Names – The Last Shall Be First

October 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name the baby has become more and more of a problem. A few generations ago, you could give a boy a name that had always been in the family. When is the last time your heard a parent call, “Junior, come here”?  Parents in a high-status family could give a son a family name as a first name. Calvin Trillin used to say that his upper-class Yale classmates in the 1950s were named things like Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, III (and had nicknames like Mutt and Biff).

In more recent generations, parents have been choosing names the way they might choose a work of art for the living room. It has to be different – you don’t want the same thing that everyone else has – but not so different that it’s weird. And if you are a college-educated person of some taste, an enlightened person, you don’t want a name that’s the equivalent of those cottage-and-stream cliches or Elvis on black velvet.

Hence, the proliferation of books with advice on what to name the baby. The graph from Google nGrams shows the number of mentions of the phrases “what to name the baby” and “baby names” in books since 1900.

Even during the baby boom (1946-1964), interest in baby names did not increase. That boom didn’t start until the late 1970s. 

My favorite baby-name book was Beyond Jennifer & Jason : The New Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby.  As the title says, you want to get beyond the currently popular names – the book was first published in the 1980s – and note also that word Enlightened.  The title of the most recent edition is Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana: What to Name Your Baby Now.

As the lede in a Huffington post (here) put it, “We’re always looking for baby names that are wonderful but also unusual.” It then offered a list of “100 great names given to fewer than 100 babies in the U.S. last year.” The names on the 100 under 100 are not so unusual as to be weird. Many are revivals (Winifred and Mamie, Roscoe and Chester), some are foreign transplants (Pilar and Romy, Laszlo and Aurelio), some are borrowed from other things – flora and fauna mostly.

Then are the last names that have become first names
  • Baker
  • Baxter
  • Mercer
  • Shepherd
  • Slater
These follow others that have already become widely popular, though they first started out as names that enlightened, upscale parents chose – like Carter as in Burden (b. 1942), identified by the Times as a “progressive patrician”). Last year, Carter was the 32nd most popular name for boys. Here are others in the top 100:
  • Mason (4th)
  • Hunter (36th)
  • Taylor (59th for girls)
  • Tyler (63rd)
  • Parker (74th)
  • Cooper (84th)
Like Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, these names suggest ancestry going back to the Mayflower and before that to landed English gentry. But only to our American ears. No upper-class British parent would have given a kid these names.  Like Thatcher and Baxter and Hatcher, they are the names of commoners whose family names come from an occupation.  These are ordinary tradespeople. (Hatcher is topographical – like Hill or Forest – rather than occupational. It denotes someone who lived near the gate or hatch. Baxter is a variant of Baker.)

Parker et. al are not so popular across the pond. Only two of these trade-names made the UK top 100 last year –  Mason (27th) and Tyler (37th) – and I suspect that neither of these will turn up very often on the rolls of Eton.  In Britain, if you want to suggest good family, you don’t give your kid a name like Baxter or Cooper.  George, Harry, William, and James will do nicely, thank you, especially if they are prefaced by something like Prince.

World Standards and American Exceptionalism

October 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today is World Standards Day. “The aim of World Standards Day is to raise awareness among regulators, industry and consumers as to the importance of standardization to the global economy.” It seems like a good idea, everyone using the same standards and measurements. It makes stuff like the Internet possible. It’s sort of like the metric system. Everything from machine parts to scientific reports made in one country can be used in any other country. Almost.

Map of countries officially not using the metric system

At least we’re in good company – Myanmar and Liberia.

The map reminded me of Ann Coulter’s rant  against soccer back during the World Cup.  It was, I hope, her attempt to be funny à la Stephen Colbert – which made her a conservative imitating a liberal imitating a conservative. The Colbert ploy allowed her to be more outrageous than usual in her xenophobia and flaunting of American exceptionalism.

The increased popularity of soccer in the US, she said, is a sign of the nation’s moral decay.” Among her supporting theses was this:

Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it's European. . . .

Liberals get angry and tell us that the metric system is more “rational” than the measurements everyone understands. This is ridiculous. An inch is the width of a man's thumb, a foot the length of his foot, a yard the length of his belt. That's easy to visualize. How do you visualize 147.2 centimeters?

American exceptionalism is, at least in part, the idea that the rules everyone else plays by do not and should not apply to the US.  The underlying assumption is that our ways are better. It follows therefore that we should pay no attention to anything outside our shores, and the rest of the world should be like us.*

As for World Standards Day, we do celebrate it – just not today. In the US, World Standards Day will be October 23, a day when no other country will be celebrating it.

* Often mixed in with this arrogance is a resentment of foreigners who do not follow our example and do not do what we tell them to.  The Coulter and Colbert oeuvre must have many examples, but the one that comes to mind readily is Randy Newman’s “Political Science” (this version  is from 1972, when the song was new and Newman was young – or do I mean when the song was young and Newman was new?)

HT: Shankar Vedantam

Author or Economist - Greg Mankiw and the Principal-Agent Problem

October 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Greg Mankiw regularly comes to the moral and economic defense of the very, very, very rich (here for but one example). He himself is also rich (though without the verys) thanks in part to his best-selling economics textbook.

(If you haven’t been a student for a while, that $286.36 is not a misprint.)

Planet Money recently asked why college textbooks were so expensive (the $286 for Mankiw’s 7th edition at Amazon is actually $17 less than the price on the 6th edition). Their answer: the principal-agent problem. The student (i.e., the principal)  shells out the $286, but the decision as to which book the student must buy is made by the professor (the agent). The agent need not care so much about price; it’s not his own money that’s paying for the book.

The result is that textbooks cost much more than they would in a market where students were free to make their own consumer decisions or where the agent paid attention to price.*  So Planet Money asks bluntly if a textbook author is “making more money than he should.”

It’s an economics question, and since Mankiw’s is the best selling economics textbook, Planet Money called Greg Mankiw.  But it seems that the person they reached was not Greg Mankiw the Economist. It was Greg Mankiw the Author.

Mankiw the Economist might have answered that yes, in a market that operated according to ideal principles, textbook prices would be lower. Under the current system, authors, publishers, and bookstores are getting “rents.” They are making more money than they should.

Instead, the answer came from Mankiw the Author, who justified his royalties in two ways:

1.  Hey, lots of people get away with this. It’s “not unusual” said Mankiw. When our doctor recommends a procedure, when our auto mechanic picks out the replacement parts, when our contractor buys materials – in all these areas and others, we “rely on someone else to look out for our best interest and . . . help us make an informed decision.”  The Planet Money reporter pointed out that health care, car repair, and home contracting are precisely the areas where people complain about getting screwed by their agents. So yes, it’s not unusual (as economist Tom Jones might have said, “It’s not unusual to be screwed by anyone”). But it’s still an economic and moral problem.

Mankiw does admit that “there’s a risk” that the agent will not “do due diligence.”  “But a good professor would do that.”

