Horton Hears a Whom?

December 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In discussions of  language and grammar the word correct should usually be in quotes.  Either that or it should be amended to “currently correct.” That goes for pronunciation and spelling too. The trouble is that language prescriptivists seem to think that what is currently correct has always been so and always will be. They’re wrong.

NPR recently asked listeners for their language gripes – “the most misused word or phrase.” Topping the list was “I and “me.”  (The full list is here.)

Strictly speaking, “the gift is for you and I” is wrong. We have objective pronouns (me) and subjective pronouns (I). Putting a couple of words between the preposition (for) and the pronoun doesn’t change that. If you wouldn’t say, “The gift is for I,” then don’t say, “The gift is for you and I.”*



Strictly speaking, it should be “between you and me.”  But we don’t speak strictly. Language changes. Yesterday’s solecism becomes today’s standard usage. I don’t like “between you and I,” but wishing people would stop using it is like wishing they’d stop texting. (Need I point out that text as a verb did not exist until very, very recently?)

At #9 on the prescriptivists list is
Saying someone “graduated college” instead of “graduated from college.”
They  don’t have too much to worry about. Their preferred form is ten times more common.


But not too long ago, “he graduated from college” was itself a grammatical error. NPR, in the very next sentence, says,
A college graduates a student, not the other way around. The "from" makes a big difference.
But while NPR sees why this makes “he graduated college” incorrect, it fails to note that by this same logic, “he graduated from college” is also wrong.  If it’s the college that graduates the students, we should say “he was graduated from college.” And in fact, we did say it that way.



Imagine a newspaper in 1900 asking the NPR “most misused word or phrase” question. High on the readers’ list of grammar gripes: “Even our best educated are now saying, ‘I graduated from Harvard,’rather than the correct, ‘I was graduated from Harvard.’”

“Was graduated from” was never the most popular way of saying it, but it held its own up until about 1950. Since then “I graduated from” became the clear winner and is now, at least among the NPR complainers, the “correct” form.

Coming in at #5 on the list is
Ongoing confusion over “who” vs. “whom.”
The confusion is easily cleared up: get rid of whom. Reserve it for a few special occasions.  In fact, that’s what’s been happening.



The graph from Google Ngrams shows the frequency in books, i.e. formal writing. Its misuse can escape copy editors even at the Times :
The defenders of the interrogation program say little about two men whom are portrayed especially harshly by the Senate report

Surely whom is fading even faster in everyday speech. I’m surprised that NPR could find even a few dozen people who mourn its passing. I am certainly not among them. (Or is it amongst them?)

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The root of the I/me problem is that English lacks a disjunctive pronoun. The French, thanks to  moi, toi, etc., never make these mistakes.

Freaks and Civilization

December 30, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Whatever happened to freaks?

I saw the musical “Sideshow” on Saturday. It’s based on the story of the Hilton sisters, Violet and Daisy, conjoined twins.  When the musical opens, they are in Texas with a traveling sideshow of freaks – the bearded lady, the dog boy, the half-man/half-woman, a midget couple, a three-legged man, and others. The storyline of the show traces the girls’ escape from the exploitative sideshow operator, who in effect owns them, and their relation with two men who teach them to sing and dance and who eventually develop their them into vaudeville stars of the 1920s.


Vaudeville is long gone, and so is the freak show.  We still have the staples of vaudeville – singers and dancers and comedians.  And you can still find, in clubs or circuses or late night TV, magicians and ventriloquists, jugglers and fire-eaters, contortionists and animal acts. But no freaks. 

I don’t mean the performers – the glass eater, the sword swallower, the human pin cushion, the geek. [Language note: Until very recently, the term geek referred to the sideshow guy who bit the heads off live chickens, and I am curious as to how geek came to mean something much less specific and much less deviant. The word freak too lost its bite starting in the 1960s with speed-freaks and acid-freaks. As unconventionality became more stylish, freak might mean nothing more than enthusiast. 

(Frequency of freak in books, as per Google nGrams.)

The term allowed an utterly ordinary person the fantasy of metamorphosis into someone offbeat and interesting.  Freakonomics – need I say more? The characters on the 2000s TV series “Freaks and Geeks” were neither, at least not according to the definitions of only a few decades earlier. They would not have qualified for the sideshow. On the other hand, many people walk around in the conventional world today so extensively tattooed that they would have easily been sideshow material a century ago.]

The performers who had developed unusual skills were examples of what we sociologists might call “achieved” deviance. The freaks I wonder about are those who one of the characters in “Sideshow” calls “nature’s mistakes.”  They seem to have disappeared from sight. My friends who grew up in New York used to go to Hubert’s Dime Museum on 42nd St., a sideshow collection of freaks and acts that ran through the mid-1960s.  The closest that the today’s Disneyfied Times Square comes is Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum is just a few doors down the street. But Hubert’s and the like have not reopened anywhere. No doubt there are places on the Internet showing all sorts of physical anomalies, but I the audience for these sites is probably smaller and more secretive than was the freak show audience.

The freak show has fallen victim to a normative shift that has taken two forms. First, freaks are less abnormal.  We have become more accepting of people who are different. They are no longer the objects of fascination and horror that they once were. Our normative circle has expanded, spreading now to include many of the “differently abled” who might previously have been excluded. As the boundary has broadened, even those who are really different are no longer so distant. Consequently, they are not so deviant.  We have defined their deviance down. 

Second, as norms have become more accepting of physical difference, they have also become less tolerant of those who haven’t gotten the message, the unenlightened rabble who would belittle, tease, laugh, or gawk. We must teach them restraint and kindness.  It’s not nice to point and stare and others’ deformity.

This sounds a bit like Norbert Elias’s Civilizing Process, which traces how Europeans came to throw the heavy cloak of manners over bodily functions, violence, dining, and speech.  Elias was writing about a transition that began with the medieval aristocracy and filtered through bourgeoisie of later centuries. By the time book was published (the mid-20th century), the civilizing process seemed like something that had reached its peak in the 19th century.  The strictures of Victorian norms were loosening. We were less uptight about bodies, and that was groovy. 

Maybe, but apparently the civilizing beat goes on. If there is a message to “Sideshow,” it is that the freak show – exploiting its cast while egging on its audience, daring them to stare – was a shameful spectacle, one that we like to think we have relegated to the bin of history. 

Uncertainty and Foreboding. Are Things Really Falling Apart?

December 26, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Don’t be fooled by the stories in the headlines or on the evening news, says Steven Pinker in an article for Slate (here).  Those stories are about death and devastation, and they reinforce a popular but incorrect picture of a world in chaos.

I think Robert McNamara was the first government official to use the quote from Yeats that has now become a cliche in this regard:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,*

Or as Times columnist Roger Cohen said just two months ago (here),

Many people I talk to . . . have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. . . . The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.

A few weeks later, in his year-end summary (in verse, no less), Cohen repeated the same idea: “The world has never seemed more fragile.”

