one to notice the unstated overtones in Cruz’s remarks about New York values. Maybe the performance was not all that subtle. These showed up in my Twitter feed.

Cruz, Christians, Compassion

January 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The great thing about Christianity is that it gives you two Testaments and two kinds of god. The god of the Old Testament is a wrathful god. But in the New Testament, Jesus represents a loving, caring, and forgiving god. The previous pope, Benedict XVI, who earned epithets like “the Panzer cardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler,” leaned in one direction. By contrast, the current pope, Francis, has just published a book – The Name of God is Mercy.

If you’re a Christian, you can take your pick depending on the circumstances. (An early post  in this blog was about the different responses of Protestant clergy (Dobson, Falwell) to adultery – that of Bill Clinton and that of Newt Gingrich.) If the sinner is one of your own, invoke New Testament ideals. If the sinner belongs to some other group, bring down the wrath of God.

Why does David Brooks not know this?

In today’s column (here), Brooks seems genuinely puzzled by the support Ted Cruz gets among evangelicals. Brooks begins by recounting Cruz’s efforts as Texas solicitor general to keep a man in prison far beyond what the law permitted.Would good Christians vote for such a merciless and vindictive fellow? You bet they would.

Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. . .

There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them
Mercy, gentleness, and compassion may be Christian virtues, but in dealing with those who have broken the law, Christians in the US go overwhelmingly for wrath. (I assume that Brooks, focusing on polls in Iowa, is talking about White Christians. )

The GSS asks people if they think that courts are “Too Harsh,” “Not Harsh Enough,” or “About right.” On this item, people who believe in the divinity of Christ are the most likely to think that courts are too soft on criminals. About four out of five want the courts to be harsher.

Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are somewhat more punitive than other Protestants. Closer to nine in ten want the courts to visit harsher punishments on people convicted of crime.

(The data are from 2000 because that is the only year that the GSS asked about Protestant subdivisions.)

This pattern holds for the death penalty as well. Protestants are the least likely to oppose the death penalty. 

Except for self-identified “liberal Protestants,” the people most likely respond with mercy and compassion are those who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus.

This Protestant penchant for punitiveness turns up in other places as well. On the GSS item that says “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard, spanking,” Christians – especially Protestants and especially Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants – are most likely to agree (40%) and agree strongly (another 50%). As usual, it’s the non-Christians, Jews especially, who disagree.

As Brooks and others have noted, Ted Cruz has many unpleasant qualities.* But his lack of compassion and mercy are not going to lose him any votes among White conservative Christians.

* Brooks is not alone among Republicans in disliking Cruz. As Frank Bruni wrote last month in the Times, “A Bush 2000 alumnus said to me: ‘Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.’”

A Gun Is Not a Swimming Pool

January 11, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The trouble with liberals is that they worry about guns being dangerous.  If we can’t get rid of them, we think, then at least let’s make them safer. But arguments and policies based on safety are not going to get much support from the gunslingers.

Charles Blow makes the safety argument in today’s New York Times (here). He draws the rough parallel between guns and cars.

People, including the president in his speech and town hall meeting last week, like to compare increasing gun regulations to the way cars are regulated. . . . Furthermore, cars are required to be licensed, registered, insured and periodically inspected.

Usually, it’s the the gunlovers who bring up cars, almost always in the same paragraph as swimming pools. Why all the fuss about guns, they argue, when these other ordinary things pose far greater danger.  In the National Review in 2013 (here), John Lott asked, “Should you ask your neighbors if they own a gun before your child plays at their house?” Here’s how he answered his own question

If you are going to worry about your child’s safety you should check into other, perhaps less obvious dangers lurking in the playmate’s house: swimming pools, bathtubs, water buckets. . . Drownings alone claimed 609 deaths. . . .And don’t forget to ask about the playmate’s parents’ car and their driving records if your child will ride with them: After all, motor-vehicle accidents killed 923 children younger than 10.

All of those are far outnumber the 36 children who died in shooting accidents.

Lott doesn’t say what would happen if we looked not at absolute numbers but at risks. To do that properly, we’d have to know how many children played at houses where there were pools; or how many children rode in cars. We’d have to find out what proportion of car trips or swimming-pool play dates were fatal. Then we’d have to make the same comparison for children who played at homes equipped with guns.

Both sides leave out the crucial difference between swimming pools and cars on the one hand and guns on the other: The purpose of a swimming pool is recreation; the purpose of a car is transportation. Neither is intended to kill. But guns are for killing.

Suppose we could design a totally safe car – a car that absolutely could not kill anyone in the car or outside it. Many people would buy such a car. Insurance companies would give discounts to owners. Our elected officials might even require that all cars be equipped with this life-saving technology. And similarly for swimming pools.

Now imagine a gun that was guaranteed incapable of killing people.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. It happened. Or rather, it didn’t happen. Just the threat of such a disaster – a safer gun – was enough to mobilize the gunslingers to prevent it.

