The Big Ten

December 31, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve noticed some other blogs listing their most popular posts of the year, and thought I would do the same, though I’m not sure why.  The number of  views a post got seems to have less to do with its inherent quality or interest and more to do with who linked or tweeted it.  Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here they are, the top ten posts of 2013 as chosen by you the listener.

10. Is That a Thing?  News “themes” created by the media as way to organize events.

9.  Emotional Contagion. On being socially isolated when JFK was shot - my first lesson in the sociology of emotions.

8. The Vaper’s Drag  The word “vaper” harks back to “viper” of 70 years earlier.

7.  Unseparating Church and State.  Establishment clause be damned. Conservatives favor an official state religion – Christianity of course.

6.  Fish Oil and Snake Oil.  Scientific experiments, diminishing effects, and the failure to replicate.

5.  Separate Ways. Social scientists’ disenchantment with Malcom Gladwell. (I actually thought this one was kind of amusing.)

4. The Revenge Fantasy - Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. Revenge is a dish best served in purely fictional Tarantino fantasies, not in the reality of slavery .

3.  Upwardly Mobile Beer Rolling Rock and social class.

2.  Murky Research, Monkey Research  What appears in the journal article can be very different from what actually happened in the lab.

1.  Yes, But Harvard Students Know a Lot More Now  Grade inflation – with a copy of the grade sheet from a Harvard gov. course JFK took in 1940 (he got a B-, which was above the median).

“Her” – the Magic Pixie Dream OS

December 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Random thoughts after seeing “Her” (which I highly recommend), a film about the relation between a man and his computer operating system.  Here’s the trailer, which, as usual, gives a better feel for the film than any description I might write.


1.    Futuristic, but not by much.  The next day, the front page of the Sunday Times had this headline (above the fold).

Brainlike Computers, Learning From Experience
Computers have entered the age when they are able to learn from their own mistakes, a development that is about to turn the digital world on its head. . . . artificial intelligence systems that will perform some functions that humans do with ease: see, speak, listen, navigate, manipulate and control. [the full story is here]
    Samantha the OS doesn’t manipulate and control – well, just a little, and it’s for Theodore’s benefit – but she does the rest. And much more.

2.    External and internal, doing and understanding..  “Her” is about the blurring of boundaries between the technological and the human.  But one of the many trailers that preceded “Her” was for another film based on this same human/technology melding – “Robocop.”


But the technology here seems to be all about accomplishing some external task, mostly the crime-fighting that we usually associate with cops. Will the good guys’ technology beat the bad guys’ technology?  (I should probably add that I find “Action” movies tedious, full of sound and fury – also full of special effects and CGI – signifying very little. I’d gladly trade a dozen chase-fight-explosion sequences for one honest conversation among robocops sitting around eating robo-donuts.)

In “Her,” the characters face no external challenge. Instead, they are struggling to understand the feelings, desires, and reactions of someone else and how these mesh with their own.  It’s about relationships, not winning.  Action movies exaggerate the physical at the expense of everything else (an emphasis they share with porn). “Her” is about the near absence of the physical.  The one attempt to make the relationship physical is a disaster.*

3.    Ideal and effortless. Samantha (the OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is the perfect soul mate.  Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) can expose his entire life to her – she scans his entire hard drive in the first microsecond of her existence – yet we know she will never use the information in any way that hurts him.  She is like a child’s imaginary friend, but better. The child must think up the actions and reactions of the imaginary friend. Samantha requires no such effort on the part of Theodore.  And everything she does helps him.  Siri as girlfriend and therapist.

4.  MPDG.  As Super-Siri, Samantha resembles the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  This phrase, coined in a 2005 movie review  by Nathan Rabin, refers to "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."** At the start of the film, Theo certainly qualifies as brooding and withdrawn.  “I can’t even prioritize between video games and Internet porn,” he says to his neighbor (Amy Adams), who says that she’d laugh at that line if she didn’t think it were true. It is. And true to her type, Samantha brings Theo back into the world just as a MPDG should. They even go to Catalina on a double date (with a two-human couple).

5.    Control and surprise.  The wonderful thing about imaginary friends is that we have total control over them.  The same goes for servants or slaves or prostitutes or others we pay who must relate to us exactly as we want them to. (Of course, it’s more fun when we pretend that they are doing so voluntarily.) The more we control our environment, the more we give up the rewards and delights of the unexpected.  The difficulties of relationships with real people make the illusion of control all the more attractive.  But, as in “Lars and the Real Girl,” a relationship with the mere extrusion of one’s own fantasies may work for people whose emotional repertoire is severely limited, but ultimately it proves to be thin and brittle. Control certainly has its benefits.  But why do we find it so much more gratifying to hear a favorite song unexpectedly on the radio than to select the same track out of our own hard drive and play it?   You can’t tickle yourself. 

Pandora and other make-your-own-radio-station sites try to let us have it both ways – control with surprise. “Her” holds out the same seductive possibility but with something more important than music.

“Her” is a wonderful film. I’ll be surprised if Spike Jonze doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.  It’s funny and touching and thought-provoking. 

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* *In a post a few days ago, I referred to the outline of American culture sociologist by Robin Williams.  The first element he notes as a dominant theme in American culture is “Active Mastery.”  The second is that American culture
tends to be interested in the external world of things and events, of the palpable and immediate, rather than in the inner experience of meaning and affect. Its genius is manipulative rather than contemplative. 
Maybe that’s why “Her” seems so unusual while the multiplexes teem with action movies.

**Natalie Portman in “Garden State” epitomizes this trope. For other examples, see the Wikipedia entry.

Fall Courses – Marked Down and Priced to Sell

December 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Every semester when I make out the schedule (we do this several months in advance – I just finished Fall 2014) I have the same worry – making sure that each course attracts enough students so that we don’t have to cancel. Since the university pays teachers per course not per student, it wants high student-teacher ratios. Low-enrolled courses are economically inefficient; they get the axe.

For students here, the timing of a course is crucial. Montclair is predominantly a commuter school, and even the students who live in the dorms like to go home on the weekend.  So the weekend begins Thursday in the early afternoon.  Most students also have jobs; afternoon and evening hours are for work, not school. If only I could schedule all our courses Monday to Thursday between the hours of ten and two, the enrollment problem would be solved. 

But every department would like to offer all its courses in prime time, and there are only so many classrooms. So the university forces each department to schedule some of its courses in unpopular days and times. Departments, unfortunately, cannot force students to take those courses. 