Never? Nonsense, says Pinker. As a nation and as a world, we’ve never had it so good.  And unlike the journalists reviewing their headlines and ledes, Pinker backs up his never-better diagnosis with data from the last quarter-century.  Murder, rape, war, mass killing, genocide, dictatorships – all down. Democracy – up. 



As the graphs show, things look pretty good. So why the despair? Pinker, a cognitive scientist, has basically one answer: the availability heuristic:

As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.


True, but there’s something else, and I’m surprised that Pinker misses it: we are uneasy about the world today because of its uncertainty.  It seems worse than anything that’s gone before because we know how those things in the past turned out. 

The trouble with all the current problems that we can so easily think of – ISIS, climate change, global recession, and the rest – is not just that they’re bad but that they might get worse, and in ways that we can only imagine. (Of course we can only imagine them. They haven’t happened yet.) Hence, Cohen’s “foreboding” and “uneasy” feelings. 

Bad stuff happened in the past – recessions and crime and wars and global threats. But we survived them all, those of us who are still alive. Some things turned out terribly (Rwanda, Cambodia, Chernobyl, etc.), but they are over now, so we need not feel any sense of foreboding. In most cases, we don’t even feel much afterboding.  Even when the underlying problem remains, if we live with it long enough, it becomes familiar. So as long as it doesn’t get much worse, we learn to live with it.

By definition, what is familiar cannot be uncertain, so it causes less anxiety.  Back in the high-crime years of the 1960s and 70s, surveys found that people felt safer in their own neighborhoods than in unfamiliar neighborhoods – even when their own neighborhoods had a much higher crime rate. I remember phoning a guy for directions to his party in some NYC neighborhood I didn’t know. “Is it safe?” I asked. “Of course it’s safe,” he said indignantly.  When people asked the same question about my neighborhood, I’d give the same answer. “Of course, it’s safe.” I lived across from Needle Park, and I would sometimes see junkies on the nod, standing in stupor on the sidewalk. There were murders in Riverside Park two blocks away. But I had not been personally victimized, and the junkies became part of the taken-for-granted landscape.

My cognitions were adapting locally, but globally we do the same thing. The 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove” is about a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Russia. People worried about that back then.  Today, both those countries still have more than enough nuclear warheads to blow up the world, and there have been some Strangelovian close calls. But the uneasiness, fear, and uncertainty of the 1960s have passed. Or as the full title of the movie says, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” It’s not that we love the bomb, but we have stopped worrying. 

When Roger Cohen and other handwringers look back at 2014 from the distance of a decade or probably less, they won’t see it with unease. Today’s problems won’t seem so threatening. They will instead be something that we lived through. And maybe, just maybe, they will also look at the data on long-term trends.

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* I recall some journalist reporting that he overheard McNamara use this quote during a dinner party conversation. McNamara, Secretary of Defense for both JFK and LBJ, was one of the most important among the folks who brought us Vietnam. So I doubt that his quoting of Yeats extended to the next line of the poem, the one about “The blood-dimmed tide.”  My memory of this whole thing could be faulty. I’ve searched using Google and the Times index but can find no reference to it.

Whose Anecdote Is This Anyway?

December 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston
(This is a revised post. The original version was different in tone.)

How much can we trust the memory of a memoirist?

In Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (now a movie starring Reese Witherspoon), a man she meets on the road tells her a very unusual anecdote. A few days later, she will read that same anecdote in a book.  The echo cannot be coincidence. The anecdote is too special.

According to the jacket flap, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is  “A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike.”

Strayed leaves the trail at times to check back in to civilization or to circumvent stretches of the trail locked in by snow. After one such detour about halfway through her journey, she is hitching back to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). An old Ford Maverick stops to offer a ride – a woman and man in the front seat, another man and a dog in the back. She accepts.

The man sharing the back seat with Strayed is Spider – “his dark hair woven into a thin braid. He wore a black leather vest without a shirt underneath and a red bandanna tied biker-style of the top of his head.”

“What are you doing on the road anyway?” Lou asked from the front seat.

I went into the whole PCT shebang, explaining about the trail and the record snowpack and the complicated way I had to hitchhike to get to Old Station. They listened with respectful, distant curiosity, all three of them lighting up cigarettes as I spoke.

After I was done talking, Spider said, “I’ve got a story for you, Cheryl. I think it’s along the lines of what you’re talking about. I was reading about animals a while back and there was this motherfucking scientist in France back in the thirties or forties or whevever the motherfuck it was and he was trying to get apes to draw these pictures, to make art pictures like the kinds of pictures in serious motherfucking paintings that you see I museums and shit. So the scientist keeps showing the apes these paintings and giving them charcoal pencils to draw with and the one day one of the apes finally draws something but it’s not the art pictures that it draws. What it draws is the bars of its own motherfucking cage. Its own motherfucking cage! Man, that’s the truth ain’t it? I can relate to that and I bet you can too, sister.

“I can,” I said earnestly.

“We can all relate to that, man,” said Dave, and he turned in his seat so he and Spider could do a series of motorcycle blood brother hand jives in the air between them.

Twenty pages later, Strayed is reading a book. Before she started her journey, she mailed packages to herself, addressed to post offices along the Pacific Crest Trail.  The packages contained replenishment of food, supplies, and books.  On the trail, Strayed would tear out and burn the pages as she read them – no sense carrying around the extra weight – and start a new book at the next postal station.

A few days after her ride with Spider, she picks up one such package. “I sat for hours reading the book that had come in my box – Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – while waiting for my boots to arrive.”

Strayed doesn’t mention it, but at the end of Lolita is an afterword, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” that Nabokov added for the US edition (Lolita had originally been published in France.)  Here, in part, is the third paragraph:

The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris . . . . As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.

Here is the sequence according to Strayed. Spider tells her the ape-cage/art-bars story. A few days later she reads Lolita, which, though she does not mention it,  contains this same story.  Did she really encounter this anecdote twice? Whose memory is speaking – Spider’s or Nabokov’s?

Spider, despite the “I was reading about animals” intro, doesn’t seem like someone who has read much literature or zoology.  Maybe in writing her memoir fifteen years later, Strayed remembers the ape parable, probably because it so perfectly reflects her state of mind at the time.  In her memory, the story sits in the heat and the mountains, someplace near the Trail. In a hike of three months and 1100 miles, her memory is off by only a few days and a hundred miles.  But that’s enough for her to confuse her sources. She gives the story to Spider and rewrites it in his idiom.

At first I thought that Strayed might be deliberately copying Nabokov, appropriating his remembered throb and translating it into the voice of one of her characters. Maybe she did. But the passage certainly does not seem like an homage to Nabokov or evidence of his influence or inspiration.* Besides, if she had been consciously ripping off the master’s material, wouldn’t she fear that some readers might notice? 

Till now, apparently nobody has.
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* I’ve mentioned this problem before (here) in connection with a Kate Walbert story that appeared in the New Yorker.  Lorrie Moore’s 2012 story “Referential” very clearly references Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” (My post on that is here.)