Economist Mankiw would, I hope, point out that the principal-agent problem is a distortion of the market.  It puts the agent in a position of inherent conflict of economic interest, and conflicts of interest make it harder for people to be virtuous. Mankiw the Economist might even recommend a free market that does not rely on the virtue of the agent (“a good professor”). But Mankiw the Author has no problem with the current system.

2.  Hey, no big deal – it’s just a few bucks.  For students, Mankiw says, “the biggest expenditure is not money, it’s time. Giving them the best book. . .  is far more important than saving them a few dollars.” 

Mankiw the Economist might have said that those “few dollars” are excess profits. Whose pocket those dollars should wind up in is, of course, a moral question, not an economic one. But in his writing in defense of huge salaries and low taxes for CEOs and hedge-funders, Mankiw blends the moral into the economic, so it’s interesting that he omits it from his discussion of textbook prices.

The Planet Money reporters, to their credit, turned to other economists (who are not also textbook authors), and they looked at a different textbook market – high school. In college, the student is not the one who decides which book to buy, the professor is, and profs don’t have to worry about price. In any case the student is buying only one book. Not a lot of leverage there. 

But with high school texts, the school district is both decider and buyer.  Unlike the professor-as-decider (agent), the school district as decider-and-buyer (agent and principal) does care about the price. A lot. It is also buying those books by the carload, so it can exert some pressure on price.  Consequently, publishers’ profit margins on high school books are only 5-10%. On college textbooks, profits are closer to 20-25%.

I’m sure that Mankiw’s book is a very good book, and Mankiw himself sounds like a nice man. But if you want to know about who wins and who loses in the principal-agent problem, maybe your primary source of information shouldn’t be the agent.


* If the professor is the author of the book, his economic interest runs directly opposite to the interests of the student. The more money he can make the students pay for the book, the more money he makes, so we have the principal-vs.-agent problem. Some schools, including Montclair State, have policies aimed at preventing professors from making money in this way. I think it’s a New Jersey state law. I do not know if Harvard requires Mankiw to give up the royalties that come from sales to students in his courses.

Failed Prophecy and Sunk Costs

October 3, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Four years ago, twenty-three economists (mostly conservative) signed a letter to Ben Bernanke warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy – adding billions of dollars to the economy – would be disastrous. It would “debase the currency,” create high inflation, distort financial markets, and do nothing to reduce unemployment.

Four years later, it’s clear that they were wrong (as Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us). Have they changed their beliefs?

Of course not.

Bloomberg (here) asked the letter-signers what they now thought about their prophecy.  Here’s the headline:

Fed Critics Say ’10 Letter Warning Inflation Still Right

This despite the actual low inflation.

(Click for a larger view. The original graph is here.)

I don’t know why I assume that high-level economists would be more likely than some ordinary people to change their ideas to adjust for new facts. Fifty years ago, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed that even in areas like chemistry and physics, scientists cling to their paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts. Why should big-shot economists be any different? It also occurs to me that it’s the most eminent in a profession who will be more resistant to change.  After all, it’s the people at the top who have the greatest amount invested in their ideas – publications, reputations, consultantships, and of course ego. Economists call these “sunk costs.”

So how do they maintain their beliefs? 

Most of the 23 declined to comment; a few could not be reached (including Ronald McKinnon, who died the previous day).  Of those who responded, only one, Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, came close to saying, “My prediction was wrong.”

“All of us, I think, who signed the letter have never seen anything like what’s happened here.”

Most of the others preferred denial:

“The letter was correct as stated.” 
(David Malpass. He worked in Treasury under Reagan and Bush I)

“The letter mentioned several things . . and all have happened.” (John Taylor, Stanford)

“I think there’s plenty of inflation -- not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.” (Jim Grant of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” Kinda makes you wonder how closely he’s been observing interest rates.)

Then there was equivocation. After Thursday night’s debacle – Giants 8, Pirates 0, knocking Pittsburgh out of the playoffs– someone reminded me, “Hey, didn’t you tell me that the Pirates would win the World Series?”
“Yes, but I didn’t say when.”

Some of the letter-signers used this same tactic, and just about as convincingly.

“Note that word ‘risk.’ And note the absence of a date.” (Niall Ferguson, Harvard)

“Inflation could come . . .” (Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation)

The 1954 sociology classic When Prophecy Fails describes a group built around a prediction that the world would soon be destroyed and that they, the believers, would be saved by flying saucers from outer space.  When it didn’t happen, they too faced the problem of cognitive dissonance – dissonance between belief and fact.* But because they had been very specific about what would happen and when it would happen, they could not very well use the  denial and equivocation favored by the economists. Instead, they first claimed that what had averted the disaster was their own faith. By meeting and planning and believing so strongly in their extraterrestrial rescuers, they had literally saved the world. The economists, by contrast, could not claim that their warnings saved us from inflation, for their warning – their predictions and prescriptions – had been ignored by Fed. So instead they argue that there actually is, or will be, serious inflation.

The other tactic that the millennarian group seized on was to start proselytizing – trying to convert others and to bring new members into the fold.  For the conservative economists, this tactic is practically a given, but it is not necessarily a change. They had already been spreading their faith, as professors and as advisors (to policy makers, political candidates, wealthy investors, et al.). They haven’t necessarily redoubled their efforts, but the evidence has not given them pause. They continue to publish and sell their unreconstructed views to as wide an audience as possible.

That’s the curious thing about cognitive dissonance. The goal is to reduce the dissonance, and it really doesn’t matter how. Of course, you could change your ideas, but letting go of long and deeply held ideas when the facts no longer co-operate is difficult. Apparently it’s easier to change the facts (by denial, equivocation, etc.). Or, equally effective in reducing the dissonance, you can convince others that you are right. That validation is just as effective as a friendly set of facts, especially if it comes from powerful and important people and comes with rewards both social and financial.

* This blog has had previous posts on cognitive dissonance:
  • You loudly preach the dangers of vaccine. Then it turns out that the one scientific paper supporting your views used faked data. Do you change your beliefs? (here)
  • You rail against “gun-free zones” as evil and dangerous. Then your son smuggles a .357 into his officially gun-free university dorm, making his room considerably less gun-free. He uses the gun to commit suicide. Do you change your beliefs? (here)
  • You predict that the Republicans will win the presidential elections because they’ve secretly rigged the electronic voting machines in key states. When the Democrat wins those states, do you change your beliefs? (here)

Social Capital and Social Values

October 1, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I offered data showing that among professional footballers, wide receivers and cornerbacks, compared with other positions, were more likely to have been arrested. By coincidence, shortly after posting that I listened to a recent interview on WNYC’s “Death, Sex, Money”  (here) with former cornerback Dominique Foxworth. Googling Foxworth led me to an April 2014 video from the Harvard Business School. Given the representation – two cornerbacks, one wide receiver, and a running back – I figured that the famous HBS case method was now including cases involving sociopaths. 

Here is a brief excerpt. The speaker is cornerback and media-certified thug* Richard Sherman.

So it turns out the athletes are there not as examples of social pathology but for their particular expertise on social capital, though the discussion winds through many other topics. The other panelists along with cornerbacks Sherman and Foxworth are wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and running back Arian Foster. They are bright, informative, and frequently funny. If you have an hour, listen to the whole thing.

