Trick or Treat

October 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Lisa over at Sociological Images has been giving a lot of thought to her Halloween costume. And everyone else’s. One of the themes she notes is the ethnic caricature: Asian, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern, etc. There’s a “Rapsta” child’s outfit. And costume companies even have outfits for dogs.

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)
(Note that the above costume is in the “Religious Gifts” section of the Website.)
The other theme is Sexy, especially in female costumes. I was going to say “women’s costumes,” but as Lisa and many other commentators have pointed out, even the costumes for girls are often sexualized – fishnet stockings and the like.

During the recent (and future) flap over Roman Polanski, there was some talk of the idea that while American attitudes condemned categorically sex with younger teenagers, Europeans were less absolute, more tolerant. I don’t know whether that assessment of sexual mores is accurate, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by looking at the Halloween costumes on sale here in the US. Not only are costumes for girls sexualized, but as Lisa notes, the costumes for adult females include sexualized versions of young girls. The sexy schoolgirl is probably the classic example, though this year she is joined by her classmate from Hogwarts.

But you can also now find Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Alice (from Wonderland), Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, a generic Girl Scout, and probably others.

I wondered if a French costume site would have similar costumes. Admittedly, this is not thorough research, but everything listed under enfant>fille was Disney-pure. Perhaps the French draw the line between enfant and adulte at a lower age. But in the costumes for women, I didn’t find the variety of sexualized pre-teens that Lisa found at the US site. One Little Red Riding Hood, one Gretel, and one schoolgirl, as opposed to the dozens of variations at the US site.

The French site did have several different nun costumes. This fits with the strategy of sexualizing a status that in reality is usually unsexy: soldier, police officer, nurse, pirate, witch, angel, etc. Or even sponge.
(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Note the price of the Bob l’Éponge Sexy costume, more than twice the nun. Must be the licensing fees. (The Olive Oyl costume – not shown, and not sexy – goes for 79€.)

Happy Halloween

A Sell-by Date for the Tax Breaks

October 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maybe you missed yesterday’s special section on Wealth and Personal Finance in the New York Times. Maybe you didn’t need to read articles like
  • “Exotic Bets to Hedge a Portfolio”
  • “Foreign Bonds Provide a Buffer . . .”
  • “ . . . Keeping the Heirs Quiet”
  • “For Equestrians, a Buyer’s Market in Horses”
Maybe you wondered who those articles were for. If so, you could have opened to page 8, to this chart, which is not to be missed, especially by those who might have thought that the benefits of the Bush tax cuts were broadly distributed and didn’t go just to the very rich.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The people in that big, blue circle, that’s who those article are for. The top 1%, the folks (to use a Bushian locution) yes, the folks who take down over $ ½ million a year and more, much more, and had their taxes reduced by nearly as much, those are the folks the Times must have had in mind with this special section. (Full article by David Cay Johnston here.)

When the Bushies bestowed this largesse upon the wealthy, they had to make it look a little less devastating to the federal budget, so they wrote in an expiration date – the end of 2010. The Bushies and their friends probably expected the Republican domination of all three branches of government to continue in perpetuity, so that when the time came, the tax breaks would be extended. They also expected that the economic strategies of tax cuts and deregulation would usher in an era of permanent prosperity rather than the worst economic period since the 1930s.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Republican paradise, and it now looks as though the sun will set on these tax breaks. Nearly a decade of the government going deep into debt in order to give you fistfuls of money as though it were trick-or-treat candy is not such a bad deal. But now . . .

What’s a poor millionaire to do? Buy another horse? Another house? Hedge the portfolio? Or might the heirs be quieted more with foreign bonds? Decisions, decisions.

Dithering and Talking Points

October 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Daily Show calls itself “a fake news show,” but it often does what the “real” news shows won’t. It documents how what people on news shows try to pass off as “spontaneous and unrehearsed” (as the opening of Meet the Press used to put it) is really planned and scripted at Talking Points Central. The Daily Show will give a quick montage of clips in which different people on different shows all use the same unusual word or phrase.

Last night it was “dithering.” A series of right-wingers, culminating in Dick Cheney, all accuse President Obama of “dithering” on Afghanistan.

(The Daily Show does not allow me to embed the video. But click here and slide to the 8:30 mark.)

It was just like the old days, when The Daily Show would string together clips from Bush Administration figures and right-wing commentators all using the same key words. But then, the statements all came on the same day, so the central direction was obvious. (I mean, it was obvious to Daily Show viewers, not to viewers of “real” news programs.)

The popularity of dithering may be more a case of contagion than planning. Note the dates of the O’Reilly and Cheney clips, more than two weeks apart.

Dithering is not a frequently used word. Lexis-Nexis shows only 27 instances in TV news transcripts for the first nine months of the year. The first use in connection with Afghanistan comes on September 24 – on Australian ABC, but the speaker was from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. So it’s likely that dithering represented one idea of how to attack Obama. That idea took hold.

Over the course of the next month, dithering begins to reverberate. Republican senators use it in hearings in early October, TV news people bounce it back, and right-wing commentators start yodeling it loudly.
They are changing the rationale for why we are in Afghanistan. Whats really going on here is a dither, a big dither, indecisiveness. (William Bennett on CNN, Oct. 18)
And finally the Cheney quote on Oct. 21 that is echoed in every news story about that speech.
The White House must stop dithering while Americas forces are in danger.
Quite possibly, Cheney’s speech was written by someone at the American Enterprise Institute or someone else in that neo-con circle. Still, I don’t see the dithering as a matter of “talking points” distributed by the RNC. Instead, it’s an example of what I mentioned in yesterday’s post – a word (dithering, issues) that spreads because it just sounds “right,” at least to certain people.

I expect that the dithering life cycle will be mayfly brief. Issues to mean problems was slower to catch on, and it may hang around for a good while.

Houston, We Have an Issue

October 27, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

When did problems become issues?

I remember when an issue was a point of contention, something people disagreed about, like the issues in a political campaign. Now, an issue can be just another difficulty, or what we used to call “a problem.”*

This morning my orthopedist told me that he too has “shoulder issues,” especially when he’s under stress and unconsciously tenses his shoulders. I wanted to say that I didn’t have issues, I had pain, and that the pain was a problem.

But I didn’t. Not enough time. This doctor works fast, and talks fast. “Trap strain” was his diagnosis, and it took him about as long to make it as it took you to read this sentence.