Antiquated Ideas

December 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Who’s afraid of Virgina Woolf? The answer seems to be: men.

MessyNessyChic (here) has posted some anti-women’s-suffrage posters from the 1890s and early 1900s.* The common theme is fear – fear that allowing women to vote will destroy masculinity.


The anti-suffrage logic rests on the assumption that voting is masculine. Therefore women who want to vote are masculine, and men who would allow women to vote are feminine. If women get the vote, it’s the end of masculinity as we know it. Gender roles will not just be more similar, they will be reversed.


This masculinity must be very fragile. It cannot survive unless the game is rigged so that men start with all the high cards – economic, social, political, and legal. Anything resembling a fair deal, and masculinity shrivels. Of course today, nearly a century after the Nineteenth Amendment, men’s anxiety about equality is hard to find. Or is it? 

I live in a politically liberal district, Manhattan’s Upper Left Side, but the other day, I found this message chalked on the sidewalk outside an Irish bar.


If you really want to see the revival of the fears animating those anti-suffragette posters, wait till Hillary Clinton gets the nomination in 2016, and watch for the reaction on the right.  Republicans seem to infuse many political questions with masculinity-anxiety. In 2009, when Obama ordered the CIA to stop using torture, conservatives argued that he was “emasculating” the CIA. Yes, that’s the word they used. (See my post from September, 2009, here.) Some ideas and anxieties are just timeless.

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* The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, more than a half-century after the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed all races the right to vote.

Preaching to the Working Class

December 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can’t these conservatives agree on what’s wrong with liberals?

It was only a couple of years ago that Charles Murray was berating successful, upper-middle class liberals for not preaching to the White working class. They had gotten good educations, worked steadily at their jobs, and stayed married. But they didn’t try to inculcate these virtues in others. They didn’t even know those others or their culture.  The well-off liberals were keeping poorer Whites in the dark about how to be successful.

Now comes Ross Douthat saying that liberals are in fact preaching to the working class to follow their ways. The trouble, as Douthat sees it, is that those ways are not good.

In his Sunday column, Douthat considers “arguments about how policy might improve the fortunes of the unemployed and the working class.” He refers specifically to the idea of working class people imitating the lifestyles of the educated and prosperous.

Many optimistic liberals believe not only that such imitation is possible, but that what needs to be imitated most are the most socially progressive elements of the new upper class’s way of life: delayed marriage preceded by romantic experimentation, more-interchangeable roles for men and women in breadwinning and child rearing, a more emotionally open and egalitarian approach to marriage and parenting.

Have “many liberals” really made this argument? Back in July, I myself was Douthat’s designated “many liberals” (see Douthat’s blog here ), yet I have never said anything like this. Some liberals have argued that working class marriages would be less brittle if husbands and wives were less rigid about gender roles.* But as far as I know, liberals do not see this as the roadmap to prosperity. If you know of any (or many) liberals who make this claim, please let me know.

Douthat and fellow conservatives like Brad Wilcox, who Douthat cites favorably, do see a link between marriage patterns and income.  And these intellectuals have no problem preaching to the working class about how to get richer, and the sermon is fairly short: marriage and religion. “Oh my working class brethren, they say,  imitate us upper-middle class conservatives. Get married, stay married, and go to church. If you do that, prosperity is just around the corner.”  As Robert Rector, the Heritage Foundation’s chief poverty guy put it, “Being raised in a married family reduced child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.” (An earlier post about this deliberate scrambling of cause and effect is here.)

Basically, what these conservatives (Douthat, Wilcox, Regnerus,** et. al.) don’t like is sex, or rather sexuality. When Douthat refers to “romantic experimentation” in the quote above, you can almost see him biting his tongue, restraining the impulse to use some more vivid and morally loaded term. Since sexuality is bad, it must have all sorts of bad consequences. That’s the assumption underneath the preaching by the columnists and politicians; the same evil-causes-evil assumption motivates the research by conservative social scientists. Their sound-bite for the news or their abstract for the journal is this: Unless sexuality is tightly wrapped in marriage, it’s bad for society and bad for individuals.

Maybe, but I have serious doubts as to its connection with economic success. As I said (and graphed) in that earlier post, for the last 40 years, marriage rates have been falling and out-of-wedlock childbirth has been rising. But these changes in the family show little connection to changes in the rate of poverty.

So if it’s not the decline of marriage that’s eroding the incomes of the working class, what is it? As one of our more successful working-class-to-upper class exemplars put it (perhaps also an exemplar in “romantic experimentation”): it’s the economy, stupid.

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* Stephanie Coontz, I think, makes this argument (HT: Philip Cohen, who knows the literature on marriage far better than I do.)

** Regnerus, you may recall, was the principal researcher in the study that purported to show that children of gay parents have far more problems than do the children of straight parents.

To Wit, I Was a Total Dick

December 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes, somebody gets the apology thing right (see this previous post on how not to apologize) even if they do use the phrase “to wit.”

Ben Edelman is the Harvard Business School professor whose e-mail exchanges about being overcharged $4 for Chinese food went viral. Technically, Edelman was in the right. Sichuan Garden charged him their current prices rather than the prices Edelman saw in their online menu when he ordered.

But Edelman acted like a total dick. To wit, like a lawyer instead of a person.  (He has a law degree from Harvard. In fact, he has several degrees from Harvard – further support for the multiple-intelligences idea. On a public relations IQ test, Edelman would score a couple of standard deviations below the mean.)

 The Sichuan Garden owner, Ran Duan, responding in grammatically challenged English, offers to refund $3.  Edelman cites Massachusetts statues verbatim and adds in pure lawyerese.

It strikes me that merely providing a refund to a single customer would be an exceptionally light sanction for the violation that has occurred. To wit, your restaurant overcharged all customers who viewed the website and placed a telephone order. . . . You did so knowingly, knowing that your website was out of date and that customers would see it and rely on it.

Boston.com ran the story with the e-mails.* It got picked up all over the Internet, and now two days later, Edelman has apologized. He doesn’t say it as bluntly as the title of this post. But to his credit, he doesn’t try to justify or explain.

Many people have seen my emails with Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden restaurant in Brookline. Having reflected on my interaction with Ran, including what I said and how I said it, it’s clear that I was very much out of line. I aspire to act with great respect and humility in dealing with others, no matter what the situation. Clearly I failed to do so. I am sorry, and I intend to do better in the future. I have reached out to Ran and will apologize to him personally as well

Many of the comments at Boston.com (here) are unforgiving. Haters gonna hate. But at least Edelman had the good sense not to given them more ammo by defending himself.

And now, I am imagining a table of lawyers lunching in Chinatown. “I’d like something spicy,” one says to the waiter, “to wit, the Kung Pao chicken.”

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*The original story, with the e-mails, appeared at Boston.com (here). Unfortunately, the last time I looked, the e-mails did not load. Too bad. The Edelman v. Duan difference in prose style makes for great reading.