If you watch from the beginning, you will also hear the moderator’s introduction of the panel members, which is worth noting for what it says about HBS values. In addition to listing some statistics about their athletic records, Prof. Elberse is careful to specify how much money each of them is making.  In the football stadium, what matters most is the final score. At the Harvard Business School it’s income. What’s surprising is not the implicit value itself; it’s that Prof. Elberse makes it so blatant.**


* In the wake of his comments after the most recent Superbowl, Sherman was widely labeled a “thug.” The word was used about him at least 600 times on television. For more, go here, or just Google “Richard Sherman thug” and check out any of the 112,000 pages.

** For more on money as the ultimate value, and how this value emerges in ordinary conversation, see this earlier post.

Football Violence - Position or Disposition

September 27, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

When sports stories wind up in the headlines and network news, something’s usually very wrong. The news biz, whether print or TV, usually keeps athletes confined in the sports section.  So now we have the network anchors talking about Adrian Peterson leaving welts on the flesh of his son, age four, or showing us the video of Ray Rice coldcocking his fiancee in the elevator. Other NFL domestic violence stories, previously ignored (no superstar players, no video), are now mentioned since they fit the news theme.

These incidents all suggest that maybe football players are just violent people – men with a streak of violence in their dispositions. This personality trait that allows them to flourish on the field, but too often it gets them in trouble after they leave the stadium. 

This is the kind of psychological “kinds of people” explanation that I ask students to avoid or at least question, and to question it with data. Conveniently, we have some data. USA Today has the entire NFL rap sheet (here), and it looks like a long one – more than 700 arrests since 2000.  Nearly 100 arrests for assault, another 85 or so for domestic violence. And those are just the arrests. No doubt many battered wives or girlfriends and many bruised bodies in bars didn’t make it into these statistics. Are football players simply violent people – violent off the field as well as on?

Well, no. The largest category of arrests is drunk driving  – potentially very harmful, but not what most people would call violent.  And besides, NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than are their uncleated counterparts – men in their late twenties.*

(Click to enlarge. The graph comes from Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight. )

This suggests that the violence we see in the stadiums on Sunday is situational (perhaps like the piety and moral rectitude we encounter elsewhere on Sunday).  The violence resides not in the players but in the game.  On every down, players must be willing to use violence against another person. Few off-the-field situations call for violence, so we shouldn’t be surprised that these same men have a relatively low rate of arrest (low relative to other young men).

But let's not discard the personal angle completely. If we look at arrests within the NFL, we see two things that suggest there might be something to this idea that violence, or at least a lack of restraint, might have an individual component as well.  First, although NFL arrests are lower for all crimes, they are much, much lower for non-violent offenses like theft. But for domestic violence, the rate is closer that of non-footballers.  The NFL rate for domestic violence is still substantially lower than the national average – 55 NFL arrests for every 100 among non-NFL men. But for theft, the ratio is one-tenth of that – 5.5 NFL arrests per 100 non-NFL. Also on the higher side are other offenses against a person (murder, sex offenses) and offenses that might indicate a careless attitude toward danger – DUI, guns. 

Second, some positions have a disproportionate number of offenders. The graphs below show the percent of all arrests accounted for by each position and also the percent the position represents of the total NFL roster.  For example, cornerbacks make up about 10% of all players, but they accounted for about 14% of all arrests. (The difference is not huge, but it’s something; there would be a very slight overlap in the error bars if my version of Excel made it easy to include them.)

The positions disproportionately likely to be arrested are wide receivers and defensive tackles. Those most under-represented in arrests are the offensive linemen. 

This fits with my own image of these positions. The wide-outs seem to have more than their share of free-spirits – players who care little for convention or rules. Some are just oddball amusing, like Chad Ochocinco formerly of the Bengals.** Others are trouble and get traded from team to team despite their abilities, like Terrell Owens of the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals.

As for the linemen, the arrest differential down in the trenches also might be expected.  Back in the 1970s, a psychiatrist hired by the San Diego Chargers noted this difference on his first visit to the locker room. It wasn’t the players - the offensive and defensive lineman themselves looked about the same (huge, strong guys) – it was their lockers. They were a metaphor for on-the-field play.  Defensive linemen charge, push, pull, slap – whatever they can do to knock over opponents, especially the one holding the ball. Their lockers were messy, clothes and equipment thrown about carelessly. Offensive lineman, by contrast, are more restricted. Even on a run play, their movements are carefully co-ordinated, almost choreographed. Watch a slo-mo of the offensive line on a sweep, and you’ll see legs moving in chorus-line unison.  Correspondingly, their lockers were models of organization and restraint.

Maybe these same personal qualities prevail off the field as well. Those offensive lineman get arrested at a rate only half of what we would expect from their numbers in the NFL population. Arrests of defensive linemen and wide receivers are 50% more likely than their proportion on the rosters. Position can’t be the entire explanation of course. Running counter to this “kinds of people” approach are the other hard-hitting defensive players – defensive ends and linebackers. According to the principle of violent people in violent positions, they should be over-represented in arrest figures just like the defensive tackles and cornerbacks. But they are not.

If this were a real article, a journal article, this final paragraph would be where the author calls for more data. But the trend in NFL arrests has been downward, and if fewer arrests means less data but also less domestic violence, that’s fine with me.

* Some critics have questioned this comparison since it does not take income into account. Of course, arrest is a fairly rare event, and it would be kind of hard to find a large enough sample to allow for estimates among men 25-29 with incomes over $500,000.  

** Changing his name to match his uniform number is one example. For another, once during an official video review of his catch of a pass to determine if he was in bounds, Ochocinco borrowed a dollar bill from an assistant on the sideline, went up to one of the refs on the field, and offered the dollar as a “bribe” to rule in his favor.  Everyone who saw the gag found it funny – everyone except the NFL brass, who fined him $20,000.

That Isn’t Funny

September 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the time, when people talk about humor – TV  sitcoms, movie romcoms, comedians, jokes, etc. – they’ll say things like, “That show is so funny,” or conversely, “That show is definitely not funny.” 

They assume that the funniness resides completely in the joke or show or comedian and that they themselves are objective observers.  But as any comedian knows, the funniness depends on the interaction between the joke and the audience. If everyone in the room is laughing, it doesn’t make much sense for you to say that the joke wasn’t funny. 

The funniness depends not just on the joke but on the ideas, assumptions, values, and knowledge that we bring to it. Some of that background knowledge is knowledge of other jokes.  Here’s a cartoon from the current New Yorker.

It stands on its own, I guess, but it’s funnier if you know the joke it’s referring to, which goes something like this.*

A grandmother (she doesn’t have to be Jewish, but she probably is, and she certainly was in the version that I first heard, and besides, it’s Rosh Hashanah, so we’ll say she is). A Jewish grandmother is standing at the edge of the ocean pointing out at the crashing waves and screaming for help. “My grandson, my grandson.” A lifeguard hears her, runs into the surf, swims out through the rough water, dives under, comes up with the boy, carries him back to shore, performs every kind of artificial respiration until finally the kid coughs and sputters and comes back to consciousness. The lifeguard, exhausted looks up at the grandmother. She looks down at him and says accusingly, “He had a hat.”