I and everyone I’ve mentioned it to think that issues started among psychotherapists. Patients’ problems became “issues.” (“You seem to have an issue with women you perceive as powerful.”) Those patients were disproportionately educated and wealthy; more of them also might have worked in the media. A Robert Weber New Yorker cartoon shows two parents as their infant child in a highchair throws food wildly all over the kitchen. The caption: “He has some food issues.”

He has some food issues.

That was in 1999, and apparently issues was fresh enough to be funny to New Yorker readers and their therapists. But I suspect that it was already late in the day and that the term was already filtering out into much broader use. I doubt that the magazine would publish that cartoon today. Last May, their “Ask the Author” page contained the sentence, “There are allergies, peculiar diets, and all sorts of food issues.” And nobody was chuckling.

So it all starts with psychotherapy and the media elite, to use a term of denigration popular on the right (George W. Bush used to pronounce it as a single word – “medialeet”). It then flowed downward and outward, much like fashions in names and clothing. To repeat an anecdote I used in an earlier post on language, only few years after that cartoon appeared, I heard a burly jock, a former defensive lineman for the Jets, talking about the team’s prospects in the upcoming season. “Well, the Jets have right tackle issues.”

At least, that’s my guess. But I need some some evidence. If I were a linguist, I’d know how to track these changes. I tried Lexis-Nexis, searching for “has an issue.” But Lex thought I was just kidding about the has, despite my using quotation marks, and it returned everything with the word issue.

I wish I could figure out how to solve this problem. Or do I mean how to resolve this issue?

*Issue as a point of contention is not the earliest meaning of the word, but it does go back to at least the early 1500s. My OED, admittedly not a recent edition, does not even mention the problem sense of the word.

Wisdom and Crowds, One More Time

October 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the early months of this blog, I had some posts about The Wisdom of Crowds. The argument that James Surowiecki makes in his book of that name is that the collective wisdom of the general public, at least those who are interested in some topic, is superior to that of a few experts. (See this post for an example).

In other posts, I framed the issue as The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money, and I wanted to see how the contest played out on the gridiron. Well, not the gridiron exactly, but in the betting about what went on there. My thesis was that the bookies (The Smart Money) were better at predicting outcomes than was the general public. (See here and here.)

Today, the NFL offers us two games that will provide more evidence. In the Steelers-Vikings game, the bookies made the Steelers a 4-point favorite. Since the beginning of the week, the public has been backing the Vikes. Three-fourths of the money has been bet on Minnesota. Usually, that would drive the line lower as bookmakers tried to make Steeler action more attractive in order to balance their books. But instead, the line has gone up to 6. Even with their books heavily weighted with Viking bets, the bookies seem to be asking the public to bet still more on the Vikes.

The Jets-Raiders game later this afternoon has a similar discrepancy. Jets opened as 7-point favorites. Public money came in on the Jets (about two-thirds of all action), but the line went down. Most books have it as 6 ½ or even 6, and it may go even lower by 4 p.m.

In both games, the bookies were responding not to the wisdom of the crowd but to the wisdom of a small number of sharp bettors, i.e, smart money.

If you follow the smart money, take the Steelers minus 6 (less, if you can find it) and Oakland plus as many as you can get (one online book still has them at 7). On the other side, the crowd, in its wisdom, 1) loves Bret Favre, and 2) doesn’t see how anyone can ever bet on the Raiders.

Sociologists, of course, will back the team whose head coach was a sociology major. Go Steelers!

(Mike and Ben having a chuckle over a basic flaw in Parsons' Social System.)

UPDATE: The Steelers won and covered, thanks to a couple of turnarounds by the defense. Twice, the Vikings looked certain to score only to have the great Bret Favre fumble or toss an interception that the Steelers returned for a TD. The smart money on the Raiders didn't look so smart. The Jets won easily, 38-0.

Culture, Relativism, and Bank Ads

October 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The word values has become pretty much the property of conservatives, who take an absolutist position. Values tell us what’s right and wrong, and by God some things are just wrong. Abortion, gay marriage, Al Qaeda. And some things are just right. The War on Terrorism, Freedom, Democracy.

This view is neatly summed up in William Bennett’s phrase “moral clarity,” which stands strong against the wishy-washy liberal view called moral relativism. Sheesh, don’t get conservatives started on moral relativism. Here’s a guy on Glenn Beck’s show:
a certain segment of society who has been indoctrinated with a certain moral relativism. . . . And it quite frankly puts our civilization in danger.
Here’s Bill Bennett himself:
Most Republicans believe there are such things as objective values, things we can arrive at through reason, and discussion, and experience, and faith . . . A lot of liberals are still suffering from the relativism of the '60s and '70s. [Nice word choice – “suffering.”]
But for the past year HSBC has been banking on cultural relativism with their Different Values ad campaign.

Some of the ads give a pair of value-laden words (good, bad) with a picture for each. Then the pictures are switched. Papaya - good; chocolate cake - bad. Or is it the reverse? Same words, different pictures.

Other ads show the same picture, but with different value labels. What idea is triggered by this old convertible – Freedom? Status Symbol? Polluter?

(Click on the image for a larger view, and read the relativistic ad copy.)

(I especially like this one. Is having four kids the self-indulgence that comes with privilege, or is it sacrifice?)

The idea, neatly summed up in the tag line of the original ads is, “different values make the world a richer place.” OK, let’s forget about the intentional double meaning of richer. And maybe we should temporarily ignore the hypocrisy of HSBC, having gobbled up local banks, now coming out as the promoter of local values.

What the ad illustrates – and this is how I’ll use them in class next week when we start talking about culture – is the idea of culture as a “meaning system.” What something means depends on the culture of the people interpreting it – as in the shaved head ad.
Those interpretations are based in experience, and the experiences we have depend on where we are in the society – as in the computer/baby ad.

Or the carpet ad.

(Can we still call them “Oriental” rugs? I guess it depends on our culture. But if we can’t call them Oriental rugs, what are they?)

UPDATE. A few hours after I posted this yesterday, I went to Brooklyn for dinner with friends. Getting out of the subway, I glanced back at the skyline of Manhattan, the island much glorified (by some), much vilified (by others), and much gentrified. Then I started up Montague St., and one of the first things I passed was an HSBC bank with this ad inside.