The solution is obvious once you frame the problem as an imbalance of supply (classrooms/courses) and student demand. In prime time, demand outruns the supply; for other times, demand falls short.  What’s missing is the variable that links supply and demand: price.  Regardless of a course’s desirability, the price is the same.  What we need is flexible pricing.  Let the price of a course reflect the demand. If students want a great course at 11:30, let them pay for it.

Of course, you can’t say that you’re charging more for some courses. Instead, you raise tuition across the board, say $300 a course. Then you give a $300 discount for those early morning courses and late afternoon courses or for courses that have a meeting on Friday. With the hefty discount, those times would suddenly become much more attractive.

We might extend the policy to teachers. Some teachers are very popular. Their courses always fill.  But less popular teachers run the risk of not drawing the minimum enrollment.  Here too, differential pricing can help equalize student demand.  Oh, a few egos might be bruised (“You mean I’m being marked down?”*), but  enrollments would improve.  And for the really popular teachers, we could charge a premium. Like l’Oreal, they’re worth it. 

The trouble with variable pricing – aside from the basic unfairness of extending yet another advantage to those who have more money –  is that it exposes a reality we would rather not notice.  We like to think that what students are buying with their tuition is education, and it is – especially at elite schools.  But farther from the upper tiers of higher education, students also think of the academic enterprise as the buying and selling of credits, credits that ultimately add up to a diploma.**  In deciding to take a course, students consider the educational quotient, but they also calculate the costs. Right now those costs consist mostly of the opportunity costs (would it mean giving up hours at work, would it reduce the weekend from three days to two?) and perhaps the cost of the amount of work the course requires. For these students, price would merely be one more non-educational variable in the calculation.

But for those who pretend that the university is engaged solely in some ideal of education, variable pricing threatens to give the game away. As Goffman says, for staff in institutions, a large part of life is dealing with the gap between “what we do” and “what we say we do.” But university administrators are already adept at portraying administrative conveniences in terms of educational ideals. No doubt they could come up with a similar idealistic rationale for market pricing.

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* That line is spoken by wealthy but insufferable character played by Bette Middler in “Ruthless People.” She is being held for ransom. The kidnappers tell her that her husband (Danny DeVito, who is glad to be rid of her) refused their original demand of $500,000, though he could afford it. He also refused their second demand of $50,000.
“So we’re lowering our price to $10,000.”
“Do I understand this correctly? I'm being marked down?” she asks angrily. Then she starts crying.  “I've been kidnapped by K-Mart!”

** This orientation becomes especially visible in the summer, when students comparison shop for their courses based on cost, convenience, and utility (does the course meet a requirement) rather than content and quality.  See my earlier post here.


The Wars On Christmas

December 25, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

“Hey, Buddy, don’t you know there’s a war on?”*

I would guess that most of us were unaware of the war on Christmas raging all around us until Bill O’Reilly started reporting from the front. He has since been joined by seasoned war reporters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. I get the sense that they don’t really take themselves very seriously on this one – their war cries often sound like self-parody – and I guess that this attitude gives them license to say much that is silly and incorrect. Which they do.

Still, these Christian warriors may be right about the general decline of Christian hegemony in American culture. What’s curious is how that decline seems out of sync with the historical trend in the war on Christmas. In fact, it looks like there was a similar war on Christmas 60-70 years ago, a war that went unnoticed.

O’Reilly’s war has two important battlegrounds – legal challenges to government-sponsored religious displays, and people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”   He sets the start of the current war in the early years of this century.
“Everything was swell up until about 10 years ago when creeping secularism and pressure from groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday. They demanded the word Christmas be removed from advertising and public displays.”

Many people caved in to their demands, creating what O’Reilly has dubbed as the “Happy Holidays” syndrome.  [From Fox News Insider]
If pushed, O’Reilly might trace the origins of the war back further than that – to the 1960s.  That’s when the secularists and liberals started fighting their long war, at least according to the view from the right.  It was in the 1960s that liberals started winning victories and when the world as we knew it started falling apart. In the decades before that, we took it for granted that America was a White Christian nation. We all pulled together in World War II without questioning that dominance. And our national religion continued to hold sway in the peaceful and prosperous 1950s. We even added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  And of course, we all celebrated Christmas and said, “Merry Christmas,” no questions asked.

But then came drugs, sex, rock ’n’ roll, protests against an American war, and “God is Dead” on the cover of Time. Worse yet, in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment meant that public schools (i.e., government-run schools) could not impose explicitly sectarian rituals on children.  No Bible reading, no Christmas pageants.  

The trouble is that even if this history is accurate, it doesn’t have much to do with the War on Christmas, especially “the Happy Holidays syndrome.”  I checked these two phrases at Google Ngrams – a corpus of eight million books.**

The first big rise in “Happy Holidays” comes just after the end of World War II. 

(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

From about 1946 to 1954, it increases sixfold. It goes out of fashion as quickly as it came in, and even in the supposedly secular 1960s, it rarely turned up (at least in the books scanned by Google).  The next rise does not begin until the late 1970s and continues through the Reagan and Clinton years. 

But just when O’Reilly says the War started, “Happy Holidays” starts to  decline.

And what about “Merry Christmas”?  According to the War reporters, the new secularism of the last ten years has been driving it underground.  But Ngrams tells a different story.


If there was a time when “Happy Holidays” was replacing “Merry Christmas,” it was in the Greatest Generation era of the 1940s.  Since the late 1970s, when “Happy Holidays” was rising, so was “Merry Christmas.” Apparently, there was just a lot more seasonal spirit to go around. 

Perhaps the best way to see the relative presence of the two phrases is to look at the ratio of “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” 


In 1937, there were 260 of the religious greeting for every one of the secular.  In the 1940s the ratio plummeted; by the late 1950s it had fallen to about 40 to one.  In the Sixties, “Merry Christmas” makes a slight comeback, then declines again. 

By the turn of the century, the forces of “Merry Christmas” are ahead by a ratio of “only” about 18 to one.  Since then – i.e., during the period O’Reilly identifies as war time – the ratio has increased slightly in favor of “Merry Christmas.”

O’Reilly may be right that at least in public greetings – by store clerks, by public officials, and by television networks (even O’Reilly’s Fox) – the secular “Happy Holidays” is displacing the sectarian “Merry Christmas.”  But that still doesn’t explain a similar shift over a half-century ago, another war on Christmas that nobody seemed to notice.