    OK, maybe it’s not so funny on the page. If you heard me tell it in person . . . or maybe not even then.  Some guys know how to tell ’em (and that’s a punch line to another joke).  Anyway, the New Yorker cartoon is a meta-joke, a joke about a joke. But the other cartoons too, I realized as I paged through the magazine, require background knowledge. If someone from a distant culture, or a member of our own society who has not acquired that cultural knowledge (i.e., a child), looked at any of those cartoons, we would have to fill in that missing background. Without it, the joke would not be funny.  Of course, then we’d be explaining the joke, and it wouldn’t be funny anyway. You can’t win.

But the larger point is that despite our sense that the funniness is in the joke or that the “wonderfulnesss” of a poem** lies completely within the joke or poem, we would be more accurate if we said, “That joke is not funny to me and to people like me.”

* Like many other teachers, I’m often disappointed and frustrated by students’ lack of cultural and historical knowledge. On the other hand, when I say, “It’s like the old joke . . .” I realize that most of them don’t know that joke. And if I tell it right, I get a laugh.

** Andrew Gelman and his commenters had a discussion about this recently (his blog post is here).

Bloggiversary (Now We Are Eight)

September 20, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog began in September 2006, eight years and 1341 posts ago. As I’ve said before, around this season I hear the CarGuys-like voice in my head saying, “Well, you’ve wasted another perfectly good year blogging.”

Anyway, here are a few from the past year that I’ve sort of liked.

1.    Separate Ways  Sociology falls out of love with Malcolm Gladwell.

2.     It’s Not About Obamacare and the companion piece Fearing Democracy    Anti-Obamacare as symbolic politics, again.

3.    The Revenge Fantasy - “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave”  This one got noticed at other places, including a website for screenwriters.

4.    The Wars on Christmas  A Dec. 25 post. “Happy Holidays” goes back farther than I (or Bill O’Reilly) thought.

5.    Losing Their Religion - And So . . .?  Brad Wilcox says that the decline in religion the cause of less civic engagement. Some data suggests otherwise.

6.    Game. Set,  Louis CK and assortative mating. The embedded video clip is from the “Louie” episode that won an Emmy.

7.    LOL  The many meanings of laughter. Includes a clip of Terry Gross and her apologetic laugh.

8.    How to Misread a Graph (It’s Not Easy, but The Heritage Foundation Finds a Way)    The title is neither succinct nor elegant, but it conveys the idea.

Corporations and Friends

September 17, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Corporations are people, my friend.”

If Mitt Romney winds up in the quotations books and URLs, this will be his contribution.

I’m not sure what Romney meant – probably that corporations were staffed by people, and perhaps that they were owned by people. It’s possible that he was referring to Supreme Court decisions that gave corporations some of the same rights as people. 

Whatever he meant, the statement still rings false because a corporation is so obviously not an individual person. Corporations have no social or emotional attachments to others. As economist Greg Mankiw explained recently (here), their primary responsibility, maybe their only responsibility, is to make as much money as they can. If Burger King can avoid paying US taxes by claiming that it’s a Canadian company, it’s just doing what it’s supposed to be doing. As that socialist rag Fortune put it, “The possibility exists that the company will be able to reassign the fees from its U.S. franchises to Canada and pay no U.S. tax on this income. Other taxpayers here in the U.S. will have to shoulder the burden and make up this shortfall in tax revenue.”

Corporations do not have a responsibility to society or country, and they certainly don’t have a responsibility to any person. My friend.

Still, corporations pretend otherwise and try to create the Romneyesque fiction that they are indeed people, people with feelings, people who are our friend.. Last week, several corporate PR offices Tweeted messages about 9/11.

(Click to enlarge)
I would guess that most people accepted these as sincere.* But not everybody. People in the PR and branding biz saw this patriotic tweetery for what it was – marketing.  At AdWeek, the AdFreak page interviewed Sean Bonner.

AdFreak: What makes these tweets feel so icky?
Sean Bonner: It's simple. Brands are not people. Brands do not have emotions or memories or condolences or heartbreak. People have those things, and when a brand tries to jump into that conversation, it's marketing.

Unfortunately, some corporations blow their patriotic cover and make the marketing aspect blatant. Intimacy Box, a company that sells lingerie, sent forth this tweet.

As comedian Robert Klein said decades ago about Presidents Day, “I’m sure that the father of our country would be pleased to know that he’s being honored with a mattress sale.”

These corporate tweets, whether they have discount coupons or pictures of flags, have the same underlying message: we want you to feel good about us so that you will buy more of our products. Dunkin’ Donuts, Beretta, and the rest leave the “buy more” message unsaid. After all, they are trying to convey the Romney idea that they are people. Only Intimacy Box makes it explicit, and that company was soon shamed into apologizing for its honesty.

*The irony of the Beretta tweet – the company is part of an industry whose product each year kills ten times as many Americans as died on 9/11 – was probably lost on Beretta’s Twitter followers.

HT: Dan Hirschman

When Thiago Met Daleyza

September 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Fashions in names are like fashions in clothes in at least one respect – they change more quickly for females than for males. When it comes to naming a boy, the same old styles will do, and very few seem out of date. But with girls, it’s easy to think of names like Ethel, Edna, Shirley, Doris – popular at one time, but today, nobody’s would give that name to their daughter.  But William, Richard, and Robert stick around generation after generation . . . at least until now.

That gender difference seems to be changing.  Even as recently as 1980, six of the top 10 boys names had been in the top 10 a decade earlier. For girls, only four remained in that group.

This was in the reign of Jennifer and Michael. Michael had been in #1 or #2 from 1954 through 2008. The Jennifer era was shorter, not 55 years but 15 – from 1970 through 1984. 

That was then. In the most recent decade, the turnover in the Top 10 has been more rapid for boys than for girls.  Six girls names but only four boys names stayed on that list through the decade.

The old reliable boys names – William, John, Robert, James – are being replaced by more faddish entries.  Jacob and Joshua may have hung around near the top for 20 or 30 years, but James and Robert stayed for 60 years or more.  My guess is that in ten years or less, newcomers like Jayden, Mason, Noah, and Liam will no longer be in the top 10, nor will the fading old-timers like Michael and Daniel, though their drop in popularity will not be as precipitous. Generally, the faster they rise, the faster they fall.

Among the less common names, volatility is much greater. The biggest  leaps upward in rank occur far down on the list.  Here are the biggest movers in 2013.