Service Without a Smile

October 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jenn Lena links to a site where DJ s tell stupid-club-patron stories.
dude: got any Jurassic Five?
dj: it's a Brit pop night tonight, so it wouldn't really fit in
dude: ok, what about Nirvana?
dj: Nirvana are American
dude: oh, I see. then how about The Smashing Pumpkins?
Waiters tell similar stories about diners. The blogger at Waiter Rant managed to get his blog published as a book. Teachers tell stupid-student stories. RateYourStudents, is payback for RateMyProfessors, but the tone is different, more like the DJ s’ and less like advice on who to avoid. Doctors probably tell stupid patient stories; they just don’t do it on the Internet.

People in most service occupations, it seems, have stories about the stupidity of those they serve. The dudes or blondes, students, customers and occasionally the employers are inevitably ignorant, and exasperating. They are also often selfishly inconsiderate. And they don’t even realize it.

Why do we tell these stories? They seem to have a defensive quality, as though the self is threatened , for in most cases the moral of the story is, “I deserve better.” They are literally self-serving. They serve to defend the self. The threat to self is especially acute when the clients have some power and can make demands. Most of the DJ stories, like the one above, involve requests. Ditto for waiter stories. But even when control over one’s work is not an issue, even when the client has almost no power, as with teachers and doctors, people need to distance the self from the implications of the situation.

When we sit around and swap these stories, we are telling ourselves that we are in the business of creating pearls, and we do create them. But the demands of our job require us to cast them before swine (or, as we say now, before H1N1).

Times They Are a-Changin'

October 16, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

There were several empty seats when I got to class yesterday, so I asked the students if it was still early. A couple of them flipped open their cell phones.

Doesn’t anybody have a watch? I remembered all those mornings when my son went off to high school, and I would see his wristwatch lying on the dresser. “Aren’t you taking your watch?”


So I took a survey. How many of you don’t wear a wristwatch? They all raised their hands (and bare wrists) except for one student, and even she wasn’t wearing hers that day. It’s all cell phones. “The new pocket watch,” said one student. I suggested he ought get a chain and waistcoat.*

It looks like the wristwatch is another generational marker, soon to go the way of the typewriter.
But a wristwatch isn’t just for telling time. It’s jewelry, it’s conspicuous consumption. A friend who worked at Canyon Ranch (an expensive spa) told he had witnessed a small misunderstanding there. One client (rancher? camper?) had mistaken another as an employee. The one who felt he’d been slighted thrust out his arm at the other man. “That’s a five thousand dollar Rolex,” he announced.

Cell phones are democratizing. Yes, some cost more than others, but the top of the line phone, the best phone, the iPhone, is within reach of most people. The most expensive model I could find online today costs $750. And the cheaper iPhones look just like the expensive ones.

Watches, on the other wrist, have limitless potential as status markers. That Rolex would be put to shame by even a low-end Patek Phillipe, like this $16,000 model (which looks strikingly like a Timex I used to own.)

Or this De Bethune with a MSRP of $95,000.

But why not get something really good like this Blancpain? It’s only 250,000 (the website didn’t say whether that was dollars or euros. If the latter, multiply by about 1.5. But if you have to do the math, you probably can’t afford it anyway.)

*I also told him of the line I heard Woody Allen use on the Johnny Carson show ages ago. Woody took out a pocket watch as if to check the time, and Carson admired it. “My grandfather,” said Woody somberly, “on his deathbed,” he paused, “sold me this watch.”

Taking an Incomplete in Religion

October 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In comments on my “Christian Is Not a Religion” post, Man of Letters says that minority and majority perceive things differently. Stephen Colbert’s, “I don’t see race” nicely illustrates the idea that privilege, when it’s working well, is invisible, especially to the privileged. Nonwhites may find it harder to unsee race.

The privileged position (white, male, etc.) is the default setting. As with default settings for machines or software, most people don’t even notice that these settings exist. After a while, the default setting just seems to be the “natural” way, the way things are. The default also comes be seen not just as the way things are but as the way things should be. To say that male is the default setting for sex implies that other settings, female for instance, are, well, faults. Being male is right and natural; it’s what we all should be doing. Women just aren’t as good at it.*

A similar set of assumptions seems evident in Justice Scalia’s idea that it is “outrageous” to think that the cross honors only Christian war dead. In Scalia’s view, even if you’re not a Christian, the cross is still for you. And if you don’t feel honored by that cross, well maybe there’s something wrong with you. In Scalia’s case, these ideas still seem to be unexamined assumptions. Others make the case more explicitly. Theologian Ann Coulter, among others, says that in relation to Christians, Jews are “uncompleted” or “unperfected.” When Jews are completed and perfected, they will be Christians.

Jews, given their centuries-long experience with others seeking to perfect them, may understandably be less than enthusiastic about Ms. Coulter’s beneficence.


*This assumption has been the basis of TV sitcom plots going back to “I Love Lucy.” Lucy tries to do something that men usually do (for example, working or having a job), only to fail hilariously.

The New York Walk - High Line Edition

October 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Our semi-annual New York walk yesterday took a different route from any previous walk. We hit the High Line, the elevated train tracks that had long fallen into disuse and that the city converted into a pedestrian walkway. Here’s a before-and-after.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.

If you give people in the city a place to walk, they will. The High Line is fairly narrow, as you can see, and not all that long. But people walk up and walk back, even though there are not a lot of things to do – no shops or displays to look. But people stop and take photos of one another. Here’s part of our group.

(George, Paulo, Joe)
Our itinerary was briefer than in previous years. It included another recent New York innovation – the conversion of several blocks of midtown Broadway into a pedestrian area, with chairs. We had lunch at the Chelsea Brewing Company at Chelsea Piers, which was offering a menu of about 30 locally brewed beer, ale, and stout.

But the New York Walk is about walking. Especially on the High Line, I was reminded of the passeggiata, the non-utilitarian walk that Italians take after dinner, strolling about town talking and looking at the other people who are strolling and looking. Italians may be more aware than New Yorkers that they themselves are the attraction, what others have come out to review. But in either case, walking for no purpose but to look at other people is a pleasure afforded almost exclusively by cities. It is to New York’s credit that it recognizes this special urban possibility and has tried to enhance it.