And of course, MERRY CHRISTMAS to all SocioBlog readers.

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* The phrase is from the home front in World War II.

** It’s possible that trends of a phrase in books do not match up with the trend in spoken language.  There may be a corpus of spoken English that has historical capabilities similar to those of Ngrams and is similarly simple to use, but I don’t know of any.

The Wisdom of Crowds Finally Wins One

December 23, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In several posts over the years, this blog has questioned the “wisdom of crowds,” at least when it comes to sports betting.  (This 2009 post has links to even earlier wisdom-of-crowds posts.) The Wisdom of Crowds says that when it comes to guessing – the weight of an ox, the location of lost ships, the right answer on “Millionaire,” the outcome of football games – you’re better off crowdsourcing than getting the advice of a single expert. None of us is as smart as all of us.*

In sports betting, if you want to know where the crowd is going, follow the money. And you can usually tell where the money is going by watching the point spread.  The spread is like a price – the greater the demand for a side, the more points you have to give up.  When the line moves – if a 4-point favorite becomes a 5-point favorite – chances are that bettors are demanding that side. 

Yesterday, the crowd cleaned up. In three games, so much money came in on the underdogs, that the bookies, in attempt to get action on the other side, made them the favorites.  On Saturday, the Dolphins were 3-point favorites over the Bills. Money kept coming in on the Bills. The books lowered the points Bills bettors were getting. By game time, if you wanted to bet the Bills, you’d have to give one or one-and-a-half points.

A change in the line of even of a half-point in the few hours before game time is often noteworthy; a change of a full point is significant.** A change of four points is extremely rare and indicates important action on the Bills.  As it turned out, the Bills won handily, 19-0. 

That was one of five games with large swings in the point spread. 

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The crowd was indeed wise this time around, winning four of the five.  The books took a bath. Yesterday was unusual in the number and magnitude of the changes.  Of course, over the course of the season, you could have made money by watching for crowdsourced line shifts and fading the public wisdom.

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* This line, popular in management circles, is usually attributed to a Japanese proverb.  That sourcing fits with notions about East-West differences. For Americans, with our strong value on individualism and our belief in lone entrepreneurial heroes, “none of us is as smart as all of us” is a dazzling revelation; for the Japanese it’s just common sense.

** Bookmakers are reluctant to move the line at all for fear of being “middled.”  Suppose a  bookie takes a lot of action on Team A getting 3½  points over Team B, so he lowers the line to 2½ to attract money on the favorite. Now bettors respond and bet Team B minus the 2½. If the final score is Team B 17, Team B 14, the point difference falls in the middle of the two lines, and the bookie loses both bets.  (This is an extreme case. More often the change is only a half-point, say from 7 to 7½, and the risk is not a middle but an “edge” – one bet is a push, the other a loss.

Active Sleeping

December 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Did you sleep well?
Uh, I made a few mistakes.
                     – Steven Wright

We were schmoozing in the hall, my colleagues Sangeeta Parashar, Yong Wang, and I. Sangeeta mentioned a recent CNN Travel blog post about Indianisms, phrases peculiar to India and the Indian diaspora, like “Do the needful.” The author found most of these objectionable – “discuss about” rather than “discuss” or “please revert” instead of “please reply.”

“And ‘sleep is coming’,” said Sangeeta. “We say that to mean ‘I’m going to sleep,” as though sleep is some external force that descends upon the person. “I must go to bed. Sleep is coming.”

Yong said that the Chinese version was similar. Sleep is something that happens to you. “Sleep falls upon me,” or even “Sleep attacks me.”

Two things came immediately to mind: the Steven Wright* joke, but also Robin Williams. No, not the comedian. The sociologist whose take on American culture begins
1. American culture is organized around the attempt at active mastery rather than passive acceptance.  (American Society, 1950)
Our preference for thinking in terms of active mastery extends even to sleep.  It’s something we do, not something we passively accept when it comes, and we can do it well or badly (or with just a few mistakes). From my days as a parent of a toddler, I remember other parents who were training their kids to sleep as they would later train them to use the toilet or kick a soccer ball.  Active mastery.

Of course, sleep as an active verb extends far beyond American culture. The French tell their children “fais dodo” just as they tell them “fais pipi” (preferably not sur le gazon or while they font dodo).  And Western thought  too shares the conception of sleep as an external thing performing actions on individuals. Sleep “knits up the ravelled sleeve of care” (unless Macbeth murders it, which he doth).  Golden slumbers can fill our eyes. We may call for sleep to come and wrap us in its arms. 

I’m not suggesting that these different ways of talking about sleep epitomize huge differences between the Western and non-Western worldviews or the balance between individual agency and context. The Language Loggers (here, for example) have made me cautious about such generalizations.  Still, I cannot completely discount and ignore the differences in imagery.

And so to bed.

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*For those not familiar with Wright, you can find him on YouTube. At a time when most new comedians were doing “observational” comedy, Wright harked back to the old-style of one-liners told in the first person only with a far different perspective and delivery (“I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast at any time'. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance”) – Henny Youngman, only absurd and on heavy downers.

Incentivizing Civility

December 19, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the US, merchants offer prizes and discounts to customers for spending more money. Companies give bonuses to employees who bring in the most money (“cutthroat capitalism”).  A café in the south of France offered this.


Ah yes, Bonjour.  We had landed at CDG after a sleepless flight, claimed baggage and cleared customs. It was 8 a.m. or so local time. “Monsieur,” I said to a man on the sidewalk, “where can we get the RER?” (in French).
“Bonjour,” he said clearly.
“The RER,” I repeated, “Where can we find the RER for Paris?”
“Bonjour.”
Finally, I caught on.
“Bonjour,” I said, and repeated the question.

We got to the RER, and somewhere between CDG and Châtelet, someone picked my son’s pocket.

(HT: Polly-Vous Français)

My Favorite Line

December 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Peter O’Toole died on Saturday.  His line that I most remember is from “My Favorite Year.” (For a plot summary, see the trailer here .)

The film is set in the live-TV era of the 1950s. Peter O’Toole is Alan Swann, an Errol-Flynn-style actor (“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star”). When he’s not buckling swashes on screen, he is seducing women.  Swann is charming when he’s sober, which is not often.  He has come to New York for a week to appear on a live comedy show (all TV was live), and the film tracks that week.



In this scene, the TV writers are reading in the newspaper about Swann’s exploits of the previous night, which ended up with Swann more or less unclad in Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.  The writers are looking at the newspaper or at each other and do not notice that Swann has just entered. 