The small numbers make for greater volatility.  With only two hundred Thiagos born in 2012, an additional hundred in 2013 made for a jump in rank of 374 places.  It’s also worth noting that several of the names on the list are inspired by figures in the media – Thiago and Forrest (mixed martial arts), Daleyza (reality TV), Jayceon (music), and probably others I’m too lazy to look up.  Usually, fashions in names spread via influence within the population. The rise in popularity starts gradually.  Parents-to-be get wind of a cool name by hearing what parents around them have chosen. The next year still more parents see kids with that name, and the trend grows.  By contrast, the influence of distant figures in the media is more sudden.  A graph of changes in popularity – steep or gradual – can give you a good idea as to whether the influence is coming from outside or from within the population, even if you’ve never heard of “Larrymania.” (See this post  from two years ago, inspired by Gabriel Rossman’s writings about how songs become hits.)

If fashions in boys names are changing almost as rapidly as changes in girls names, what are we to make of this convergence?  We’re moving away from those once durable names – the Roberts and the Williams – and we’re putting more value on less frequent and more nearly unique names. Philip Cohen (here) speculates that the trend towards more individual baby names reflects a change in how we think about children.  In contrast to 19th-century assumptions about children, we now see each child as a unique individual, important to us for her or his special personality.  The child’s place in the family is all about interpersonal relations rather than economic contributions. In Viviana Zelizer’s famous phrase about this change (roughly in the period from the 1870s to the 1930s), the child has become “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

Gender differences might be following a similar pattern, with more attention paid to the emotions and social life of boys, their unique personalities, rather than simply their economic abilities and prospects.  We see a movie like “Boyhood,” nod our heads appreciatively, and say, “Yes, that is what boyhood is all about.” It’s hard if not impossible to imagine a similar story told in 1850 and based on 1850s ideas and assumptions about boys. It would be similarly difficult for Americans of 1850 to understand Linklater’s film (which if you haven't seen, you should).

A century ago, a good father could be emotionally distant so long as he was a reliable breadwinner.   Now, we  expect dads to take part in the emotional life of the family, once pretty much a female preserve.  Maybe the trend in boys names is a further sign of the gradual erosion of old and rigid distinctions between boys and girls, men and women. If so, I wonder if the people who most object to Jayden and Landon and Grayson* and to the greater variety and variability of boys names are also those who insist most strongly on maintaining those traditional gender-role boundaries.

* Boys names ending in “n” have had an impressive rise in popularity. The final “n” now dwarfs names ending in the other 25 letters. For graphs, see this 2009 post.

Religious Knowledge, Religious Feeling

September 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Robin Hanson has a “it isn’t about” list (here). It begins
  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Also on the list is
  • Church isn’t about God
Maybe church isn’t about religious ideas either.

I was reminded of this recently when I followed a link to a Pew quiz on religious knowledge (here). It’s a lite version of the 32-item quiz Pew used with a national sample in 2010.  One of the findings from that survey (the full report is here) was that people who went to church regularly and who said that religion was important in their lives didn’t do much better on the quiz than did those who had a weak attachment to church and religion.

The strongly committed averaged 17 correct answers out of the 32 questions; the uncommitted, 16.  This same pattern was repeated in the more recent 15-question quiz.

The committed may derive many things from their church attendance and faith, but knowledge of religion isn’t one of them.  To be fair, the quiz covers many religions, and people do know more about their own religion than they do about others.  “What was Joseph Smith’s religion?” Only about half the population gets that one right, but 93% of the Mormons nailed it. Mormons also knew more about the Ten Commandments. Catholics did better than others on the transubstantiation question.  But when it came to knowing who inspired the Protestant Reformation, Protestants got outscored by Jews and atheists.

Overall, onbelievers, Jews, and Mormons did much better than did Protestants and Catholics.

One reason for their higher scores might be education – college graduates outscore high school or less by nearly 8 points out of 32.

It may be that nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons are more likely to have finished college. Unfortunately, the Pew report does not give data that controls for education.

But another reason that these groups scored higher may be their position as religious minorities. Jews and Mormons have to explain to the flock how their ideas are different from those of the majority. Atheists and agnostics too, in their questioning and even rejecting,  have probably devoted more thought to religion, or more accurately, religions. On the questions about Shiva and Nirvana, they leave even the Jews and Mormons far behind.

For Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, learning detailed information about their religion is not as crucial. Just as White people in the US rarely ask what it means to be White, Christians need not worry about their differences from the mainstream. They are the mainstream.*  So going to church or praying can be much more about feelings – solidarity, transcendence, peace, etc.  That variety of religious experience need not include learning the history or even the tenets of the religion itself. As Durkheim said, the central element in religion is ritual – especially the feelings a ritual generates in the group. Knowing the actual beliefs might be a nice addition, but it’s not crucial.

* These same majority-minority differences apply in politics as well. A lifetime Democrat or Republican can get by on general principles without having to worry about the details of policies or candidates’ positions. Socialists and Tea Partistas are more likely to devote more time and thought to those issues.

Reality Football

September 5, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Over at Scatterplot , Jeremy Freese posts this excerpt from Season of Saturdays, by Michael Weinreb, a sports writer.

Maybe you don’t understand at all: Maybe you attended a liberal arts college in New England, or maybe you grew up in a city where the athletes were professionals (New York, say, or Boston, or Chicago, or London). . . . Maybe the thought of a university’s morale being tied to its football team strikes you as a fundamental failing of American society. Maybe you hear stories about corrupt recruiting and grade-fixing, and maybe you cannot understand how a sport with a long history of exploitation and brutality and scandal can still be considered a vital (and often defining) aspect of student life. Maybe you see it as a potentially crippling frivolity, or as a populist indulgence, and maybe the threat of football encroaching on the nation’s educational system makes you wonder how someone could possibly write an entire book extolling its cultural virtues.

And the thing is, I would like to tell you that you’re wrong, but I also know that you’re not entirely wrong.

Jeremy, a long-time Big Ten fan (Iowa and now Northwestern), admits to his own increasing ambivalence about the game.  Me, I’m more like those “maybe” people Weinreb imagines. In the town where I grew up, many adults felt towards the high school football team the way college team fans feel about their team. They went to all the games (sometimes even the away games), they knew the team’s history and would compare individual players to those of five or ten or more years earlier. And this wasn’t Odessa, TX.; it was a white collar, WASP suburb of Pittsburgh. I wondered what was wrong with these grown men. Many of them didn’t even have kids in the school.  The phrase “get a life” hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had, that’s what I would have said.

I had the same feeling some years later when I went to a Princeton game – the alums in their tweed sport coats and striped ties shouting “Go Tiger” while we – grad students and young faculty – regarded the whole scene with stoned irony.

Over the years, I grew less critical about the fans, mostly because of sociology, which taught me to look at institutions, not just individuals. Some of the men in my town really liked school football. Others (my father, for example) liked to play bridge. So what? But those accusations of brutality, exploitation, and corruption that Weinreb mentions – those are more than just “not entirely wrong.” They are accurate and important.  But the fault lies with institutions like the NCAA, not with the fans and athletes.

Hackers and Voyeurs

September 3, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two brief thoughts on the theft and distribution of Jennifer Lawrence’s private photos.

1.  The “Don’t take nude selfies” response is both self-evident and stupid. As Lena Dunham said, it’s the equivalent of reacting to rape by saying, “She was wearing a short skirt.”*  You expect this blame-the-woman reaction from nonentity Facebookers and Tweeters. But Nick Bilton is a New York Times columnist whose Twitter has 231,000 followers.