Christian Is Not a Religion (and Jews Have a Cross to Bear)

October 9, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the flap over Sonia Sotomayor’s gender and ethnicity, when the right went nuts over her “wise Latina”comment, I noted (here) the invisibility of dominant characteristics.
White male is the default setting. White is not a race, male is not a gender. Only blacks, Hispanics, and others have race. Only women and gays have gender.
I should have added that usually these are invisible only to the whites and the males. I also should have added that, in the US at least, Christian is not a religion.

From Wednesday’s New York Times
As the Supreme Court weighed a dispute over a religious symbol on public land Wednesday, Justice Antonin Scalia was having difficulty understanding how some people might feel excluded by a cross that was put up as a memorial to soldiers killed in World War I.

“It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead,'” Scalia said of the cross that the Veterans of Foreign Wars built 75 years ago atop an outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve. “What would you have them erect?...Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”'

Peter Eliasberg, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer arguing the case, explained that the cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and commonly used at Christian grave sites, not that the devoutly Catholic Scalia needed to be told that.

''I have been in Jewish cemeteries,'' Eliasberg continued. ''There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.''

There was mild laughter in the packed courtroom, but not from Scalia.

“I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion,” Scalia said, clearly irritated by the exchange. [emphasis added]
Just as white is the universal race (in the eyes of whites) and male the universal sex (in the eyes of males), Christianity is the universal religion. The Times writer says that Scalia did not need to be told that the cross is the symbol of Christianity. But Scalia says that it’s “outrageous” to think that the cross honors only Christians. In other words, the Christian religious symbol is the universal religious symbol . . . at least in the eyes of Christians like Scalia. I think Justice Ginsburg might disagree.

UPDATE. The Times this morning published a letter which says, in part, “The cross does not represent ‘establishment’ of a particular religion. It is a simple, and neutral, recognition that those honored were, by an enormous margin, Christians.” The writer, Ron Holdaway, is a retired judge in Wyoming.

What a persuasive choice of words. Neutral! Neutral is good (by Polonius). The old neutral cross.

That saying, “It’s Sinatra’s world, we just live in it,” is funny when it’s about Ol’ Blue Eyes. But when it’s changed to “It’s Christianity’s world; we’re just allowed to live in it,” it loses much of its humor.

(As for Judge Holdaway, I picture my grandmother, were she alive: “Holdaway, Ron Holdaway,” she muses, rolling the name around in her mind, looking at it from different angles for several seconds. Then, “Doesn’t sound Jewish.”)

Losing a Teachable Moment

October9, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bureaucracy was the topic in class yesterday, and a student had a wonderful anecdote. The trouble was that I couldn’t figure out what it was an example of. I still can’t.

Here’s the story.
She needed a copy of her birth certificate, and eventually she found the right government building and the right office, only to find a sign on the door saying that the person she needed to see was away for a one-day seminar. She went home and returned the next day. Same sign.

Maybe the person was late in getting back. When she came back a third day and the same sign was still there, she went into another office to find out what was up.

Another worker explained that the person in that office was off for a week vacation, but they didn’t have a sign that said that. The only sign they had was the one-day seminar sign. So that’s what they posted.
There are some lessons to be learned here – don’t believe everything you read, close enough for government work, etc. Beyond the practical implications though, I had the feeling that story also illustrated some more general sociological concept or principle. But whatever that might have been, it was, and still is, hidden someplace in the shadows.

Any ideas? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Before It’s Too Late . . .

October 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Act now — while there’s still time.

A Preference for Bad News

October 4, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wright links to an article by Rod Dreher claiming that “our news media, through heavily biased reporting and analysis, are turning significant numbers of American voters against religious conservatives.”

I was skeptical that the media have this power. The “media elite” may be secular, and their views may be be at odds with those of conservative Christians. But the only evidence Dreher gives that their politics influence viewers is the finding that people who watch more TV news are more likely to think that “Christian fundamentalists are ideologically extreme and politically militant.” That’s probably because extremism of any stripe is what gets on the news. Or maybe it’s because it’s true, and people who pay more attention to the news have a more accurate view of what’s happening.

Besides, Dreher goes on to maintain that the US is still a religious nation with a populace that generally takes a dim view of nonbelievers. That contradicts his main point. If we are still religious, even after decades of our media being dominated by secularists, their anti-Christian influence must be very weak. So why get all worried? Why pay so much attention to the beliefs of the people who write the news?

Then on Friday, David Brooks echoed my sentiments, not about religion but in reference to the right-wing media. Limbaugh, Beck, and the rest, he said, make a lot of noise, but their ability to change votes is minimal.

Now I found myself in the position of Dreher. Although I had scoffed at Dreher’s idea that the secularism of US newsrooms was swaying the country, here I was, insisting that Limbaugh and Fox TV had to be having some effect. But why did I react that way? Why would we (Dreher from one side, me from the other) insist that the people we didn’t like were so influential?* Why wouldn’t we take comfort in the idea that they were, as Brooks says, like the Wizard of Oz – seemingly large on screen, but in reality small and powerless behind the curtain?

At first, I was reminded of the joke my mother told me long ago about the old Jew who subscribed to the newspaper of the American Nazi Party. His neighbors were appalled. “You should read the Jewish Daily Forward” they insisted. “Why do you read that garbage?”

“If I read the Forward, what do I see? Jews killed in Germany, pogroms in Russia, anti-Semitism in Poland, Jews persecuted everywhere. If I read the American Nazi paper, what do I see? Jews control the government. Jews own all the banks. Jews have all the money. . . .”

My second thought was that our preference for bad news – our insistence that our enemies must be having some nefarious impact – was yet another instance of what Lindesmith called the “evil-causes-evil assumption.” If something is evil, it must have evil consequences. This assumption must be a very powerful indeed. Even when faced with the possibility of good news – that our enemies are ineffectual – we’ll cling to our assumption and keep reading the bad news in the Forward.

* I’m referring here to my initial gut reaction. In fact, Brooks doesn’t provide much convincing evidence that the right-wing voices go unheeded. He cites only one systematic study of the absence of a Limbaugh effect, but that study was focused on one narrow issue – Rush’s urging Republicans to cross over and vote for weaker candidates in the Democratic primaries.

My Message Is Heard

October 1, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post about the Polanski case, I predicted that some people would make an argument that his prosecution would deter child rape.
No doubt, some people will argue that the case, especially because Polanski is famous, will “send a message”
The Times must have been listening. Here’s a letter from this morning’s paper.
Robert Harris asks who benefits from the arrest of Roman Polanski, more than three decades after his admission of having had sex with a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles. The answer is society and all children at risk of becoming victims in the future.