Another Bungled Apology

December 1, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ever since Karen Cerulo’s talk at our AKD honors society event last spring, I’ve become more aware of apologies. The take-away from her research (with Janet Ruane) seems to be this: Don’t explain, don’t elaborate, and for God’s sake, don’t try to justify or get people to understand. Say that you made a mistake, you did something wrong, you’re sorry, and shut up.

It seems obvious, but today brings us Elizabeth Lauten’s fifteen minutes of unfortunate fame.

Lauten a staffer for a Republican congressman, posted something on Facebook criticizing the demeanor of the Obama daughters at the White House turkey pardoning. Soon, that post was tweeted and retweeted around social media sites, and within a few hours, Lauten posted an apology. It didn’t help. Today she resigned.

Here is Lauten’s Facebook post.


Telling the First Daughters to show a little class and then telling them that their parents don’t respect their positions or the US – you can see how this might not play well with the general public.  So Lauten apologized:

After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents, and re-reading my words online I can see more clearly just how hurtful my words were. Please know, those judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart.

This is wrong in so many ways. First, it’s not believable. Did it really take “hours of prayer” and the rest for her to figure out that what she had written was really nasty? Do we believe that she did not see that when she wrote the post?

Second, she’s saying that she didn’t mean those judgments that she put in the post. Her heart wasn’t in it. But if not, then why post it?

Third, she tries to call attention to her own virtue: Look at me – I pray, I turn to my parents (who by implication are better role models and more respectful of the US than are your parents, Sasha and Malia).

Fourth, the prayer-and-parents line wasn’t directed at the Obama girls at all. It was intended for the “family values” audience that Lauten sees as the constituency for her boss (Stephen Fincher, R-TN) and herself.  But that’s the problem in the first place. My guess is that Lauten has been living in a reddest-state world where everyone takes for granted that Obama is the anti-American tyrant, the destroyer of the Constitution, and probably Muslim, foreign-born, and gay.  So no slur is too outrageous.

Outside of that hard core, using the children as a vehicle for vilifying the parents seems too much like a divorced parent saying nasty things to the kids about her ex. Even within the hard-core right, and even when the target is Obama, there might not be much support for trying to poison a daughter’s relation with her father.



Negative Negativity

November 26, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Negative statements are harder to evaluate than are positive statements, though the difference may be only a microsecond of thought.
1.  True or False: Barack Obama is not president.
2.  True or False: Barack Obama is president.
When multiple negatives keep switching the sign from positive to negative and back, a reader sinks into the mud and struggles to find the meaning of the sentence. 
In previous posts (here, for example) I’ve made up my own examples (“The Supreme Court today failed to overturn a lower-court ruling that denied a request to reverse . . .”).

I thought I was exaggerating. But try this.
“Bad acts should not long remain without an insufficient tax.”
Three negatives – should not, without, insufficient. Four if you count bad, the negative of good. Five if you count tax as the negative of reward

I am not making this up. It’s a variant on something from Robin Hanson’s blog, Overcoming Bias . Here is the verbatim quote
“good acts shouldn’t long remain with an insufficient subsidy. Or bad acts without an insufficient tax.”

An author shouldn’t refuse to leave unedited a sentence with so many negatives. Or do I mean the opposite?

“Whiplash” - The Little Drummer Boy

November 23, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I played my drum for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him
Pa rum pum pum pum

If you’ve seen “Whiplash,” you’ll get the irony. If not, watch the trailer.



Like most trailers, it pretty much tells you the whole story, though it inflates the boy-girl theme, which in the actual movie is an afterthought, a bit of romantic relief in lieu of comic relief (the movie has zero laughs). After all, we can’t have 105 minutes of non-stop sadism, intimidation, and humiliation. And blood. A lot of blood. Much more than you’d expect in a movie about jazz drumming. But then, this movie is not really about jazz.

Getting back to the Christmas carol, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons – the music teacher as drill sergeant) is no Baby Jesus, but he is a charismatic figure albeit a negative one.  He leads the band via charismatic authority. Andrew (Miles Teller) and the other students are in his thrall. They want only to please him and avoid his cruelty.  It is for him that they practice, it is for him that they play (“Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum, on my drum?”).

“Whiplash” is shot mostly in dim music rooms, and the lighting gives the movie a film noir feel.  But the link to gangster films is more than visual.  The constellation of conflicts and characters too reaches back to film noir. . .

. . . a night-time dream world . . . where the hero is involved in a conflict of crime and punishment with the older man, his boss, often the lord of the underworld

That’s from a book published in 1950, Movies, a Psychological Study, by Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites.  They sort out the dominant themes in American, Brtish, and French films of the late 1940s. Watching “Whiplash” you get the sense that little has changed. In the “night-time world . . .  the hero grapples with a dangerous older man and wards off entanglement with a desirable and yearning woman.” Even from the trailer, you can see that this is a good description of the place of romance in “Whiplash.” The character of Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is also foretold by Wolfenstein and Leites.  “The hero’s father is usually a sympathetic character, and almost always ineffectual.”

As in film noir, the conflicts are largely external. The hero need not admit the possibility of his own dark impulses.  That goes for the audience as well. These are all projected onto the bad guy.

It is the hero’s boss who attacks him and who commits numerous crimes for which he frequently tries to inculpate the hero. The violent impulses [of the hero],* acknowledged in much [other] Western tragedy, find a reverse expression here. The [hero] is in the clear because the older man attacks him first. Everything he does is in self-defense. Any bad actions of which the heroes of other dramas may accuse themselves appear as a frame-up against which the hero must fight. He would be amply justified in killing the unfairly attacking older man.

Andrew’s motives are pure mostly.  He starts off nearly as innocent as the little drummer boy, though with more ambition. He wants to work hard and become a good drummer, maybe the best. But then Fletcher insinuates himself into the boy’s dreams to distort those motives into a self-destructive obsession. It feels like a case of demonic possession, and Fletcher is the demon.

Because the conflicts are externalized, because the film dumps all negative impulses into the character of Fletcher, there can be only one resolution. The trailer doesn’t give away the ending, but you can guess. There’s going to be a showdown between Andrew and Fletcher.  Why? Because, as I’ve remarked several times in this blog (here for example), American films often hinge on the assumption that all problems can be solved by a climactic confrontation. The problems might be external – politics, crime, etc. – and the good guy and bad guy slug it out to see whose vision of the society will prevail.  But even when the conflicts are internal – the hero’s moral and psychological state – they are resolved by a contest, often athletic. Rocky and The Karate Kid find their true inner virtue in the ring. But the arena might just as easily be a chess tournament, a pool hall, a dance floor. Or a band performance.