Bilton later claimed that his tweet was “meant as a larger point about state of the Web and insecurity,” and maybe it was. Still, I wonder: if someone had hacked Bilton’s bank and brokerage information – account numbers and passwords – and looted his savings, would his response be, “1. Don’t use online financials. 2. Don’t use online financials . . . ”?

2.  Why is seeing a nude picture of Jennifer Lawrence such a big deal? Not because of the inherent eroticism in a picture of an attractive nude female. Those are so commmonplace that it’s hard to avoid them.  What makes it special is that it’s a celebrity and that she did not want the pictures seen. That’s true of most paparazzi shots that fill the celeb mags even when the celebrities are going about their daily life fully clothed.

The voyeurism driving the JLaw pictures is similar though more explicit about its sexual interest.  More important, woven in with that sexual interest is a nasty form of power – the power to violate.  The hacker/voyeur is successful only if his act is a violation of the woman’s privacy.  Is the picture badly lit and out of focus? No matter. What’s important is that he is seeing something she did not want him to see.  Better if the victim is a celebrity, but a neighbor or ordinary woman in the street will do, so long as she is someone who we can assume does not want her naked body on display. 

In her short-skirt comment, Lena Dunham did not use the word rape, but the parallel is obvious.

* The LA Times responded to Dunham’s remark in an offensive and belittling way with the headline, “Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos have FBI, Lena Dunham on the case.”

Old Book, Old Line

August 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1970s, it seemed that every undergraduate who had gone within twenty yards of Career Services was carrying a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute.  I hadn’t seen anyone with the book in a long time, so I assumed that Parachute had long since fallen to earth and lay forgotten in some distant meadow.  I was wrong. The Times business section has an article (here) about the book, now out in its 2015 edition.

Six years ago, I exploited the title for a blog post about photo retouching in celeb mags.  This was back in the day when Madonna and ARod were newsworthy.  Never afraid to recycle my garbage, I reprint the post in full.


July 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
Sociological musings in the checkout line at the Publix. Two lovers, two magazines. Same story. But why is A-Rod so much darker on the In Touch cover than on Us?

I did not buy the magazines to see if the stories too were different. I didn't even buy the Star to see if Mary Kate was going back to rehab.

The title of the post was What Color Is Your Paramour.  I liked it, but I’ve always  wondered if anyone got the allusion

Ordeal or No Deal

August 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Students in my criminal justice class were often incredulous when I described the trial by ordeal.  The worth of a person’s testimony is determined by his or her ability to successfully undergo some ordeal.

The Ordeal of Cold Water

An ancient method of testing the guilt or innocence of the common sort of people. The accused, being tied under the arms, was thrown into a river. If he sank to the bottom, he was held to be guiltless, and drawn up by the cord; but if he floated, the water rejected him, because of his guilt. [source]

“But what does floating or sinking have to do with whether the person committed a crime or whether what they say is worth believing?” students would ask. Exactly. Some students even suggest that there’s more than a touch of sadism in this irrational inflicting of suffering. For it is irrational, as my students quickly see. The underlying assumption  –  the equation of worthiness and ordeal – is ridiculous. We enlightened folks in 21st century America would never use such logic, right?

You can see where this is going.

(Jimmy Fallon and Lindsay Lohan)

The logic of the ice-bucket challenge is nothing new.  Walkathons and bikeathons rest on the same idea:  the worthiness of a charity – how much money I will donate – must be based on someone else undergoing an ordeal. Walking or biking some distance are the popular default ordeals. The person entering the event makes a deal with me, a potential contributor. The longer the ordeal, the more I must contribute.  Presumably, if the person winds up not walking, then our deal is off, and I need not contribute a penny. The charity is not worthy of my money. 

These and other “thons” are now  so common that they no longer get much attention.  The ice bucket challenge is different mostly in its degree of success, which is considerable. That success owes much to the involvement of actors, sports stars, and the like. Celebrities still endorse products, but somewhat less directly – all those jocks sporting the Nike logo or Britney dancing in a video with lots of Pepsi –  not quite the same as Ronald Reagan telling us straight out to smoke Chesterfields or O.J. Simpson talking up Hertz car rentals. So when celebrities speak in favor of something, especially something that they have no financial stake in, we pay attention.

The underlying logic of endorsements is also not quite in keeping with enlightened rationality.  Are the opinions of high-status people and their willingness to undergo an ordeal valid indicators of a charity’s virtue? Yet we seem to think that if Lindsay Lohan is willing to have Jimmy Fallon dump a bucket of ice water on her, ALS must be a more worthy cause than others I could write a check to.

The other interesting thing about the ice bucket challenge is that it seems not to have been planned. It was not an ad campaign cooked up and widely promoted by some PR firm hired by the ALS foundation.  Instead, it seems to have been a lucky accident, unplanned and unpredicted.  It started small and grew gradually until it eventually went viral.* 

Through it all, a few observers have pointed out the logical fallacy in the ice bucket assumption. I refer of course to the Enlightenment rationalist Charlie Sheen, who dumped a bucket of room-temperature greenbacks on himself, challenging us to admit what the game was really about – money for a charity – and that the ice water was irrelevant.  And then there was Sheen’s fellow philosophe Patrick Stewart who made the same point, though with more style.

* In an earlier post (here), I used Gabriel Rossman’s ideas about exogenous and endogenous influences in the spread of ideas. If we could see a graph of contributions to ALS or even of videos and tweets, we would have a better idea of whether the popularity of the ice bucket was centrally planned or whether it followed the endogenous person-to-person model.

Cops vs. Man With Knife

August 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened.  (See this account in The Atlantic.) Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away?

The video is all over the Internet, including the Atlantic link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video (you can find it in the Atlantic link above and elsewhere). Then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man. (The video is from 2011. I’m surprised it hasn’t been recycled this week.) Powell had a steak knife, and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.

Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started.* By the time the person started recording, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The quote above is from an article in this week’s Economist (here), which includes this graphic:

I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

* I don’t know how the St. Louis incident got started. Who called the police, and what did they say? In the video, Powell is not menacing anyone, and the bystanders seem bemused rather than fearful.

Frederick Douglass’s Agitation

August 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I hate to see a good word fade and get folded into another word that doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

A Twitter link yesterday took me to a sociology blog whose post consisted entirely of a quotation from Frederick Douglass. It contained this sentence:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Depreciate agitation? Surely Douglass must have said “deprecate.” That little “i,” a slender stroke and dot barely noticeable, makes a difference. Or at least it used to. In Douglass’s time, to deprecate meant to disapprove strongly, and depreciate meant to reduce in value. We depreciate assets. We deprecate sin. 

“Deprecate” as a percentage of both words took a dive starting around 1970, falling from 40% to 20%. 

Today, the distinction between the two is fading to the point that many readers and writers either do not know the difference or are simply unaware of the word deprecate.  Authors rewrite Douglass’s words; their books then become sources for other books and blogs.  The sound of deprecate grows fainter and fainter. If you search Google for the Douglass quote, the first screen gives you a chance of finding the right word.