Even if Mr. Polanski succeeds in negotiating his immediate freedom, the fact of his being made to answer before a court would be salutary.

It would send a message about the seriousness of such crimes, rather than the “who cares” message that Mr. Harris sends (and that the three French presidents, who, Mr. Harris reports, have dined with Mr. Polanski, also send).
I’ve already voiced my skepticism about these messages (here). I suspect that while the court’s action may have some effect on the feelings of the partisans on both sides of this debate, its impact on sexual crimes against children will be nil.

Justice and Crime in the Same Sentence?

September 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Roman Polanski case – or more accurately, the reaction to it – should serve as a reminder that ideas about punishment are usually less concerned with its effect on criminals than its effect on non-criminals. We want crime policies that make us feel good, regardless of their effect on crime. We call this “justice.”

Some of Polanski’s supporters argue that he has suffered enough. Critics like Gautham Nagesh caustically shred that logic, arguing implicitly that no, he hasn’t suffered enough, he should suffer more. And while both, especially the Nageshes, claim to be concerned about child rape, nobody has anything to say about how what happens to Polanski will affect actual child rape. That’s partly because nobody really knows, but mostly because what’s at issue is not crime; it’s justice.

Polanski committed his crime thirty years ago and since then has, as far as anyone knows, committed no others. The idea that sending him to prison now will prevent crime by incapacitating or rehabilitating him is out of the question. It’s also hard to argue that punishing him now will deter other potential child rapists. No doubt, some people will argue that the case, especially because Polanski is famous, will “send a message,” but there’s no evidence that what happens to Polanski will have any effect. Besides, if Polanski is so important, why have these people not been urging his arrest and extradition for the last few decades?

Often, the justice-seekers claim to be proxies for the victim, especially in murder cases. They demand the death penalty, carrying signs that say things like “Justice for Jessica,” though Jessica, unfortunately, no longer walks this plane to enjoy the justice that will come from the execution.

The Supreme Court has agreed with this use of the justice system as a vehicle for personal feelings. Victims and relatives may now make “victim impact” statements that affect sentencing. Unfortunately for the justice-seekers in the Polanski case, the victim herself is on record as wanting no further punishment for the criminal. In fact, she issued a statement that the further pursuit of the case is hurting her and her family. So, as with the “justice for Jessica” types, it’s clear that the feelings the justice-seekers are concerned with are their own.

Arguments about justice are fine for a case in the headlines. That’s probably why the case is in the headlines – it’s a vehicle for justice, a vehicle that we can all ride on and try to steer in the direction we like. The trouble arises when we use these cases and our reactions to them as the basis for sentencing, and when we think that the sentences that satisfy our sense of justice will also bring less crime.

What’s New, Pussycat?

September 29, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Lisa at Sociological Images linked to some in-house research reported on the blog of OK Cupid , an online dating site. I assume that OK works like – you look at people’s profiles; if you’re interested, you send them a message. Maybe they respond, or maybe they ignore you.

At OK Cupid, about two-thirds of the messages get no response.

The Cupidologists did a content analysis of 500,000 messages to find out what increases or decreases that rate. For example, should you compliment the person on their appearance?

The red bars heading south show response rates below the 32% average. Tell someone she’s sexy, and you’ve cut your chances in half. Messages containing the word “hot” (regardless of context – even if it was about the weather), decreased the chances of response from 32% to 25% (probably not about the weather). The authors say that this finding applied to both sexes but that men were much more likely to use these terms. OTOH, non-physical compliment words (green bars) can raise your chances by a few percentage points. (BTW, netspeak terms in messages killed ur chances of a response.)

And the term had the biggest positive effect?

“You mention.” In other words, “I actually read what you wrote in your profile.” Or, “I’m interested in what you said, not just in how you look.”

I wonder whether something similar applies in face-to-face first encounters – i.e., pick-up lines. Of course, when you see someone in a bar, the only information you have is their appearance. You don’t yet know about long walks on the beach.

Salutations aren’t pick-up lines, but the OKers do say that greetings made a difference. A message that began, “How’s it going?” was more than twice as likely to get a response as “Hi.”

OK also has other research reports (e.g., “Rape Fantasies and Hygiene By State”), but these are based on surveys of their clients. The sample is large, but there may be problems of representativeness.)

Kill and Maim — But Please, No Violence

September 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Times this morning has an article about Najibulla Zazi – the guy who was buying all that peroxide and nail polish remover in order to make bombs. (“I have a lot of girlfriends,” he told an employee of the Beauty Supply Warehouse who had asked him about the large quantities. In the context of what we now know, the line sounds like something out of a Monty Python sketch.*)

The Times is trying to “explain his embrace of violence.”

The trouble is that although we think that “violence” is a quality of the act, the way we usually use the word shows that whether an act is violent depends on who does it and why. To destroy the World Trade Towers killing 3000 people, that’s violence. But what about bombing Baghdad in shock and awe. Nobody in this country ever refers to that as violence.

The Times article provides another example:
Friends said that Najib later came to love videos on YouTube that featured Zakir Naik, a physician in India and a prominent speaker on Islam. Dr. Naik has been a controversial figure among Muslims and has been criticized for endorsing polygamy and Islamic criminal law, wherein the hands of a thief are chopped off, calling it “the most practical.” . . .

Dr. Naik does not preach violence . . .
I thought that cutting off someone’s hands was an act of violence. Naive me. But then, I also thought it was violent to kill a person. But you never hear capital punishment referred to as “violence” except by a few death-penalty abolitionists.

So if Zazi was, as is alleged, planning to bomb Yankee Stadium or Penn Station, he probably didn’t consider it violence.

The word has taken on a sort of tribal quality. Violence is what “they” do to “us.” If we do it to them, or if it’s justifiable in some other way, it’s not “violence.”

* Maybe one with the B&B with Mr. Hilter.

Philosophy — Child's Play*

September 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.
So wrote deTocqueville 175 years ago. Perhaps the converse is also true – that in no country is more attention paid to philosophy than in France. (Or is that the obverse? the transverse? the freeverse? I’d know if I’d ever taken a course in philosophy or logic, which, like a good American, I haven’t.)