In 2000 the Clinton administration reached an agreement with Smith & Wesson, to end federal and state lawsuits, in exchange for marketing and design changes by the company. Some of the items Smith & Wesson agreed to were: to sell guns with locks; to build the locks in the weapons within two years; implement smart gun technology; and take ballistic fingerprints of its guns. [Wikipedia]

The NRA went ballistic. They organized a boycott. In the next year, Smith & Wesson sales fell by 40%.

This time around S&W has said nothing about Obama’s proposal but has been content to silently watch the price of their shares rise.
Smith and Wesson
Learned its lesson:
Forget the prez;
Do what NRA says.
We liberals fail to understand the gunlovers’ reaction because when we think about the ability to kill a lot of people, we don’t think of that as a good thing. When we think about guns, we think about danger and safety. We make the mistake of thinking about guns the way we think about swimming pools and cars – that each step we can make towards greater safety will be welcomed by manufacturers and consumers.

But with guns, as we clearly see in the reaction to Clinton’s and Obama’s proposals, the NRA, et al., see each step towards safety as a threat. Guns are for killing. Making guns safer, limiting magazines to “only” ten or fifteen rounds, limiting guns to firing “only” three rounds per second, making guns usable only by the owner – all bad.  The gunlovers do not want anything that might reduce their ability to kill people. Lots of people.

Loitering With Intent

January 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

At a blog called The Beautiful Sentence, I came across this quote from Frederick Wiseman

The only point of view I start off with is that if I hang around long enough, I'll find a movie

My first reaction was: if I sit in a Freddie Wiseman film long enough, eventually it will be over. [His latest, “Jackson Heights,” runs three hours ten minutes. “Belfast, Maine,” with a population 1/20 that of Jackson Heights, was over four hours long.]

But my next, and less cynical, thought was something that I heard William H. Whyte say at an ESS convention in the early 1980s.

I know that if I look at something nobody’s ever looked at before, and if I look long enough, I’m going to find something that nobody’s ever found before

It’s the ethnographer’s creed – hanging around, and then hanging around systematically, will lead to some insightful combination of observation and ideas. Whyte makes his ideas explicit. In Wiseman’s films, the ideas are hidden in the editing – the selection and juxtapositions.No voiceover narration, no interviews, no evident filmmaker presence at all. The filmmaker is seemingly invisible, indifferent, off somewhere paring his fingernails, though what he is really doing is paring and pasting thousands of feet of film.

The similarity in their work goes further.Wiseman’s documentaries are sociological. Whyte’s sociology is cinematic. Wiseman’s films are about social contexts, usually institutions. His first, “Titicut Follies,” explored (exposed really) a prison for the criminally insane. His next-to-most recent, documents London’s National Gallery. In between are flims like “High School,” “Zoo,” “Boxing Gym,” “La Comédie-Française ou L'amour joué,” and many more.

After his best-seller, The Organization Man (1956), Whyte turned to more visual kinds of research, not so much listening to what people say but watching what they do, especially in public places. He and his researchers were, like Wiseman, “hanging around,” but they were also filming and photographing and analyzing that evidence all with the goal of discovering what makes a space attractive. Attractive not in the sense of nice-looking, but literally: a space is attractive if it attracts people.    

Places to sit, sunlight, water (touchable, splashable), street characters (entertainers) – all these attract people. 

That leads to the greatest insight.

(A film of Whyte’s city observations is here . You can find a shorter 3-minute version here.)

B is for Beauty Bias

January 6, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The headlines make it pretty clear.
Attractive Students Get Higher Grades, Researchers Say

That’s from NewsweekSlate copied Scott Jaschik’s piece, “Graded on Looks,” at Inside Higher Ed and gave it the title, “Better-Looking Female Students Get Better Grades.”

But how much higher, how much better?

For female students, an increase of one standard deviation in attractiveness was associated with a 0.024 increase in grade (on a 4.0 scale).

The story is based on a paper by Rey Hernández-Julián and Christina Peters presented at the American Economic Association meetings. 

You can read the IHE article for the methodology. I assume it’s solid. But for me the problem is that I don’t know if the difference is a lot or if it’s a mere speck of dust – statistically significant dust, but a speck nevertheless. It’s like the 2007 Price-Wolfers research on fouls in the NBA. White refs were more likely to call fouls on Black players than on Whites. Andrew Gelman (here), who is to statistics what Steph Curry is to the 3-pointer, liked the paper, so I have reservations about my reservations. But the degree of bias it found came to this: if an all-Black NBA team played a very hypothetical all-White NBA team in a game refereed by Whites, the refs’ unconscious bias would result in one extra foul called against the all-Blacks. 

I have the same problem with this beauty-bias paper. Imagine a really good-looking girl, one whose beauty is 2½ standard deviations above the mean – the beauty equivalent of an IQ of 137. Her average-looking counterpart with similar performance in the course gets a 3.00 – a B. But the stunningly attractive girl winds up with a 3.06 – a B.

The more serious bias reported in the paper is the bias against unattractive girls.

The least attractive third of women, the average course grade was 0.067 grade points below those earned by others.