The line is funnier heard than read – the writer’s New York Jewish accent contrasted with Swann’s elegant British speech.

Sy [unaware the Swann has just walked in] : Leo, it gets me sick to think we gotta put up with some washed-up jaboni who’s gonna be running around Central Park with his schlong hangin’ out!

Swann: My dear fellow, it’s my schlong and what I choose to do with it is my business.

Sy: So how’s business?

Swann: Never better.

Happier on the Right?

December 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Times gave Arthur Brooks pride of place yesterday – nearly all of the front page of the Sunday Review section – for his “formula for happiness” (here). The formula is a variation on Freud’s “Lieben und Arbeiten” (love and work). Brooks’s version seems to be Conservatism und Arbeiten. Working mostly from GSS data, Brooks first notes sex differences ( women’s edge in happiness is diminishing). The second variable he cites is political views.
 conservative women are particularly blissful: about 40 percent say they are very happy.

In fact, the cumulative GSS data from 1972 to 2012 support this idea.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

As we go from left to right (politically and on the graph) the percentage of happy women rises.

Why might political views correlate with happiness? Brooks doesn’t say, but later in his formula he cites the importance of work, of being satisfied with your job. (“I’m a living example of the happiness vocation can bring.”) People who are dissatisfied in the world of work will not be happy in general. The same logic applies to politics – those who are dissatisfied in the political world will also not be happy in general.  So maybe the link between conservatism and happiness is really about who is satisfied with the political status quo.  Who is happy will depend on whose status is quo.

For most of those GSS years since 1972, conservatives have felt right at home politically.  But the election and re-election of Obama – despite a huge recession, despite a supposedly much-hated healthcare law – changed that status quo.  Hence all the conservative talk about taking their country back.*  And what has  happened since then to those sunny female conservatives?  If you confine the data to 2008-2012, you see that the shoe of unhappiness is on the other foot – the right, and especially the far-right, foot.**


The far left and far right are equally “very happy,” and in the “not too happy” category, very conservative women outnumber their liberal sisters nearly two to one.

(Brooks devotes most of the rest of his formula to work. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow.)


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* For more on the taking our country back, see my Repo Men post from three and a half years ago.

** I made this same point in July 2012 (here) when the Times published Arthur Brooks making the same claim, though without the added variable of sex. But if Brooks and the Times are going to keep publishing this idea, I’m going keep blogging the evidence.


Red-State Health Care - Gut It Out

December 13, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston



George W. Bush at least talked about “compassionate conservatism.” The phrase was a response to the image of Republicans as cold-hearted. Rather than risk poor people becoming dependent on government, conservatives espoused principles of rugged individualism: you’re on your own no matter what.

Republicans today don’t even talk about compassion. Mostly, it seems, they just want to see Obama and anything connected with him fail. If that means punishing poor people, too bad.

A Supreme Court decision allowed states the option of refusing to go along with the Medicaid expansion that was part of Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  Republican-controlled states are refusing to take federal money that would allow poor people in those states easier access to Medicaid. 

An article and video by Laura Ungar in the Louisville Courier-Journal compares Kentucky, one of the few red states to accept Medicaid expansion, with Indiana just across the border. What is the income ceiling on eligibility for Medicaid. Accoriding to Indiana’s unexpanded Medicaid regulations, if a working mother of two earns more than $4,687 a year, she’s too rich to deserve Medicaid.


 To be fair to the Hoosier state, the news article adds:
Indiana also has an alternative Medicaid “demonstration project” called the Healthy Indiana Plan, which the federal government recently extended through 2014. The program includes a health savings account and cost-sharing by participants, and doesn’t cover all the services covered by traditional Medicaid. It has a long waiting list.
Individuals with no children generally cannot get Medicaid in Indiana. The Healthy Indiana Plan is unavailable to individuals earning more than $11,490 nearly 30% lower than Medicaid. 


An Indiana woman in the video says,
For Louisville to have it and our people not when we are fifteen minutes away from each other, it’s just criminal. I am sorry, but I think it’s criminal that we’re not doing Medicaid expansion.


The 2012 Court decision allowing states to have different policies on Medicaid expansion upholds the principle of federalism – that states are “laboratories of democracy.”  It’s just that in this case, when you leave the Kentucky lab and walk into the Indiana lab, you’ll see a lot more poor people needing medical care. Instead, as the woman said, they rely on “over-the-counter medications.  And gut it out, just gut it out.”

 “Gut it out” pretty much summarizes the rugged-individualism theory of the state, and exponents of that theory will surely admire this woman. But I get the impression that this woman – unable to afford health insurance for the last 21 years – would gladly trade some of that admiration for affordable health care and would not mind at all if Indiana did something to make her individualism a little less rugged.

Jim Hall

December 11, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Guitarist Jim Hall died yesterday. 

There’s not a lot of sociology in this post, except perhaps the reminder that art is a collective enterprise and that success and reputation depend on the people you work with.*  That may be especially true of sidemen, the jazz equivalent of supporting actors. And it may be even more true for sidemen with a non-flashy, understated, self-effacing approach to music.  Which pretty much describes Jim Hall.

The better-known musicians who chose Hall to work with them form an impressive list.  When Sonny Rollins came down off the Willimsburg Bridge in 1962,** ending his three-year absence from the music scene, he formed a quartet with Hall on guitar. Bill Evans and Ron Carter recorded duo albums with him.  He did several albums with Paul Desmond, who was famous because of Brubeck and “Take Five” (written by Desmond, not Brubeck), but who also eschewed flashiness. Asked what he had absorbed from Desmond, Hall said
 I had more respect for melody. It worked out perfectly for me because I don’t have the amazing chops that a lot guys have, anyway. I realized that playing nice melodies was okay, so that made it a lot easier for me.

Whenever I’m teaching. I have these students with incredible chops. I try things to get them to slow down. Occasionally, I’ll have them just play on one string like a trombone, or play a mode with three or four notes and develop that through a whole solo, make them more aware of what Paul was aware of, how it becomes an art form and gets away from all that macho b.s. [interview with Doug Ramsey]

Here he is with Art Farmer’s quartet playing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” (Farmer sits out on this one).  Steve Swallow, bass; Pete LaRoca, drums.



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* Gabriel Rossman has a fuller treatment of this idea in his ASR paper (with Esparza and Bonacich (“I’d Like to Thank the Academy” (here).