(Depreciate is circled in red, deprecate in blue. Click on the graphic for a larger view. )

Still, when I searched for both kinds of agitation, Goggle returned more than three times as many “depreciates” as “deprecates.” 

Google too seems to think that the revised version of the Douglass quote is the correct one. When I asked for “deprecate,” Google suggested that maybe I (and Douglass) had made a spelling error. 

Language evolves. But it’s one thing for that evolution to make for changes as we move forward in history; it’s quite another for us to make those changes retroactive.  I fear that in the next edition of Frederick Douglass’s writings, some alert copy editor will see “deprecate agitation,” assume that it’s a typo, and insert the “i.”  And Douglass will turn over in his grave knowing that his powerful language has been depreciated.

The Last Time I Saw Betty Joan Perske

August 13, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

One late autumn day about five years ago, I had come out of Central Park and was walking east on W. 72nd St.  Dusk on a weekday. The entrance to the Dakota was free of tourists. Nobody leaning forward to peer in through the vertical bars to see the spot where John Lennon died – just the silent doorman in his gray coat.

I walked on.  An old lady,  bent over and walking slowly, almost painfully, with her tiny dog, was coming towards me. Her face  looked so familiar, but I couldn’t place her.  Who was she? Where had I seen her?  After she had gone past, I turned and watched her move slowly on. A few moments later, she turned and went into the Dakota.

She looked something like this:

I waited till she had gone inside, then walked back and approached the doorman.  “Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “but who was that woman who just came in here?” 

He paused for a minute as if trying to decide whether this was a violation of a tenant’s privacy. “That,” he said, “was Miss Lauren Bacall.”

Lauren Bacall 1924 - 2014

[I used this story in an earlier post about names. Until the late 20th century, performers with ethnic or difficult  names changed them (or had them changed by Hollywood studios) to something more “American.” Now, they are more likely to stick with what they’ve got. I’m all for being multicultural, but I still think that Lauren Bacall is a perfect name for her. I have a hard time imagining what Betty Joan Perske would look like.]


August 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not “laughing out loud” any more. Or not only “laughing out loud.” The meaning has seeped out of that narrow box and is now broader and thinner. LOL is a generic sign of connection.*

“Lol creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common.”  (John McWhorter in the New York Times.)

I have a  hunch that this LOL-as-connection is a not guy thing. I don’t know the research on texting and gender, but I would expect that it is mostly women who are dropping these LOLs into their texts. 

Laughter itself – the kind you hear, not the kind you text LOL – also has multiple meanings and uses. And the question of whose laughter and what it means has a lot to do with gender.

Mark Liberman, at the Language Log, posted recently  about speech and gender – men and women, and what they say. Not surprisingly, they talk about different topics, and they use different words – when was the last time you heard a man say something was “adorable”?  But they also differ in the not-word sounds that punctuate their conversations – especially laughter.

These tables show the frequencies per million words (MW) and the log odds of male and female use, of what people say in conversations.  (See Liberman’s post, here.)

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

(The double-parentheses markers (( and )) indicate sounds – starting or ending – that the transcribers couldn’t make out; i- and th- are false starts – words the speaker started but then changed.)

Number one among female-dominated items is [laughter]. Liberman, who is usually a great source of insight on language, has disappointingly little to say:

It's less clear why women should laugh 60% more often than men do — are women on average happier, or more overtly sociable? Or do men feel constrained not to express positive emotions?

Is that all – happiness and sociability? Surely there are other kinds of female laughter – from a tween’s embarrassed, conspiratorial giggle to Phyllis Diller’s aggressive guffaw.  Somewhere on that axis lies the female apologetic laugh, the one designed to take the edge off any sharpness in what a woman is saying.  When Terry Gross, in her “Fresh Air” interviews, asks a question that might put her guest on the spot, she will often insert this kind of laugh.

Here are two examples. In the first, she suggests to Hillary Clinton that Clinton might have tried to sneak in under the radar with changes in the State Department’s internal LBGT policies.  In the second, she asks QuentinTarantino about the violence in his films.**

The trouble is that when the transcript shows “[laughter],” you cannot know what kind of laugh it is.  Sometimes you can’t know even when you hear it.  Sociologist Freed Bales spent years developing a schema for classifying interactions in small groups, years in which he listened to countless hours of group discussion. The result was Interaction Process Analysis or IPA (in 1950, craft breweries were not even a speck on the horizon).  It had twelve categories – six paired opposites:
  • Shows Antagonism / Shows Solidarity
  • Asks for Orientation / Gives Orientation
and so on.

Laughter was coded as “Shows Tension Release”; its counterpart was “Shows Tension.”  True, some laughter showed tension release, but much did not, and twenty years later, in a revised IPA, Bales put laughter in the category “Shows Tension” under the general heading of “Negative and Mixed Actions.”  Still, much laughter doesn’t fit into that box.  

Sometimes we ourselves don’t know what our laughter means. In Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, subjects often laughed when the learner-victim cried out in pain. Clearly, this was nervous laughter. But when, in the famous film of the experiment, Milgram asks one subject why he laughed, the man says, “I thought it was funny, I guess.”

* To avoid ambiguity, when texters want to indicate “I got the joke,” instead of “LOL,” they use “haha.”

** Gross, especially in the Tarantino excerpt, uses the word like. A lot.  This may be a sign of her nervousness at asking a tough question. Or it just may be the way she usually speaks.

Sports, Markets, and Ficitons

August 9, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Owners of money-making operations can make more money if they pay their workers less. But they paying less is possible only if others are not offering to pay more. This often requires that the business form a cartel – an agreement among owners not to compete. That way, they can all pay their workers less than market value. 

As Adam Smith pointed out long ago, businesses don’t really want competition.  What’s interesting political conservatives who are not in business, despite their talk about freedom and capitalism and the free market,  often want to shelter hugely profitable business from competition.

Thus it was that yesterday Claudia Wilken,  a liberal judge appointed by Bill Clinton, told the NCAA it would have to start paying their workers.  The NCAA and its affiliated businesses (sometimes known as “universities”) didn’t just pay their workers less.  They didn’t pay them at all. Even better.

Of course, the NCAA claims that the football and basketball players are not workers creating a product that the NCAA sells for huge amounts of money. No, these are “scholar athletes.”  And for years, the courts have gone along with this fiction. With yesterday’s court ruling as a start, that may soon change.

The ruling, which would take effect in 2016, does not mandate that players be paid. But it could allow universities to engage in bidding wars for the best athletes, though the N.C.A.A. would probably try to prevent that by capping payments, which Judge Wilken said was permissible. [NYT]

We’ve been here before. In sport, the courts have long been slow in recognizing what was obvious to everyone else. In 1922, the Supreme Court exempted major league baseball from the Sherman Anti-trust Law, ruling that baseball was an “amusement,” not a business. Another fiction. Even in 1969, when the Court admitted that baseball was a business, the conservatives on the Court still continued to allow teams to enforce the “reserve clause,” which prevented players from seeking a better deal with another club.  If Mickey Mantle didn’t like the contract the Yankees offered, his only option was to retire.  Dissenting were three of the Court’s great liberals – William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and William O. Douglas.