I cited this French penchant for philosophy in a post a couple of years ago, where I also quoted Adam Gopnik’s speculation that French magazines might have “theory checkers” – he might just as well have said “philosophy checkers” or “logic checkers” – the way American publications have fact-checkers. “Just someone to make sure that all your premises agreed with your conclusions, that there aren’t any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream—that kind of thing.”

It seems that in France, kids are weaned on philosophy. It’s as though they go straight from breast milk to Descartes (and St. Emilion). Here’s a photo taken by the wonderful water colorist Carol Gillott and posted on her Paris Breakfasts blog.

It’s from a display at the Paris Salon de Livre. The books, by Oscar Brenifier, are philosophy for kids. Savoir, C’est Quoi? Le Beau et l’Art, C’est Quoi? Moi, C’est Quoi? And so on.

The cover of Savoir, C'est Quoi promises “Six questions for juggling with ideas and looking behind appearances.” Questions like, “How do you know the universe exists?” and “Is it important to think [réfléchir]?”

In France, it seems, it’s important for kids to be exposed to ways of thinking like a grown-up, thinking seriously. In the US, we remain suspicious of philosophy, the love of thinking for its own sake.**

* The title is a variant on a cookbook for kids by Michel Oliver, La cuisine est un jeu d'enfants. Translating it as Cooking is Child’s Play just leads to too many obvious puns, especially now with “Julia and Julie” in the theaters. Like philosophy, cooking is something the French take seriously, and they convey that attitude to their children.

** Not completely. I should add that Montclair State for many years has had the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.

The Good Wife

September 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Good Wife,” says the New York Times’s TV critic, “may turn out to be the best new drama.” If so, it had better figure out what’s foreground and what’s background.

The opening episode for the most part was straight Perry Mason. The DA has a slam-dunk murder case. The defendant’s lawyer finds that the case is even more hopeless than it seemed, but then she goes to work. Embarrassed in the early part of the trial by DA and judge, she comes back not only to make a fool of the DA’s team, not only to establish enough reasonable doubt for acquittal, but during cross-examination to reveal who the real murderer was. Yep, the defense lawyer solved the crime while the Law and Order set were pursuing the wrong person.

My objection (and I hope it’s sustained) is that the interesting stuff, and what apparently got the show on the air, has nothing to do with crimes and trials. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margolies) is, as the title says, the good wife, not the good lawyer (though of course she’s a good lawyer too). She’s the good wife (the title drips with conflict if not irony) because she remains married to her husband, even though he is in prison following a politically charged sex scandal. You watch the show to see how Alicia copes with her snappish boss, also a woman (Christine Baransky channeling Sigourney Weaver in “Working Girl”), with her husband, her kids, the nasties in the DA’s office, and the rest. You don’t watch it to find out who shot JR.

No doubt, all these people will present Alicia with a host of problems, problems that she’ll survive and surmount, all the while solving crimes, winning cases, and wearing really nice clothes.

Dixie Land Looks Away

September 21, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“What’s with Mississippi? Is that, like, some other country?” a student once asked. She had been looking at data on the 50 states and noticed that on several of the variables, Mississippi ranked at the extreme.

I suppresed my Nina Simone bit, saying merely something like, “Well it’s not too different from some of the other Southern states.

But is the South, like, some other country?

Research on the US often splits the Region variable into two categories – South and nonSouth, and with good reason. It works.

Here’s a graph by Stephen Benen at Washington Monthly The data are from a recent Daily Kos poll, so it’s possible that the numbers tilt toward the Democrats. But that would not affect the differences among regions.

Joshua Tucker at The Monkey Cage reprints the graph and adds, “if I saw this type of regional distribution of support for a political party in a country like Slovakia, I would assume the party represented an ethnic minority.”

Among the citizens, the GOP may be the functional equivalent of an ethnic minority party. But it’s minority party with national power far beyond its electoral appeal. For starters, it effectively has veto power over national legislation, it controls the Supreme Court, it represents powerful economic interests, and it runs an entire TV network.

David Brooks Gets It Right (Just a Little)

September 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

From David Brooks’s column this morning

Of course he didn’t stop. Writing, I mean. He should have. Instead, Brooks went on to argue that the anti-Obama protests have nothing to do with race. That’s no doubt true of some of the protesters, maybe a majority.

But what about the ones who march under the flag of a country that fought a war against the United States of America and on the side of racism? They are a minority perhaps, but certainly not the fringe. They are numerous enough to have elected a Congressman like Joe Wilson, who fought to keep that flag flying above the Statehouse.

The anti-Obama protests are not about race in the same way that Prohibition was not about immigration and ethnicity. It’s about “small-town virtues and limited government” in the same way that Prohibition was about sobriety.

As I argued earlier (here), health care, bailouts, and other policies are convenient policy matters that the protesters have seized upon. What’s really at issue is their anguish at no longer running the show and their anger that they and others who look and think the way they do have lost their position of dominance. They feel that it is their country and that people who are not like them have taken it away. They consider the Obama presidency illegitimate. Which is maybe why their signs are about money, taxes, Freedom, abortion, and socialism. They say nothing about democracy, that nasty process that allowed this usurper to seize power via the sneaky tactic of getting the most votes.

Cardinal Rules

September 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

School mascots and team names are the subject of a discussion over at Sociological Images. Much of the discussion is about ethnic names – the Orientals, the Gauchos, etc. And of course all those variants on Native Americans (SocImages has more on them here),* which reminded me of my favorite story in this department.

At Stanford , since 1930 or so, teams had been the Indian. But in 1972, what with political correctness and all, the administration changed it to the Cardinals.

The alumni felt as though someone had flipped them the bird, and demanded that the Indian be reinstated. Being a democratic institution, the university put it to a referendum in 1975, and students voted on a ballot that included the Indians, the Cardinals, and several other choices including Sequoias, Trees, Railroaders, and Robber Barons.

And the winner is: the Robber Barons.

The administration felt that this was insulting to the dignity of their founder Leland Stanford (insulting, though accurate). So they ran another referendum, this time with Robber Barons removed from the ballot.

And the winner is: Robber Barons on a write-in campaign.

At which point the administration said to hell with it, it’s the Cardinal – the color, not the bird – though for some reason, the creature that cavorts on the field is mostly green, not red. Nor does it do much for the dignity thing.

* Montclair State underwent a similar transformation at about the same time. We had been the Indians. But we acquired some avian DNA and morphed into the Red Hawks.

Are Chefs the New Lawyers?