** Rather than woodshed in his apartment, Rollins spent up to sixteen hours a day practicing where the sound would not bother neighbors. He has more, and a picture, on his website.

Yes, But Harvard Students Know a Lot More Now

December 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Headline in the Crimson today.


For comparison, here is the grade sheet from a 1940 Government course.*  The mean and median are a C+, so the B- by that fellow in the K’s is a shade above average.

(Click on an image for a 
clearer view.)

We professors can, and often do, go on at length arguing about the problem of grades, the purpose of grades, the effects of grades, and so on. But the trend is unmistakable. Grades have gone up, and much more so at private universities than at the publics.  Harvard is different in only in degree.


Yes, the most common grade at Harvard is an A, but the most common grade at universities generally is an A (the graph below ignores the + and –).


(The graphs are from gradeinflation.com)

For the record, this is not what my gradesheets look like. But I suspect that if I went back and looked at my gradebooks from when I started, I would find that I too give higher grades now than I did years ago.

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* I mentioned this to a friend who had been chair of her department at another school. “How did you get a gradesheet now from a course JFK was in?”
“The teacher was late turning in his grades,” I said.  She howled.  Maybe you have to have been chair to really appreciate the joke.

Civilization and Its Stoplights

December 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

Three in the morning, Dad, good citizen
stopped, waited, looked left, right.
He had been driving nine hundred miles,
had nearly a hundred more to go,
but if there was any impatience
it was only the steady growl of the engine
which could just as easily be called a purr.

I chided him for stopping;
he told me our civilization is founded
on people stopping for lights at three in the morning.

— from a poem by Bruce Hawkins.

I read these lines on a political blog* this morning, and I thought of Murray Davis.

One December long ago, I got a ride home from Boston to Pittsburgh with Murray in his black VW Beetle. He was a graduate student, I was an undergrad, and in those days the trip took twelve hours.  We got into Pittsburgh some time after 2 a.m.  The streets were deserted

In Shadyside on Fifth Avenue, not far from my parents’ condo, we came to a red light. Murray paused, then drove on through.

“Sociology allowed me to do that,” he said.

I can’t remember his explanation, but I think it had something to do with “rules in use” and the negotiability of norms. That’s interesting, I thought.  Maybe it was even convincing, though I still turned in my seat to see if there were any cops behind us. There weren’t.

Murray was right. At that hour of empty streets, waiting for the green serves no rational purpose. When there is no traffic, traffic safety is not an issue. But Bruce Hawkins’s dad is also right.  He takes a more Durkheimian view: rationality is not the basis of society. What makes society possible is people’s attachment to the group and its ideas – its values, its beliefs, and its stoplights.I wonder what Murray would have said now about this poem.


(Murray died six years ago. The ASA obit is here.  He wrote some insightful books – Intimate Relations, What’s So Funny?, Smut., and a well-known essay on sociology and phenomenology. )

* Hat tip to Keith Humphrey at The Reality-Based Community. He reprints the poem in its entirety here.

The War on Hanukkah

November 29, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In recent years, Modern-day Paul Reveres like Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin have been riding through every Middlesex village and Fox News station, spreading the alarm about the War on Christmas.  This is a serious threat. Don’t let yourself be lulled into complacency by the Goliath-David ratio of manpower – the US population is 76% Christian, 2%  atheist. The badly outnumbered army of Progressive atheists has resorted to weapons of midnight mass destruction –  like clerks at the mall saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”; media elites referring to the “holiday tree.”

Meanwhile, the War on Hanukkah has started.  Look what things were like before these attacks began.


The label says it clearly.  It’s Chanukah gelt – or Hanukkah gelt – a chocolate version of the real money sometimes given as a gift.

But now in the store we find this.


“Milk chocolate coins” indeed.  Not a hint of a Jewish holiday anywhere in sight.  And yet the media remain silent in the face of this blatant anti-Semitism. Where are Krauthammer, Podhoretz (x 2), Kristol and the rest? Either they are closing their eyes to a situation they do not wish to acknowledge, or they are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by this kind of repackaging.  

Maybe it would be more revealing to trace this attack on Hanukkah back to the original perpetrators.


A fifth column in the homeland?  Or maybe it’s just too hard to conduct a counteroffensive when nobody’s sure how to spell the name of the side that’s under attack.  Is it Chanukah? Hanukkah? Hannukah? No wonder it took so long to get Qaddafi.

Emotional Contagion

November 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Kennedy assassination was my first clear lesson in the sociology of emotions, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I was in Japan, living with a Japanese family in a small town in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I had been there less than two months, my knowledge of the language was barely rudimentary. There were no other Americans. I was the first Westerner many people in the town had ever seen in the flesh. (Everyone had seen gaijin on TV since the Japanese networks ran many American shows.)

When I came to breakfast that Saturday morning, and even before I had taken my place on the tatami floor with the others,  my Japanese family desperately tried to tell me the news. At first all I could understand was that it had something to do with Kennedy. The Japanese words for shoot or kill were not part of my tiny vocabulary. I knew the word for dead, but when the father of the family used it, I assumed I was hearing one of the many homophones. The television was on, but I certainly could not understand what the news readers were saying. Finally, the father, still seated, acted it out. He fired his index-finger pistol. Then pointing to himself and saying, “Kennedy,” he clutched his hands to his chest and canted his body over as if falling to the floor.  The gravest event translated into a simplified charade – it would have seemed ludicrous had it not been so serious.

I understood, but I was still incredulous. In the next few days, I learned more, mostly from the one person in the town who spoke fluent English (he had just come back from a year in Kansas), and from the English language daily, the Japan Times, my only outside source of information. I remained isolated from other Americans. If emotions are contagious, I had been quarantined.

It was only much later, when I was back in the US that I learned of what it was like to be here then. When I heard people describing where they were; or on anniversaries like today, when the media hauled out their archival footage – only then did I sense the emotion that so many Americans felt.

Most people, if asked, would probably have said that their grief was caused entirely by a personal sense of loss perhaps and the symbolic meaning they assigned to Kennedy – the president who, in is youth and vibrancy, represented hope for the future, etc.

I had felt none of that. I was stunned of course. In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated.* Now that assumption was shattered.  But the Kennedy in my mind was still the same person, politician, and president that he had been before the assassination. So I missed out on the feelings of grief and great loss. And I think the reason that I did not feel those emotions is not that I was young and callow (though I was that too) but that I was so isolated. Had I been in the US, engaged in the flood of constant talk, both in person and in the media, I would probably have felt those feelings more intensely.