In reality, transposing the film noir set-up to a jazz band is a bit of a stretch. In these movies, the question is who’s going to run this show – the good guy or the bad guy (as in “On the Waterfront,”  “High Noon,” and surely many others).  But in the real world, jazz students in band class aren’t learning to stand out as leaders.  Just the opposite – they’re learning to play as part of a band. Horn players learn to blend with their section. Rhythm section players have more latitude; where horn parts are carefully written note for note, the score for piano, bass, guitar, and drums will have sections that are less specific – chord symbols or general rhythmic indications. But rhythm players too, including drummers, must learn to meld with the ensemble.**

Unfortunately, a hero learning to be an integral part of a whole would not make for much of a movie, at least not an American movie. But to repeat, this movie is not about jazz, learning it or playing it. It’s about the conflict between the young hero and the lord of the underworld.

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* Wolfenstein and Leities, writing in 1950 and much influenced by Freud, put this in Oedipal terms: “the violent impulses of sons toward their fathers.”

** There are one or two exemplary musical moments in “Whiplash” where you hear a well-rehearsed band doing some great ensemble playing.  That said, there are real-life drummers who do lead the band, loudly, and let the audience make no mistake as to who is the star of the show.  Most notably there was Buddy Rich, who seems to be an inspiration for the characters in “Whiplash” and perhaps for the filmmaker as well. Buddy had more than a touch of Fletcher, as you can hear in some of his rants on the bus, tearing into his young musicians, rants that were surreptitiously taped by the band’s pianist Lee Musiker. Listen here.

Old Folks At Home . . . And Abroad

November 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“We need to get rid of Obamacare,” says Ed Gillispie in a NYT op-ed yesterday (here). The reason: Obamacare’s “gravitational pull toward a single-payer system that would essentially supplant private insurance with a government program.”

Gillespie, who lays out his credentials at the start of the article – he ran for Senate in Virginia and lost – notes that Obamacare is unpopular. But he omits all mention of a government-run single-payer system that happens to be very popular – Medicare. No Republican dare run on a platform of doing away with it. Gillespie himself accused Obamacare of cutting Medicare, a statement that Politifact found “Mostly False.”


So how are seniors doing? Compared to their pre-Medicare counterparts, they are  probably healthier, and they’re probably shelling out less for health care. But compared to seniors in other countries, not so well. A Commonwealth Fund survey in eleven countries finds that seniors (age 65 and older) in the US are the least healthy – the most likely to suffer from chronic illnesses.*



Over half the the US seniors say that they are taking four or more prescription drugs. (All the other countries were below 50%.)


And despite Medicare, money was a problem. Nearly one in five said that in the past year they “did not visit a doctor, skipped a medical test or treatment that a doctor recommended, or did not fill a prescription or skipped doses because of cost.” A slightly higher percent had been hit with $2000 or more in out-of-pocket expenses.


In those other countries, with their more socialistic health care systems, seniors seem to be doing better, physically and financially.  One reason that American seniors are less healthy is that our universal, socialized medical care doesn’t kick in until age 65. Americans’ health problems may have started long before that. People in those other countries have affordable health care starting in the womb.

Critics of more socialized systems claim that patients must wait longer to see a doctor. The survey found some support for that. Does it take more than four weeks to get to see a specialist? US seniors had the highest percentage of those who waited less than that. But when it came to getting an ordinary doctor’s appointment, the US lagged behind seven of the other ten countries.


There was one bright spot for US seniors. They were the most likely to have developed a treatment plan that they could carry out in daily life. And their doctors  “discussed their main goals and gave instructions on symptoms to watch for” and talked with them about diet and exercise.


Gillespie and many other Republicans want to scrap Obamacare and substitute something else. That’s progress I suppose. Not too long ago, they were quite happy with the pre-Obamacare status quo, even though the US healthcare spending was double that of other countries with little difference in health outcomes.  That didn’t stop George Bush from insisting throughout his years in the White House that “America has the best health care system in the world.”  But at least now, the Republicans want to do something different.  Unfortunately, their Republican ideology precludes them from learning from other countries. As Marco Rubio put it, we must avoid “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.”

But maybe Republicans might learn from their own country by taking a second look at Medicare, a program many of them publicly support. They’ll just have to avoid letting anyone know that for nearly a half-century it has done what Gillespie says should not be done: “supplant private insurance with a government program.”

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* Includes hypertension or high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung problems, mental health problems, cancer, and joint pain/arthritis.

Sexting and Gender

November 18, 2014.
Posted by Jay Livingston

I.

Much of Hanna Rosin’s recent Atlantic article “Why Kids Sext” plays on the generational divide. Parents get understandably upset about something that kids see as just another part of social life. Cops and prosecutors have an even more difficult time since a high schooler’s sexy cellphone selfie is a felony in most states.

The media too aren’t sure how to play it. “Massive teen sexting ring,” gasped the headline in a local paper  in Louisa County, Virginia. A couple of high school kids had created an Instagram page with about 100 photos of girls from the local high school and middle school. They hadn’t taken the pictures; they had merely consolidated the photos that were already circulating on kids’ phones. When Rosin asked kids in the local high school how many people they knew who had sexted, the “ring” turned out to be “everyone.”  (The kids overestimated. I think that surveys find that about a third of kids have sexted.)

Rosin’s article reveals differences not just of age but of gender, for despite the newest iPhone and Instagram technology, the ideas and attitudes, especially those of the boys, seem like something out of the 1950s.  The “maddening, ancient, crude double standard” is, unfortunately, alive and well. So is the idea of sex as conquest. Boys describe how they would sweetly cajole girls to sext. When the photo arrived, the boys felt a kind of egotistical pride (“I’m the man”) –  not much different from high school boys of sixty or seventy years ago bragging about “getting to second base” or farther.  (I guess a sext is somewhere between second and third – a sort of .jpeg shortstop.)  On college campuses, as Lisa Wade has said,  the order of the bases has changed. Maybe that’s true in high school too, but the game mentality – with all its attendant attitudes and assumptions – remains the same.

If a girl refused, the boys dismissed her as “stuck up” or a “prude.” And if she did send the photo . . .

How do you feel about the girl after she sends it?, I asked.
    “Super thots.” [THOT - “that ho over there”]
    “You can't love those thots!”
    “That's right, you can't love those hos.”


Whichever the girl does – sext or refuse – the boys find a reason to be contemptuous.

For the boys, the  pictures were not about sex or stimulation; they were purely for narcissistic satisfaction and social status.

They gloat inwardly or brag to friends; they store them in special apps or count them. . . . “Guys would pile them up,” one girl who had graduated a year earlier told me, referring to sexts they’d gotten. “It was more of a baseball-card, showing-off kind of thing.” Olivia described it as “like when they were little boys, playing with Pokémon cards.”

The boys saw the sexts as a universalistic and utilitarian currency – something they could trade and use for other goals. That’s why the boys’ promises not to show the picture to anyone else can evaporate so quickly.  The picture has use value only if others see it.  It has meaning as an object; that meaning is not connected with the particular person in the picture.  She could just as easily be Charmander or Snorlax.