September 16, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“What I’d really like to do,” Dave said, “ is quit, go to the CIA, and become a chef.” Dave is a real estate lawyer, and we were talking about his potato salad. The CIA he was referring to is the Culinary Institute of America, 90 miles up the Hudson River, not that other one.

Who’s cooking and who’s lawyering isn’t just a matter of individual desire. It’s also a matter of demand in the economy, and maybe Dave’s fantasy had something do with the dismal trough that commercial real estate had been in. But over the last several decades, both these occupations have grown.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The graphs, showing the percent of the work force in each occupation, are from Job Voyager. I’d known about BabyName Voyager and used it an a post. As with BabyName, these graphs use blue for men, pink for women.

The boom for lawyers and chefs still looked good in 2000 (I wish the voyage had continued into the 21st century, but this is as far as the data set goes), but the graph for college professors might just as well be the graph for leisure suits and disco balls.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The chart on the left shows all professors, but the hard sciences far outnumber the social sciences, which are shown separately on the right. In both charts, after the glory days of the 1970s, there’s a steep decline, steeper in the hard sciences than in the social sciences. But the social sciences curve does not rocket skyward in 1957 (remember Sputnik?) as the hard sciences do. I don’t know what accounts for the professorial bust that begins around 1980, but I’d guess that the baby boomers had something do with it as they aged out of their college years.


September 14, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Another year. Two hundred posts, which sounds like a lot even to me.

I’ve gone back and selected a sort of top ten. I’m leaving out the culture reviews – a Randy Newman concert, Billy Elliot, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, Rachel Getting Married – even though I like them (and linked them, just in case anyone might be curious) . But most of the posts on the below are based on some quick and dirty data.

1. Godwin’s Law(“As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”) seemed to apply more to the right than the left, so I counted (here). Since then, as you mght guess, the Obama-Hitler hits have doubled.

2. The whole anti-Obama movement struck me as an example fo what Joseph Gusfield called “status politics,” (here) and the Teabaggers and the rest look strikingly like the Temperance movement in Gusfield’s book, though this time around they’ve added gallons of personal vitriol.

3. and 4. The reaction to the Sotomayor nomination provided lots of sociologists with examples for their courses. Mine are here and here .

5. Crime and law enforcement came up, as in this post about racist outcomes without racist attitudes in the LAPD (here) .

6. After I posted on the decline in spouse killings, I found that there was more research on this than I had been aware of (too much and too inconclusive to summarize here).

7. Cop killings connected to drugs might not be all they’re made out to be in the media. But you’ll never convince Peter Moskos of it.

8. The media also got it wrong on clearance rates. A simple graph shows how the press turned good news into bad.

9. The press also found evidence that vouchers in primary education were working wonders. I had a different interpretation.

10. “Keynes from My Father” was just anecdotal evidence, and the allusion to Obama in the title was a bit much. But it’s a personal favorite, maybe because it comes from one of those intersections between what Mills calls biography and history. (The biography is more my father’s than mine.)

9-11 Counterfactual

September 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Remember how the whole country seemed united?” someone asked yesterday, referring to the months following Sept. 11, 2001 and implicitly comparing the mood of the country then to what we have now.

Yes, it seemed only natural that when we felt that the whole country was under attack from the outside, we would forget internal differences. But now I’m wondering about the counterfactual:

What if Obama had been elected in 2000, and it was Obama who had been in office nine months when the attacks occurred. How would the Republicans, those in office and those in the media – the Joe Wilsons, the Limbaughs and Coulters and Fox TV – as well as the birthers and other good citizens who have been showing up at town hall meetings, how would they have reacted?

Poverty, Income (and Virtue?)

September 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a brief follow-up to the previous post about changes in income and poverty. First the news.

And then the longer view.

(Click on the graph to see it larger.

It makes no sense to talk about these economic facts in terms of “virtue” as David Brooks likes to do. Virtue is nice. I’m all for it. But it has nothing to do with what’s going on in the economy. Those 2,600,000 people who fell into poverty in 2008 (and the data for 2009 will be still more grim) are no less virtuous than they were in 2007.

(HT: I got the Census Bureau graphs from Brad DeLong.)

David Brooks Doesn’t Get It

September 9, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks’s persona, the character he plays in print and on TV, is the reasonable conservative – fair-minded, with ideas based in fact rather than ideology. He also likes to play the sociologist, offering broad pronouncements on society and culture. Especially culture.

Look at yesterday’s column, a puff piece for a new magazine, National Affairs, which he sees as the successor to The Public Interest. Brooks briefly summarizes the articles in the current issue.

Brooks loves virtue, which he usually subsumes under “culture” – the ideas people live by. But he ignores structure. He also forgets the basic insight of Sociology 101, week one – Durkheim: explanations of individual facts (like who gets ahead and who doesn’t) often aren’t much help in explaining social facts (like the overall degree of inequality and poverty in a society).

In explaining suicide at the individual level, sadness is a pretty useful concept. People who commit suicide are, no doubt, sadder than those who don’t. The surest way not to commit suicide is to be happy, not sad. But does knowing about these individual differences help us understand why the US has a rate of suicide nearly triple that of Greece? Are Americans three times as sad as Greeks? And within the US, are whites twice as sad as blacks?

Levels of income and degrees of inequality have as much to do with “virtue” as rates of suicide have to do with sadness.

From 2000 to 2007, median family income in the US fell by 5%. (Don’t look for the data on 2008 and 2009, when it comes out, to reverse this trend.) Can we conclude that Americans became more self-indulgent and irresponsible? That they threw away their degrees, broke up their families, and quit their jobs?

Since January 2008, over six million people in this country have lost their jobs. I guess the Bush administration wasn’t very good (and Obama, so far, no better) at “promoting virtuous behavior.”

Someone should suggest to David Brooks, that maybe, just maybe, when we consider income and inequality and unemployment at the national level, those individual–based explanations don’t help. It’s not a matter of culture or virtue. It’s the economy. Stupid.

Lone Star Litter . . . and Values

September 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

the brand consultant was consulting with me – i.e., he was picking up the cappuccino tab at Starbuck’s. He was about to start teaching a course called something like “Communications and Public Affairs,” and not being an academic (though he’s a really good teacher), he wanted some advice on the syllabus.

We finally got around to the idea that Messages about Issues had to be tailored for specific Audiences or Publics, particularly their Interests and Values. (Those capitalized words were possible major headings in the syllabus.)