When something so unusual and traumatic happens, we search for a way to make sense of it – our old sociological friend, a “definition of the situation.”  In that search, we look to others, and the definition we learn from others – what this thing is and what it means – is not just information and explanation. We learn the emotions that are part of this definition. We have a fairly large repertoire of emotions that we can experience, and in a sympathetic-vibration-like process, the emotions we see all around us evoke the same emotion in us.  We experience that emotion as personal.  But in an important way, it is also social.

------------------------
* Twenty years ago today, on the 30th anniversary, Barry Wellman recalled he was sitting in a Social Relations class when Stanley Milgram burst in to announce the news. That a president could be assassinated was so incredible that Wellman was sure that Milgram was doing some sort of experiment. When another student in the class turned on his transistor radio so that everyone could hear the the news reports, Wellman remained convinced that the radio was merely part of Milgram’s elaborate hoax. (Wellman’s account is here.)

Coleman Hawkins

November 21, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

There was no special Google Doodle, but today is Coleman Hawkins’s birthday. He would have been ninety-nine. His 1939 recording of “Body and Soul” is one of the most famous solos in jazz.  Maybe the most famous. The recording is all the more interesting in that it’s all solo (i.e., improvisation). Nowhere in it does Hawkins play the Johnny Green melody.



I heard Hawkins once, a few years before his death, when I was an undergraduate. A senior, Charlie Giuliani, the campus’s main source of marijuana (still something of a novelty then) had gotten some Student Association funds and made the arrangements – Hawkins and a local rhythm section. The venue was nothing elegant – an open area in the student center. No chairs, we sat on the floor.

Charlie let me hang out in the “green room,” an adjoining classroom-sized room, before the concert, where Hawk took several pulls from the flask he kept in his suit pocket. In the break between sets he pretty much drained it. I was young and naive; I’d never seen anyone drink like that as a matter of course.

The next day, when Charlie asked me what I thought, I mentioned that Hawk seemed to drink a lot. 

“If you had to play “Body and Soul” every night of your life for thirty years, you’d drink too,” said Charlie.

The Committee Report – Plagiarism and Translation

November 18, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m jumping on the sympathy-for-plagiarists carousel.

When Rachel Maddow called out Rand Paul for plagiarism, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg offered a defense of sorts in his six minutes of airtime on NPR. So what if Paul speechified Wikipedia sentences as though they were his own (or those of his speechwriters)? Lots of people do the same and worse, says Nunberg, and besides it’s no big deal.
Paul may not have been guilty of dishonesty, just cavalier disrespect for the rules.
And those rules Paul was dissing – you know, the ones that schools put in the student handbook and that we put on our syllabi – in Nunberg’s view, they’re sort of like rules about which fork to use for salad.
The rules for quoting and attributing can seem arbitrary at times, with little connection to the respect for intellectual property that originally motivated them. You could think of them just as a kind of literary etiquette.
Basically, no harm, no foul.

Now there’s a more egregious case here in New Jersey.  The associate VPAA at Kean University, Katerina Andriotis, wrote a 15-page report on “enrollment management” with large portions copied and pasted from similar reports at other schools.

The Star-Ledger put it on page one.
Kean exec out after plagiarism allegation
I confess I have not read the nine pages she plagiarized or the six she didn’t. But from the news story, I’d guess that the report consists mostly of the vague, the meaningless, and the obvious, all of it painted in the dull, don’t-read-me colors of bureaucratic ed-speak.
It is vitally important to Parkland that meaningful research focus on the factors which influence student decisions, to ascertain which ones have a positive influence on student retention behavior. In addition, a key to helping to retain students is the ability of Parkland to identify ‘at-risk’ students early enough to permit intervention strategies to work.
Find-and-replace Kean for Parkland, and you’ve got an Andriotis paragraph. Does it matter that the Parkland report was written 18 years ago for a 2-year community college in downstate Illnois while the Kean report was about a university in urban northern New Jersey? Not if this paragraph reflects the report’s overall level of analysis (and I’d bet it does). Translated into plain English it says,
We have to find out why students drop out, and if we don’t get to them early on, nothing will work.
If this is all that a retention committee is going to say, then the reports are interchangeable. And if they’re interchangeable, why not interchange them? Yes, what Andriotis did was plagiarism. But I get the impression that the plagiarism was a joint effort between her and the higher-ups in the administration who would, supposedly, read the report.  She wasn’t trying to fool them so much as she was helping them fool themselves. That joint effort says, in effect: We may not be able to do anything to keep our students from dropping out, but having a report gives the appearance that we’re trying really, really hard.

(I am speculating about all of this. Maybe the enrollment management committee will spark some changes that have a real effect. )

The New Conventional - Anything Goes

November 15, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now lord knows —
Anything goes.
  — Cole Porter, 1934
Poor Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post. He’s being raked over the liberal coals for this recent observation:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled – about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York – a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts – but not all – of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, gagging at a Black-White couple and their biracial children is in fact racist. So let’s focus on the word that Cohen uses to avoid that obvious conclusion – conventional. Here is a dictionary definition:
Conventional:  conforming or adhering to accepted standards; ordinary rather than different or original.
Matthew Yglesias at Slate seizes on that word and Cohen’s “people with conventional views.” Yglesias too calls Cohen’s column “racist,” but more to the point, he provides some Gallup-poll evidence that interracial marriage is the new conventional.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

Or as Cole Porter put it in a 1935 production:
When ladies fair who seek affection
Prefer gents of dark complexion
As Romeos —
Anything goes
Porter was bemused; Cohen is troubled. My spider sense tells me that if he’s not actually one of those people with supposedly conventional views repressing a gag reflex, he at least feels some strong sympathy for them. But they are on the wrong side of 21st century history, and not only on interracial marriage.  Consider Cohen’s parenthetical comment
(Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)
First, this is a pretty good example of one of my favorite rhetorical devices, paralipsis (or is it apophasis?) – saying something while saying that you’re not saying it. “To keep this discussion one of principle and not personalities, I won’t even mention that my opponent was arrested for wife-beating and has been linked to the Gambino crime family.”

Second, as with interracial marriage, opinion on homosexuality has shifted considerably.  Here’s the GSS data.


In less than twenty years, the Always Wrong* delegation has shrunk from more than three-fourths to less than half.  As Cohen says, this change has “enveloped” only parts of America. The gag reflex is still strong in the East South Central, which comprises Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky – the most unenveloped (unreconstructed?) of the GSS regions.