The girls, by contrast, were more particularistic. A picture was important for what it said about the relationship between her and a particular boy.  Girls have the relationship in mind also in those rarer instances when they ask a boy for a picture

It is kind of a marker that you have reached a certain point in a relationship or you are about to reach a certain point in a relationship. So it can be foreplay. It can be a kind of intimacy.[Rosin in a Fresh Air interview here.]

That “marker” comment suggests that the girls too had a “base” system in mind, but if so, the bases were the stages in the relationship, the level of intimacy with another person. They did not share the boys’ view of the sext as a bit of capital added to their individual holdings and separate from the person in the photo.

II.


Sex – universal commodity or special relationship?  Many years ago, long before cell phones and sexts, I thought I might demonstrate this difference by asking students to imagine a dream date. I was a genii, I said, and I will grant your wish. You can have a date with any person you choose. You can spend an evening doing whatever you want, and if you like, the evening can extend till morning.
But you must choose one of two conditions.
    A.  You actually have the date, but nobody will ever know about.
    B.  You don’t have the date, but everybody thinks you did.

I had them mark their ballots anonymously but asked them to indicate their gender. Then, as an afterthought – mostly because I wanted to keep up with popular culture – I also asked them to write down who they were thinking of.

I thought that more boys would choose B – the date as utilitarian currency.  I was wrong. Everybody wanted the actual date. But gender did make a difference on the second question. Most of the boys chose women from the media (as I recall, Heather Locklear got several votes – I told you this was a long time ago).  The girls’ choices were more along the lines of “this guy I knew in high school” or “this guy I went out with last year but we broke up.”

The boys did not want the date as a tradeable commodity. Instead it was an abstracted ideal, a fantasy. They had no idea what it would actually be like to spend a few hours with Heather Locklear the real person.  What the girls wanted was a real relationship with a real person.

Hope and Bugs, Of Course

November 15, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ever since I read Andrew Gelman’s list of words to avoid, I’ve been more conscious of the simple “of course.”  I still use it, but more sparingly and cautiously.  (Gelman’s list, here, includes obviously, clearly, interestingly, note that, and their variants like “it is interesting to note that.”)

But then there’s the ironic “of course,” the one that points to some gem that is far from obvious. Done correctly, the casually tossed in “of course” makes us admire the author for spotting this sparkling insight. Maybe it makes us feel a bit inadequate for not seeing it ourselves, especially since the author is saying, “Aw shucks, anybody would have seen that.”

Adam Gopnik’s essay on Bob Hope in a recent New Yorker  shows you how it’s done:

The real parallel to Hope—the great American comedian whose career most closely resembles his—is, of course, Bugs Bunny.

Of course. 

Even if you’re old enough to remember the “Road” movies with Bing Crosby and the Oscars, the USO tours and  the decades of TV appearances, you would not have come up with the Bugs-Bob parallel. Gopnik goes on to explain.

Like Hope, he arrived in Hollywood in the late thirties and became a huge star with the war. Like Hope, he was usually paired with a more inward character who loves to sing (Daffy Duck is Bugs’s Bing [Crosby], though blustery rather than cool), and, like Hope, his appeal rises entirely from the limitless brashness and self-confidence with which he approaches even the most threatening circumstances. Together, they are the highest expression of the smart-aleck sensibility in American laughter. Their fame in wartime may have something to do with the way that, as A. J. Liebling documents, the American Army itself was essentially an urban creature dispatched to deserts and jungles: Bugs, with his Bronx-Brooklyn accent, has somehow been sent out there in the countryside, among the hunters, as Hope ends up in the sands of Morocco with no weapon but street-corner sass.

Once Gopnik clears away the rough, we see the previously unnoticed diamond.  Hope, Bugs – of course. 



But I wanna tell ya’, the entire essay is worth reading, both for Gopnik’s aperçus and Hope’s funnier lines.

Peter Freund

November 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last weekend we honored our colleague Peter Freund, who died in June. Peter and George Martin were the co-founders, in the 1970s, of our New York Walk – an unofficial, informal, and very loosely planned event for faculty, students, friends, anyone who wanted to join us.  It started as a one-off in the 1970s but became a semi-annual event. Our route usually took us to places like Grand Central Station (Peter loved showing students the whispering gallery there) and downtown sites (Lower East Side, Chinatown). But for Saturday’s reunion, we walked the High Line.  George Martin and Laura Kramer, both retired, were there.



Faye Allard, our colleague till last year, came in from Philadelphia. Here she is with Sangeeta Parashar.


On Sunday, there was a memorial service.  More former Montclair colleagues came – Gil Klajman, Barbara Chasin – and spoke. 


Anecdotes, admiration, and appreciation and were offered also by Peter’s wife Miriam, his sisters and nephews, and several friends and colleagues who collaborated with him on his research and activism all with the goal of reducing the dominance of automobiles, especially in our cities.  (Peter was a founding member of Auto-Free New York, and he never learned to drive a car – a decision that was both ideological and prudent.)

Food and beer, travel and cities, generosity and humor – these were the recurrent themes in people’s reminiscences. That plus a deliberate unconventionality, often as a gambit to get others to question their usually unquestioned assumptions. Like tearing up a dollar bill or two on the first day of class, and when students got upset, asking them why. Peter had a wonderful golden retriever and had named her Igor. He said it was in tribute to Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, but I think it was also so he could delight in the reactions of those who insisted that this male name was just wrong for a female pup or, better yet, that the dog would wind up with a confused gender-identity.  In a way I cannot quite articulate, this fits with something else Peter loved – British entertainments like The Goon Show, Monty Python, and Gilbert and Sullivan.  A female dog named Igor – Peter’s own Python sketch.


Peter Freund
November 14, 1940 - June 12, 2014

The ASA Footnotes obituary for Peter is her.

As Others See Us – Maybe Not

November 9, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

National character has been sliding out of fashion for a long time.  Here is the Google nGrams chart for the appearance of that phrase in books since 1800.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Except for a brief comeback after World War II (there’s something about the Germans), the direction has been downhill,  perhaps because it sounds so much like ethnic or cultural stereotyping. Or maybe it was because valid research on it was difficult and unrewarding. Whatever. Ordinary people, though, have no difficulty in attributing personal characteristics to entire nations. But as is often true among individuals, people do not always see themselves as other see them. And in some cases, they view themselves and others with ambivalence.

Pew recently asked Europeans what they thought of the EU countries. (The report is here.) Things are not going well economically in the EU, and the three traits Pew asked about have little to do with economic policy; instead they tap into people’s feelings about other nations and nationalities. 

Germany is doing best economically, so it’ s not surprising that the five countries doing worst see Germany as the most arrogant. (The Germans themselves modestly ranked their country as the least arrogant.)  Greece too suffers from discrepant perceptions and self-perception, especially in trustworthiness. All other countries rate Germany as the most trustworthy, but Greeks see Germany as least trustworthy.

Presumably, Europeans have concluded that the profligate public policies of Greece and Italy were, if not a prime cause of the collapse, then at least a drag on recovery. These countries could not be trusted to run their economies with honesty and prudence. The Italians seem willing to concede the point. But Greeks rank themselves as the most trustworthy, though on what basis one can only guess.