I immediately thought of the example of Texas and litter. How could you convince Texans to be more respectful of public places and not toss all that crap out onto the roads they drove on? The Ladybird Johnson approach – “Highway Beautification”? Wrong audience. The people who were littering obviously didn’t care about highway beauty.

The guy you were trying to reach was Bubba, the classic red stater – fiercely individualistic, anti-government, macho. Bubba was also a slob, and probably proud of it. You couldn’t appeal to self-interest since it’s in Bubba’s self-interest to chuck his garbage out the window. Even hefty fines (and they are hefty) would work only if you could catch litterers often enough – unlikely on the Texas highways.

The best way in was Values. But how? “Don’t be a Litterbug, Keep Your Community Clean” would be too nice, too feminine or babyish, and, like “Pitch In” too collectivist. Instead, Roy Spence and Tim McClure at the Austin ad agency GSD&M had the Texas DOT go with chauvinism – Texas chauvinism. Spence and McClure were the ones who had distilled the target audience down to the Bubba stereotype, and the idea they played on to reach Bubba was not that littering was ugly or wrong or costly, but that it hurt Texas. And thus in 1985 was born one of the most famous and effective campaigns in the history of advertising.

With its double meaning of “mess,” it captured Bubba’s patriotism and pugnacity. The bumper stickers were soon everywhere. The TV ads featured famous proud Texans. One of the early ones (so early, I can’t find it on YouTube) featured Too-Tall Jones and Randy White, two of the toughest dudes on the Cowboys defense, picking up roadside trash.

JONES: You see the guy who threw this out the window, you tell him I got a message for him.

WHITE: (picks up a beer can): I got a message for him too.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: What’s that?

WHITE: (Crushes the beer can with one fist). Well, I kinda need to see him to deliver it.

JONES: Don’t mess with Texas.
Litter in Texas has been reduced by 72%, the campaign is still going strong a quarter-century later, and McLure and Spence have a book about it. My source was Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (no, jazzers, not those Heath brothers), Chip and Dan.

Torture and Masculinity - Anxiety on the Right

September 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

What’s with conservatives and their junk (junk in the current sense of male genitals)?

The Attorney General is looking into whether government employees – specifically CIA agents who tortured people – broke the law. Conservatives are outraged. It’s not just that conservatives think that torture is O.K. (not all torture, of course, just torture when we do it). It’s the imagery that bubbles up from their psyches.
“Emasculating US Intelligence.” (Headline on a blog at Commentary)

“Castrate the CIA, and Americans will die.” Ralph Peters in the the New York Post.
Fred Barnes, Executive Editor of the Weekly Standard on Fox TV fears that there won’t be a CIA agent left who’s able to pass his DNA to the next generation:

“They are emasculating the entire CIA.”

And of course, Charles Krauthammer:

“Panetta [head of the CIA] had his agency emasculated . . .”

These are just a few from the mainstream. If you searched blogosphere, you’d find lots more of them, anxiously lined up like soccer defenders on the free kick wall, their opposition to the attorney general being just one more example of their cojones-centered approach to legal interpretation and government policy.

I blogged about this a year ago (in what I thought was one of my better posts – here), after watching the Republican convention.
The Republicans seemed to view torture not just as a regrettable but necessary tactic. Torture became a romanticized test of toughness, the ultimate chapter in the Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche version of masculinity.

Their reactions further convince me that running just under the surface of the rational justifications for torture is the conservatives’ fear that if they reject torture, they will be less virile, less manly. They seem to have the fantasy that torturing and being tortured is a fraternity initiation – it tests a man and ultimately makes him a better person. They hold up John McCain as their exemplar.

It’s similar to the Dirty Harry fantasy about killing people. The reality of torture, as with killing, is far different from the movie and TV version. In many cases, for the victim, torture is permanently devastating. For the torturer, unless he has a bit of the psychopath in his character, it is permanently troubling.

(It’s tempting, when you actually see Fred Barnes and Krauthammer and the boys from Commentary, to make a psychoanalytic interpretation. I mean, they remind me of the wimpy brainiacs in high school who became the manager on the football team, tagging along and carrying the equipment for the muscular jocks they literally looked up to. Tempting, as I say, but I just don’t have enough information.)

Cop Killers – The UCR vs.The Wire

September 1, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is it OK for social scientists to use statistics in a misleading way when they write for the general public?

Peter Moskos is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His Cop in the Hood is based partly on his work as a police officer in Baltimore. Here’s the lede from a piece he wrote in the Washington Post with Neill Franklin, also a former Baltimore cop.

They follow this with:
In many ways, Dante Arthur was lucky. He lived. Nationwide, a police officer dies on duty nearly every other day. [emphasis added]
Let’s see – 365 days a year. That makes nearly 180 such deaths each year.

I’ve been out of the crim biz for a while, but that number sounded high to me. So I went to the UCR. Sure enough, in 2007, 140 police officers died in the line of duty. As Moskos and Franklin say, nearly one every other day.

But 83 of those officers died in accidents, only 57 were homicide victims – one every 6 days. Still a lot. But how many of those were drug-related? The UCR has the answer:


Nor was 2007 unusual. In the decade ending 2007, 1300 police officers died on the job. About 550 of these were in felonies, not accidents. And of these, 27 were drug-related. Three a year is still too many, but it’s a far cry from one every other day.

Maybe I should have looked at a DVD of The Wire instead of the UCR.

Officer Arthur will not appear in this table of the UCR. It counts only deaths. So I looked at data on assaults on police officers. There were 59,000 non-fatal assaults on police officers, nearly a third of them in “disturbances,” i.e., fights (at home, in bars, etc.). Curiously, the UCR does not have a separate category for drugs in these tables. In the Arrest category, it has Robbery, Burglary, and Other, which must include drugs. In that Other category, 174 assaults were with guns.

Total Assaults 59,201
Disturbance 18,789
Other Arrest 8,935



Using the drugs/other ratio from the table on deaths (about 1/3), we get about 60 non-fatal shootings (like that of Officer Arthur) in 2007 – one tenth of one percent of all assaults on police officers.

Moskos and Franklin argue that federal laws should allow states to make the manufacture and distribution of drugs legal and regulated rather than criminal. The authors make several good arguments against current drug laws, which have created many problems that legalization might ameliorate. But I’m skeptical as to whether legalization would make much of a difference in police safety.