Despite the recent liberalizing trend, the Always Wrongs outnumber the Never Wrongs by more than two  to one. 

But wait, Cohen is not from the South or Appalachia. Like Bill deBlasio, he’s a New Yorker born and bred. (DeBlasio is from Manhattan, Cohen from Far Rockaway, Queens.)  But there might be one other demographic source of that gag reflex – age.  Cohen is 72.  Here’s how his peers feel about people who share Cole Porter’s sexual orientation.


Among septuagenarians and their elders, those gagging at gays have a large 3½-to-1 edge.  

Cohen is probably making the mistake that many of us make – projecting our own views as more widely held than they actually are. Journalists may be especially prone to this kind of projection, preferring to write about what “the public” or “the voters” want or think, when simple first-person statements would be more accurate. So when Cohen says, “to cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all,” he may be talking about himself and the country he grew up in - Far Rockaway in the forties and fifties.** But in 2013, that Far Rockaway is far away.

---------------------
* I never understood those middle two categories – Almost Always Wrong, and Sometimes Wrong. If gay sex is almost always wrong, under what conditions is it not wrong? Apparently the GSS respondents share my befuddlement. Those choosing the two ambiguous categories never account for more than 15% of the responses.  My guess is that those respondents are mentally recoding the choices as a Likert scale along the lines of Absolutely Wrong, Wrong, Somewhat Wrong, Not Wrong.

** For a view of this time and place, see Woody Allen’s wonderful “Radio Days,” which touches lightly, very lightly, on politics and homosexuality (though not race), and it admirably avoids treacly sentimental nostalgia.

The Rich Really Are Different - They Pay Lower Taxes

November 13, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two weeks ago, I posted a graph showing the income tax rates paid by the very wealthy. The official tax rate for that bracket is over 35%, but the rate actually paid was less than half that. In the recent presidential campaign, Mitt Romney insisted that he had always paid at least 13%, as though using loopholes in order to pay barely more than a third of the official rate were an honorable act deserving of great admiration.*

The loophole most at issue then was “carried interest” – a magic word that takes the huge fees paid to hedge fund managers and transforms  them into capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate. This trick is available to a very few – the aforementioned hedge fundies and private equity operators like Romney. 

But wait, there’s more.  That is, there’s less – less taxable income – at least if you’re filthy rich. In a recent interview (here), David Cay Johnston, the premiere tax  journalist, outlines another scheme available only to the very rich.
Very, very wealthy people — Warren Buffett, hedge fund managers, Mitt Romney when he ran a private equity fund — are not required to report most of their economic gains and legally they can literally live tax-free or nearly tax-free by borrowing against their assets. You can borrow these days, if you’re very wealthy, against your assets for less than 2 percent interest and the lowest tax rate you could pay is 15 percent. So no wealthy person with any sense of good economics will pay taxes if they can borrow against their assets.
Genius. If your money is borrowed rather than earned, it’s not income. That’s even better than the preferential low tax rate on capital gains. Unfortunately, most of us can’t try this at home.
Now you and I can’t do that because our assets aren’t worth that much, but if you’re a billionaire and you borrow, let’s say, $10 million dollars a year to live on, you pay $200,000 interest, but your fortune through investing grows by $50 million. At the end of the year you pay no taxes, your wealth is up almost $40 million dollars and your cost was just the interest of $200,000.
If the $10 million were earned income taxed at the official rate, you’d pay more than $3.5 million in taxes. This way you pay only $200,000 in interest. And if Johnston’s estimate is right, your investments bring you 20 times what you paid in interest.

---------------------
* Romney made public only one or two years of his tax returns. For his claims about the other years, he asked us to take his word for it – much like W.C. Fields’s “gentleman’s game” in My Little Chickadee, as I blogged (here) at the time. Demands for actual evidence were, in the Romneyside view, ungentlemanly. What ever happened to “trust but verify”?

HT: Andrew Gelman

Unseparating Church and State

November 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Republicans tend to be Second Amendment absolutists.  The NRA and their representatives in Congress haven’t yet weighed in on the specific issue of, say, banning assault rifles in airports, but they just might argue that such a law would be an unconstitutional infringement of the right to bear arms. “Shall not be infringed” means no infringement, even of AK-47s in LAX.

Then there’s First Amendment. It begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but when it comes to the Establishment Clause, Republican ideas become a bit less absolutist, a bit more nuanced.  Here are the results of a recent YouGov survey (pdf here).  The question was , “Would you favor or oppose establishing Christianity as the official state religion in your state?”


Democrats and Independents oppose the establishment of Christianity – “strongly oppose” is their modal response.  But a majority of Republicans favor making their state a Christian state, and of those, most (two-thirds) are in the “strongly favor” pew. 

This is not to say that Republicans are unaware of the Establishment Clause.  “Based on what you know, would you think that states are permitted by the constitution to establish official state religions, or not?”



Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say that the Constitution does not permit state religions.  They just think that on this one, the framers of the Constitution got it wrong. 

When the question was about the nation rather than just “your state,” Republicans nearly as enthusiastic about establishing Christianity for the nation as for their state.  “Would you favor or oppose a Constitutional amendment which would make Christianity the official religion of the United States?”


A plurality, 46% – almost a majority – want to correct the Framers’ careless omission by amending the Constitution, a document, by the way, in which the words “God” and “Toyota” appear with equal frequency, but I assume that the Republicans would want to change that too and rewrite the preamble to include God and perhaps Jesus. Their model seems to be The Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We would be The Christian Republic of the United States of America. 

We can’t know specifically what the people who favor establishment have in mind by making Christianity the official religion of a state or of the nation. Republicans themselves probably differ in their ideas. Maybe only symbolic gestures, like invoking Jesus’s blessing on public events. Maybe public indoctrination – requiring Christian prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Or maybe more tangible forms of support – turning taxpayers’ money directly over to Christian organizations for explicitly religious purposes. 

Nobody really imagines that establishment will happen, but a conservative still can dream.* And meanwhile, they can continue the indirect establishment of religion that has come with government-supported “faith-based initiatives.”

 ------------------------
* The Christianists have friends in places where it counts – the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia apparently thinks that the cross is a symbol of the nation rather than the emblem of a religion.  In a post four years ago (here) I compared his view to the saying “It’s Sinatra’s world, we just live in it.”  That may be funny when it’s about Ol’ Blue Eyes. But Scalia and the other Christian theocrats are telling us, “The US is  Christianity’s world; we’re just allowed to live in it.” Non-Christians are not amused.