In two countries, the survey turned up bi-polar reactions. Poles ranked Germany as both most and least trustworthy. The Economist suspects a generational divide between “older Poles with memories of war and younger ones who admire its reputation for prudence.”  Even more puzzling are the French, who give themselves both the highest and lowest ranking on arrogance.  Two other countries agree on the former; but nobody else thinks the French are least arrogant.

Finally, while six of the eight countries identified Germany as least compassionate, every country saw itself as the most compassionate.  Why Germany?  People may see compassion as the opposite of self-interest, with non-Germans thinking that Germany should be willing to do more for other EU countries even at the expense of its own prosperity. At the same time, people in each country, including Germany, are thinking, “We’re being as generous as we can.”

So there is a remarkable similarity of responses here. Ask “Who is the most trustworthy, most arrogant, and least compassionate?” “Germany.”

Ask “Who is the most compassionate?” “We are.”

Data in the Streets

November 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I confess, I have little memory for books or articles on methods. I may have learned their content, but the specific documents and authors faded rapidly to gray.  And then there’s Unobtrusive Measures. It must have been Robert Rosenthal who assigned it. He was, after all, the man who forced social scientists to realize that they were unwittingly affecting the responses of their subjects and respondents, whether those subjects were people or lab rats.  The beauty of unobtrusive measures is that they eliminate that possibility. 


Now that states have started to legalize marijuana, one of the questions they must deal with is how to tax it. Untaxed, weed would be incredibly cheap. “A legal joint would cost (before tax) about what a tea-bag costs” (Mark Kleiman, here). Presumably, states want to tax weed so that the price is high enough to discourage abuse and raise money but not so high that it creates a black market in untaxed weed.

The same problem already occurs with cigarettes.


The above graph, from a study commissioned by the Tax Foundation, shows that as taxes increase, so does smuggling. (The Tax Foundation does not show the correlation coefficient, but it looks like it might be as high as 0.6, though without that dot in the upper right, surely New York, it might be more like 0.5.)

In a high-tax area like New York City, many of the cigarettes sold are smuggled in from other states. But how much is “many cigarettes,” and how can you find out? Most studies of smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes get their estimates by comparing sales figures with smoking rates. The trouble with that method is that rates of smoking come from surveys, and people may not accurately report how much they smoke.

That’s why I liked this study by Klaus von Lampe and colleagues.* They selected a sample of South Bronx census tracts and walked around, eyes down, scanning the sidewalks for discarded cigarette packs to see whether the pack had the proper tax stamps.


 All in all, they picked up 497; of those, 329 still had the cellophane wrapper that the stamp would be on.  If there was a tax stamp, they sent it the state to determine if it was counterfeit.

In the end, they estimate that only 20% of the cigarettes were fully legit with state and city taxes paid. About two-fifths had no tax stamp, another 15% had counterfeit stamps, and 18% had out-of-state stamps.

Unobtrusive measures solve one methodological problem, but they are not perfect. The trouble  here, and in many other cases, is the limited range.  Extending this research to the entire city let alone the fifty states would be a huge and costly undertaking.

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* Hat tip to Peter Moskos, who mentioned it on his Cop in the Hood blog.

Whose Bad Guess is More Bad? Difficult Comparisons

October 29, 2014
Jay Livingston

How to compare percentages that are very different? 

A recent Guardian/Ipsos poll asked people in fourteen wealthy nations to estimate certain demographics. What percent of the population of your country are immigrants? Muslim? Christian?

People overestimated the number of immigrants and Muslims, and underestimated the number of Christians. But the size of the error varied.  Here is the chart on immigration that the Guardian published (here).


Italy, the US, Belgium, and France are way off. The average guess was 18-23 percentage points higher than the true percentage.  People in Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and Australia were off by only 7-8 percentage points.

But is that a fair comparison? The underlying question is this: which country is better at estimating these demographics? Japan and South Korea have only 2% immigrants. People estimated that it was 10%, a difference of eight percentage points. But looked at another way, their estimate was five times the actual number. The US estimate was only 2½ times higher than the true number.

The Guardian ranks Hungary, Poland, and Canada together since they all have errors of 14 points. But I would say that Canada’s 35% vs. 21% is a better estimate than Hungary’s 16% vs. 2%.  Yet I do not know a statistic or statistical technique that factors in this difference and allows us to compare countries with very few immigrants and those with far more immigrants.* 

My brother suggested that the Guardian’s readers could get a better picture of the differences if the chart ordered the countries by the immigrant percentage rather than by the percentage-point gap.


This makes clearer that the 7-point overestimate in Sweden and Australia is a much different sort of error than the 8-point overestimate in South Korea and Japan. But I’m still uncertain as to the best way to make these comparisons.


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* Saying that I know of no such statistic is not saying much. Perhaps others who are more familiar with statistics will know how to solve this problem.

Shootings and Elephants

October 25, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why would an apparently happy kid shoot several classmates? That seems to be the question that’s getting the attention of the press and perhaps the public. “Struggling to Find Motive,” said one typical headline. That’s the way we think about school shootings these days.

It’s unlikely that any of the motives that turn up will be all that strange. Fryberg may have been upset by a racial comment someone had made the day before or by a break-up with a girl. He may have had other conflicts with other kids. Nothing unusual there.

But “why” is not the question that first occurs to me. What I always ask is how a 14-year old kid can get his hands on a .40 Beretta handgun (or whatever the weaponry in the shooting of the week* is).  For Fryberg it was easy. The pistol belonged to his father. Nothing strange there either. Thirty million homes in the US, maybe forty million, are stocked with guns.

Do European countries have school shootings like this? Surely kids in Europe get upset about break-ups; surely they must have conflicts with their classmates; and surely, some of them may become irrationally upset by these setbacks.  So surely there must have been school shootings in Europe too.

I went to Wikipedia and looked for school shootings since 1980 (here and here).  I eliminated shootings by adults (e.g., Lanza in Sandy Hook, Brevik in Norway). I also deleted in-school suicides even though these were done with guns and were terrifying to the other students. I’m sure my numbers are not perfectly accurate, and the population estimate in the graph below is based on current numbers; I didn’t bother to find an average over the last 35 years. Still the differences are so large that I’m sure they are not due to technical problems in the data.

Europe, with 500 million people, had 14 school shootings. The US, with fewer people (300 million), had nearly ten times that many.

Does the US have a much greater proportion of kids who are mentally unstable? Do our schools have more bullying? Are European kids more capable in dealing with conflicts? Are they more stable after break-ups? Do they spend less time with violent video games? Do their schools have more programs to identify and counsel the potentially violent?  I’m not familiar with the data on these, but I would guess that the answer is no and that our kids are no more screwed up than kids in Europe. Or if there are differences, they are not large enough to explain the difference in the body count.