The reserve clause finally disappeared, not because of a court ruling but because the players had formed a union.  In negotiations with the owners, the union was strong enough to force them to give up the reserve clause. College athletes have never been able to form a union.  Recently, athletes at Northwestern voted to form a union. In April, the NLRB ruled that the athletes were employees and could unionize.  Of course, those who were getting rich off the atheletes’ unpaid labor – the university and the NCAA – objected.  Just last month, they filed briefs arguing against the NLRB decision.

Still, it may be hard for college athletes to form unions given the short tenure of each member. And I expect that the NCAA and its universities will, like admittedly for-profit corporations, do everything they can to prevent or bust the unions.  So for now, the courts are the only hope for bringing any real pay, let alone competitive wages, to college atheletes.  So for now the courts are the workers’ only hope. Yesterday’s ruling offered that hope.

So when it comes to money-making athletics, who’s for competition?  Liberal judges and unions.

Writing Corporate Tax Law – How Else?

August 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

We refer to Senators and Congressional representatives as “lawmakers.” We democratically elect these people so that they can write and enact laws. But every so often the curtain parts, and we get a glimpse of who’s writing the laws, though these are usually laws that don’t make headlines. There was that time during the Bush years when corporate lobbyists were sitting right next to elected representatives - mostly Republican – at a committee hearing, telling them what to say.  The GOP defenders got all huffy at those who had pointed out who was really running the legislation show.

It reminded me of the Amazing Mr. Ballantine, the deliberately inept comic magician.  He would do a levitation effect where the floating object was held by an obvious “invisible” thread.  “Well, if you’re gonna look that close . . .” he would say to the audience. And then, “How else?”

Today’s New York Times has an article (here) about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.  Three-quarters of the way through the story, we get this paragraph:

Elaine C. Kamarck, the co-chairwoman of a bipartisan coalition of businesses and organizations that support a tax overhaul, says the only way a tax bill will pass is to use any savings derived from closing corporate loopholes solely to lower the overall corporate tax rate. The companies that have joined the coalition, which include Boeing, AT&T, Verizon, Walmart and Walt Disney, have agreed to put every loophole on the table, she said, because they believe “a low enough basic tax rate is worth giving up exemptions.” [emphasis added]

The message is clear: our elected representatives can change the law only if a handful of corporations agree. Ms Kamarck tells us that these corporations have selflessly  allowed their tax dodges to be put “on the table.” Presumably, had they not been so magnanimous,  these corporations would not allow Congress to change the law.  She also implies that if the tradeoff – fewer exemptions but lower rates – doesn’t benefit the corporations, they’ll take their loopholes off the table and stop our elected representatives from changing the law.

Nice. I happen to think that educators are so valuable to society that their income should not be taxed. But that table Ms Kamarck mentions – the one where you tell Congress which tax rules you’ll accept – I can’t get anywhere near it.  So I pay my taxes. In fact, last year, I paid more in taxes than did Verizon and Boeing combined.  They, and several other huge corporations, paid zero.

I am, of course, naive to think that it was really Congress that wrote the laws that allow these corporations to pay nothing, and not the corporations themselves. How else? 

Who’s Covering Up?

August 4, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

What should we make of changes in fashion? Are they the visible outward expression of new ways of thinking? Or do fashions themselves influence our sentiments and ideas? Or are fashions merely superficial and without any deeper meaning except that of being fashionable?

It’s summer, and once again magazines and newspapers are reporting on beachwear trends in France, proclaiming “the end of topless.”  They said the same thing five years ago.*

As in 2009, no systematic observers were actually counting the covered and uncovered chests on the beach. Instead, we are again relying on surveys – what people say they do, or have done, or would do.  Elle cites an Ipsos survey: “In 2013, 93% of French women say that they wear a top, and 35% find it ‘unthinkable’ to uncover their chest in public.”

Let’s assume that people’s impressions and the media stories are accurate and that fewer French women are going topless. Some of stories mention health concerns, but most are hunting for grander meanings. The Elle cover suggests that the change encompasses issues like liberty, intimacy, and modesty.  Marie-Claire says,

Et en dehors de cette question sanitaire, comment expliquer le recul du monokini : nouvelle pudeur ou perte des convictions féministes du départ ?

But aside from the question of health, how to explain the retreat from the monokini: a new modesty or a loss of the original feminist convictions? [my translation, perhaps inaccurate]

The assumption here is that is that ideas influence swimwear choices.  Women these days have different attitudes, feelings, and ideologies, so they choose apparel more compatible with those ideas.  The notion certainly fits with the evidence on cultural differences, such as those between France and the US.

Americans are much more likely to feel uncomfortable at a topless beach. But they are also much less likely to have been to one. (Northern Europeans – those from the Scandinavian countries and Germany – are even more likely than the French to have gone topless.) (Data are from a 1913 Harris survey  done for Expedia.)

This second graph could also support the other way of thinking about the relation between fashion and ideas: exposing your body changes how you think about bodies.  If people take off their clothes, they’ll become more comfortable with nudity. That is, whatever a woman’s original motivation, once she did try going topless, she would develop ideas that made sense of the experiences, especially since the body already carries such a heavy symbolism. She would not have to invent these topless-is-OK ideas all by herself. They would be available in the conversations of others. So unless her experiences were negative, these new ideas would add to and reinforce the thoughts that led to the original behavior. 

This process is much like the general scenario Howie** Becker outlines for deviance. 

Instead of deviant motives leading to deviant behavior, it is the other way around; the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation.  Vague impulses and desires – ... probably most frequently a curiosity . . .  are transformed into definite patterns of action through social interpretation of a physical experience. [Outsiders, p. 42]

With swimwear, another motive besides “vague impulses” comes into play:  fashion –  the pressure to wear something that’s within the range of what others on the beach are wearing. 

Becker was writing about deviance.  But when the behavior is not illegal and not all that deviant, when you can see lots of people doing it in public, the supportive interpretations will be easy to come by.  In any case, it seems that the learned motivation stays learned.  The fin-du-topless stories,  both in 2009 and 2014, suggest that the change is one of generations rather than a change in attitudes.  Older women have largely kept their ideas about toplessness. And if it’s true that French women don’t get fat, maybe they’ve even kept their old monokinis.  It’s the younger French women who are keeping their tops on. But I would be reluctant to leap from that one fashion trend to a picture of an entire generation as more sexually conservative.

Obligatory picture of a French beach

In summer, the city of Paris spreads sand on the quais turning them 
into urban beaches. At Paris Plage, le topless is interdit. 

* I was somewhat skeptical (see this blog post from August 2009 ) since the basis for the stories – apart from the usual journalistic impressions and quotes – was a single French survey that turned out to have no data on who was actually wearing what at the beach.

** Becker says that nobody calls him Howard.