Tax Rates and Incentives - Rich and Poor

November 2, 2013 
Posted by Jay Livingston

Taxes on the rich were a big issue in Obama’s first term. The Bush tax cuts that had lowered the top rates were set to expire, and Republican lawmakers and media voices were fighting hard on behalf of the wealthy (a category most of them belonged to). 

Under the Obama proposal, the Bush tax-cut* rate of 35% for those at the top would have returned to 39.6%.  That was on paper. In fact, the superwealthy actually paid nowhere near those rates. In the Times today (here), James B. Stewart  reports on the plight of the 400 wealthiest American in 2009.  They saw their adjusted gross income decline, on average, from $320 million to $200 million. And the percentage they paid in come taxes did go up. But not to 35%. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The rate the very rich paid rose from about 16% to 20%.  The slightly less wealthy – the top .01%, average income $1.4 million – paid a rate of 24%, higher than the top 400 but still well under the official rate. That 24% rate was also the average for the poorest of the rich, the 1% with incomes of at least $344,000. 

Economists like Greg Mankiw have risen to defend the wealthy, arguing that if rich people’s taxes rise – i.e., revert back to the levels of the 1990s – the rich will become lazy. With the government taking another 4 cents out of each dollar, rich will not work so hard, and then where would we be?   (As I pointed out [here], Mankiw himself was anecdotal evidence to the contrary. He was writing articles claiming that marginal tax rates were key incentives for the rich; Mankiw is a rich economist, but he was getting paid peanuts or nothing at all for his work in writing them. That is, even with an incentive of $0, we was writing op-eds rather than playing with his kids.)

Those “high” taxes of the 90s – back before the Bush tax cuts – didn’t seem to keep the rich (or anyone else) from working. Unemployment was low, and the economy was doing just fine thank you. I find it hard to believe that if the top rate returns to pre-Bush levels, Dustin Pedroia will start heading for the dressing room after the seventh inning or that Tom Hanks will confine himself to minor parts that involve only a few days on the set or that traders at Goldman will start taking Fridays off. 

But what about the effects of increased marginal rates on people who struggle to make ends meet? 

The Congressional Budget Office has released figures showing what happens when poor and middle-income people increase their income. 



For the poor, increased income brings the loss of government benefits – Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and the like – and an increase in the various taxes paid.  According to a 2012 CBO report , at about $27,000 the amount paid in taxes exceeds the value of government benefits, and disposable income rises more slowly than actual earnings. 

The CBO also calculated the marginal* tax rates on people from the 10th percentile to the 90th. 


The X-axis is calculated as a percentage of the official poverty line – about $11,500 for a single person, $19,500 for a family of three.  So 300% of those figures would be about $34,500 and $58,500 respectively.  It is those earners just above the poverty line who pay the highest marginal rates.

The more recent October, 2013 update breaks down the increased costs of these higher earnings, separating the higher federal taxes from the other costs – the higher state and local taxes, federal payroll tax, and the loss of SNAP benefits.


The graph shows the marginal tax rates for people earning less than 450% of the poverty line (i.e., less than $51,700 for an individual, less than $88,000 for a family of three).  As the report concludes:
 In 2013, 37 percent of low- and moderate-income taxpayers who have earnings face total marginal tax rates—including federal and state individual income taxes, federal payroll taxes, and the phasing out of benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—between 30 percent and 39 percent, and over 20 percent of that group face marginal rates of 40 percent or more.
The issue of tax rates and means-tested programs is complicated (see Nancy Folbre’s columns at the Times Ecomomix web page, for example). But it is curious that those who were prominent in their concern over the disincentive effect of an increase in marginal rates on the rich are silent or even enthusiastic when it comes to increased marginal rates on the poor.

Is That a Thing?

October 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one – the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.



Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative. 

What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story. What kind of story might be related? A story about the family? about difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community? about mental illness and violence? about ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park?  No. None of the above.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid.  He served three years. 

How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades.  The motives and circumstances are entirely different.  If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings.  Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing. 

Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme – they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife.  The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .”  or Netflix recommendations. (I wonder what the stabbing-death-story demographic is.)  Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy.  But that night, it fit with the fire theme.

Mark Fishman wrote about this thematic organization of TV news in his 1978 article “Crime Waves as Ideology.”  We’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice it.  Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping.  A possible consequence that Fishman pointed out is that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves – sudden increases in the number of stories while the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged.  Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit.

Here is another screen from the Daily News website.


A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.

So, students stabbing people at schools – is that a thing? Probably not, but it is a news theme.

Careers Night

October 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

We had our annual careers night. Or it might be or bi-annual careers night, or even tri-annual. Some years we have it, and some we don’t, and this year we did.  It’s our attempt to answer the age-old question, “What can I do with a degree in Sociology?”

We know what some sociology graduates have done – become head coach of the Steeles or First Lady of the United States.  But since those jobs are currently taken, we were lucky to have three of our recent graduates on hand to tell us what they were doing. 

We had a pretty good turnout – at least fifty students.


And here are our speakers: Emman Hamdan,  Jessica McCabe, and Kristine Nemec.



Emman is in her first year of an MSW program at Rutgers. 


She’s taking courses and “shadowing” a social worker in the field. She said that her Sociology at Montclair had prepared her so well that the instructor in one of her courses had asked her not to speak up in class so that the other student could wrestle with the questions. 

Kristine got her degree in May, but she is already a consulting company.


Back in the spring semester, when Kristine was in Chris Donoghue’s section of Senior Research Project, Chris got an inquiry from a medical board. They needed a survey.  Kristine was on it immediately. She singlehandedly designed the survey and is now analyzing the data. She plans to do further consultant/contract work. 

Jessica is working for two non-profits. At the Masakhane Center in Newark she is a sex educator, where, she says, the insights of sociology have helped her tailor her approach for the needs of an inner-city population.


She also works at the National Council of Jewish Women, a different p;opulation (Short Hills ain’t Newark). After looking at some of the surveys Council had done, she said to herself, “Prof. Ruane would not have liked the construction of this survey.” She told them so, tactfully, and offered to do it right. So now she is their unofficial in-house survey maven.

The speakers were great, and the students were very interested to know what might lie on the other side of a sociology degree.  We really should do this more often.