It’s still not enough to lower a grade from B to B-, but perhaps the bias is greater against girls who are in the lower end of that lower third. The report doesn’t say.

Both these papers, basketball and beauty, get at something dear to the liberal heart – bias based on physical characteristics that the person has little power to change. And like the Implicit Association Test, they reveal that the evil may lurk even in the hearts and minds of those who think they are without bias. But if one foul in a game or one-sixth of a + or - appended to your letter grade on your GPA is all we had to worry about, I’d feel pretty good about the amount of bias in our world.

[Personal aside: the research I’d like to see would reverse the variables. Does a girl’s academic performance in the course affect her beauty score? Ask the instructor on day one to rate each student on physical attractiveness. Then ask him to rate them again at the end of the term. My guess is that the good students will become better looking.]

Whither America’s Youth?

January 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Kids today are just so much better than kids of a generation or two ago.”    
When’s the last time you read an op-ed or magazine article that began like that. Never is my guess. Instead, you’re much more likely to find complaints about college kids who, when they’re not whining about being victimized by trivial and unintended slights, are demanding an end to free speech. Also popular are Millennials with their sense of entitlement and their refusal to work and jobs they find unfulfilling. And of course binge drinking, gangs, “Teen Mom,” sexting, the hook-up culture, grade inflation, and probably others I can’t think of at the moment.

But in fact most of the important trends among America’s youth are in the right direction.  Crime, for example, has decreased sharply in the last 20 years.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.  Data source here.)

Arrests for non-predatory offenses like drug violations and weapons offenses have followed a similar pattern.

Since 1995, arrests for liquor and weapons offenses are down by about two-thirds, drugs by about half.

Arrests, especially for non-predatory crimes, net only the more serious offenses. But self-report surveys, which include less serious matters, also show a decrease in the use of drugs and alcohol.

The percentage of high school seniors who have ever tried any drug is slightly lower than in the peak year, 1997 (49% vs. 54%). But kids today start their explorations at a later age. Heavy drinking has declined even more sharply – a decrease of 30% for seniors and nearly 60% for eight graders. [Source: NIDA]

As for those Teen Moms, the trend on TV (more) runs directly opposite to the trend in the real world (less).

The birth rate among younger teens is half of what it was twenty years ago. [Source: HHS ]

And it’s not because kids are having more abortions.

For teens of all ages, the rate of abortions a generation ago were three times or more greater than it is today.

Part of the reason for the lower birth rates might be that teens are not as sexually active.

The small declines in sexual activity are also accompanied by an increase in the use of contraceptives.

Finally, kids are staying in school. The overall dropout rate is half what it was in 1990. [Source]

So that’s it. Drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll.  Two out of three ain’t bad (crime too, so it's three out of four). As for rock ’n roll, the #1 song of 1995 was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Far be it from me to chart that against “Hello,” “Sorry,” or Hotline Bling.” But in the other more measurable categories, to quote a song title from an even earlier era, “It’s getting better all the time.”

Pleasure and Politics

January 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here is the bio line of an op-ed in today’s Times:
Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and a former senior political writer for Cosmopolitan.com who is writing a book about female pleasure and politics in America.
That’s a book I want to read. It’s a book I’d want to write if I knew enough about the subject. In a few posts (some of my favorites) in this blog, I have argued that American culture and politics regard pleasure with a certain amount of suspicion. Our Protestant ethic has remarkable staying power, and it underlies cultural products as diverse as Judd Apatow comedies (here) and conservative social science (here). Where European policies may be directed towards allowing people more pleasure, America has no national laws for guaranteed paid vacation days or greater job security, or family support generous enough so that parents (mothers especially) have some free time (here). The policy connection is clear. As the most recent Republican presidential nominee put it, “European-style benefits” would  “poison the very spirit of America.”  Or as one of my colleagues inadvertently suggested, he’d feel much better if we justified discussion – a dialogue about ideas – not as a source of pleasure as the French might but as a source of value, i.e., something with a practical payoff (here).

On the American political spectrum, my colleague and Judd Apatow are liberal. But generally in the US, the Protestant-ethic arguments come from the right.  The conservative fluster about pleasure gets more acute when the pleasure is sexual, and especially when the people having that pleasure are women. Male policies to control women’s sexuality arose with agrarian societies, as did other forms of inequality.  For 200,000 years or more, as hunter-gatherers, we humans were egalitarian and sexually unconstrained. Even social scientists who should know better sometimes ignore that long past and treat the more recent past – 15,000 years or so – as the total of human history. (See this post
 on virginity.)

The advent of industrial society seems to be slowly eroding those agrarian ideas. It makes sense then that those who want to conserve these agrarian-era inequalities are our political conservatives. I have long had a hunch that underneath even the most reasoned justifications for their policy preferences, for many of these conservatives, what’s really at work is a deep uneasiness about female sexual pleasure. I’d like to write a book making that argument about politics and pleasure, but as I said, my lack of knowledge and industriousness and maybe my inescapably male perspective and experiences, make me the wrong person to write that book. I hope Filipovic does it for me.