No, the important difference seems to be the guns.  But guns have become the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. Even asking about access to guns seems unAmerican these days. Thanks to the successful efforts of the NRA and their representatives in government, guns have become a taken-for-granted part of the landscape. Asking how a 14-year old got a handgun is like asking how he got a bicycle to ride to school.

When the elephant’s presence is too massive not be noticed – for example, when the elephant kills several people – the elephant’s spokesmen rush in to tell us that “No, this is not the time to talk about the elephant.”  And so we talk about video games and psychological screening and parents and everything else, until the next multiple killing. But of course that too is not the time to talk about elephants.




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* In this 43rd week 2014, yesterday’s killing was the 39th school shooting in the US since January 1.  Most of those got little press coverage. Unless someone is actually killed, a shooting might not even get coverage in the local news.


Risk Managers Are Worried About Inequality

October 23, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Who’s worrying about inequality? It’s not just the scraggly bunch that occupied Zucotti Park, and not just the lefty economists and sociologists hefting a copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Professional Risk Managers’ International Association surveyed risk managers, and they too are uneasy about inequality.


The majority (62%) said that inequality poses a risk to the economy. Only 14% were like “What, me worry?”

I’m not sure what risk managers do, but I’m guessing  the profession does not draw many  socialists to its ranks. When you see this kind of concern coming from sources other than the usual suspects (I found this graph in a Wall Street Journal banking page – here), you begin to think that the wealth gap is more than just a moral issue about what is right and fair; it’s a threat to general economic well-being.

Et in Arcadia Inflation*

October 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do you do when your published predictions prove wrong? How do you resolve the dissonance between your ideas and the facts?

In a blogpost earlier this month (here), I looked at the responses of twenty-three economists who had written an open letter to Ben Bernanke warning of inflation unless he ended quantitative easing and tightened the Fed’s monetary policies. Bernanke ignored the warning, and inflation didn’t happen. I made the analogy between their responses and those of the religious millenerian cult described in When Prophecy Fails.

When asked about their error, none of the economists even considered that their ideas might have been wrong. Instead, their reactions to the reporter’s questions were:
  • Ignore. Several of them didn’t respond to the query.
  • Deny. Some said that everything they had predicted had indeed happened.
  • Equivocate. Some said that they had not issued a prediction but only a “warning.” Others pointed out that they hadn’t specified a date that the inflation would start.
  • Proselytize. Most are still trying to donvince others that their  ideas are correct.
I added that for purposes of reducing dissonance, it helps to get others others to confirm your ideas by agreeing with them, publishing them, and especially paying for them. These affirmations from other people  seem to be as effective as confirmation from the facts. Now Amity Shlaes, one of the 23 letter-signers,  has expanded her reaction, and the National Review has published it.*

Well, inflation hasn’t come on a big scale, apparently. Or not yet. Still, a lot of us remain comfortable with that letter, since we figure someone in the world ought always to warn about the possibility of inflation. Even if what the Fed is doing is not inflationary, the arbitrary fashion in which our central bank responds to markets betrays a lack of concern about inflation. And that behavior by monetary authorities is enough to make markets expect inflation in future. [source: NRO]

I’m struck by the moralistic overtones, which suggest that this isn’t just a matter of economic theory. It’s about faith, about good and evil.  Inflation is sort of like Satan – supremely evil and always lurking even when you can’t see it. Note the “apparently” at the end of the first sentence – a bit like a millenerian saying that apparently the earth had not been destroyed, and apparently the UFO aliens hadn’t landed to save the faithful.  But it will still happen (“Or not yet.”) So we must not let our guard down. Bernanke and now Yellen “betray” a lack of concern. 

The distrust of quantitative easing sounds as much like Puritanical ethos as economic theory.  With their policy of “easy money” – as opposed to money we must work hard for – the Fed chiefs are luring us toward sin and ultimately destruction (or at least inflation), much like the governors of Pleasure Island in Disney’s “Pinocchio.”**

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* The title of the post is variant of in arcadia ego.  “‘Even in Arcadia, there am I’. The usual interpretation is that ‘I’ refers to death, and ‘Arcadia’ means a utopian land. It would thus be a memento mori,” a reminder of death. [Wikipedia]

** Earlier posts using this Pinocchio-and-political-Puritanism analogy are here
 and here.

Hazing and Sexual Assault

October 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Random thoughts on the Sayreville hazing. (If you are not familiar with this case, see yesterday’s Times article here.)

1.  At least nobody is accusing the freshmen footballers of bringing the assaults on themselves by dressing provocatively – those tight, shiny spandex-like pants, their torsos sometimes bare in the locker room. Nor is anyone saying, “if you don’t want seniors shoving their fingers up your butt, avoid being on the football team” the way women are told that if they don’t want to be raped, they shouldn’t drink too much at frat parties.

 In fact, the freshmen did know that they were at risk in the locker room.

First came the shout: “Varsity’s coming in five minutes,” and they knew it was time to move. Some dressed outside the locker room, pulling on their shirts and tying their shoes. Some rushed to finish their showers, if they showered at all.

2.  Sexual assault is about power even when it’s also about sex. The seniors might even be confused by the charges of sexual assault since for them, there was nothing sexual about it.  They experienced no sexual gratification or even arousal.  What they wanted was to humiliate – always the goal in hazing – and for that purpose, genitals and anus are much more effective targets than any other part of the body. More than the punching or kicking, which also happened, groping a boy’s genitals and poking things up his anus demonstrate power. They say, “This is what we can do to you.  We can attack the most private parts of your body and self. ”

In date-rape and party-rape, the obvious sexual component allows men to ignore its enactment of power.  But for the victims, as for the Sayreville victims, the experience is much more about power and humiliation than about sexual pleasure.

3.  The law is a clumsy instrument for dealing with much of what goes on among teenagers. These boys may be charged with
aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration. [CNN]

These charges do not distinguish between the hazing offenses, which some of the victims shrugged off as trivial, and far more serious crimes. This “one size – the largest – fits all” approach also applies to the 10th-grade girl who has a topless selfie on her iPhone. She is violating kiddie-porn laws that make little distinction between her and a someone who distributes thousands of such images, and these laws come with a hefty prison sentence. (See Hanna Rosin’s recent Atlantic article (here) on teen sexting.) What happens is almost entirely at the discretion of a district attorney. The broader the law, the greater the power of the DA.  As Justice Jackson said 75 years ago, “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”

4. Racial comparisons are inevitable, though I will evade them here save to note that in the press and in comments from ordinary people, those charged are usually referred to as “boys,” never as “thugs,” certainly not as “criminals.”

5.  While nobody blames the victims for their victimization (see #1 above), some people do blame them for the consequences – the cancellation of the football season and the possible legal punishments might happen to the offenders. In Jonathan Haidt’s schema of conservative moral thinking, these people invoke the principle of tribalism, or as Haidt calls it, loyalty.  The victims have gone against the group (the team, the school, the town).  They should have suffered silently, taking one for the team. In this case, taking one for the team also means taking it from the team.