Who’s Who in the Courtroom? Think Again.

April 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


It was getting close to lunchtime in the large jury room where two hundred or so people sat trying to stave off boredom. The clerk called forty names. Mine was one of them. He told us that when we got back from lunch we were to go to a courtroom on another floor where we would be “voir dired” for a trial.

The courtroom was still locked when we got there, and we waited in the hall. After a while the people involved in the case came back from their lunch – a couple of White men, age forty or fifty, wearing suits; a younger, very stocky Black man (thirty?), also in a suit but one that was too tight for his body; and, in a wheelchair pushed by one of the suited White men, a gray-haired White man, slender almost frail looking, wearing a plain open-collar shirt.

I chatted with a couple of me fellow jurors.  We figured that the Black guy in the ill-fitting suit was the defendant, that the man in the wheelchair must be a victim or a witness, and that the others were lawyers. 

When we were finally seated in the courtroom, the judge told us that this was a murder case. He introduced the defense counsel – one of the suited White guys; the assistant district attorney – the Black guy in the suit; and the defendant – the man in the wheelchair.

This happened many years ago, but I recalled it  after reading this article at The African American Athlete that someone on Facebook linked to.  It’s about a Black lawyer, Bryan Stevenson  who shows up early in the courtroom and takes his seat at the defense table. Soon the judge and other lawyers walk in.

And when the judge saw me sitting at the counsel table, he looked at me and he said, “Hey, hey, hey, you get out of here. I don't want any defendant sitting in my courtroom until their lawyers get here. You go back out there in the hallway and wait for your lawyer.”*


I supposed I should submit the question to Yo, Is This Racist? On the face of it, the answer in both courtrooms is Yes. White people mistook a Black attorney for a criminal defendant. You could even argue that my fellow jurors and I were doubly bigoted, for we assumed that a disabled, wheelchair-bound person was not equally capable of killing someone.**

In my defense, I would ask this: of those four people coming through the hall and into the courtroom, which one was statistically most likely to be the defendant?  I would remind those who would judge us that we had only their physical appearance to base our assumptions on. Unfortunately, this same entangling of racism and statistical probabilities comes into play in more important questions, and I find it frustrating that so often neither side takes seriously the arguments, evidence, or ideas of the other.

The incident also illustrates the power of the first impression. Once I had looked at these people and mentally cast them in their parts, I didn’t bother to check my assumptions. If I had, I would have realized that the man in the wheelchair could not have been a victim or witness. Victims and witnesses do not come to the courtroom for voir dire. They appear only for the actual trial. I’d been on jury duty enough times to know that. But this truth was so inconvenient to my first impression that it did not enter my mind.

The other incident illustrates these same dynamics: racism perhaps, but also two more general processes that affect how we see other people. First, we quickly form impressions, and these may be based on statistical realities and on our own particular experiences. And second, those impressions once formed can filter and distort any subsequent information.

I hope to have more on this and on the judge and the Black lawyer in a subsequent post.

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* This excerpt is not from the African American Athlete article. It’s from an NPR interview with Stevenson three years ago.

** There was no doubt that he had shot and killed the victim. The question would be whether it was murder or self-defense. I was not selected for the jury, so I never learned all the details of the case or the verdict. 

Those LIberal Hollywood Bullies

April 16, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tim Allen has it rough. As he told Jimmy Kimmel,  “You get beat up if you don’t believe what everybody believes. This is like ‘30s Germany.” Allen was of course referring to the many beatings and other persecutions for his political conservatism that he has suffered at the hands of Hollywood liberals. It’s amazing that he’s still standing.

Many conservatives, especially those outside the business, share Allen’s views of Hollywood. One conservative who disagrees is Rob Long.* Long lives and works inside Hollywood, mostly tilling the sitcom fields as writer, producer, and show-runner from “Cheers” to “Kevin Can Wait.” He is also an outspoken conservative (being a regular on a conservative political podcast counts as speaking out).

Recently on KCRW’s “The Business,” host Kim Masters asked Long if he shared Allen’s perceptions and experiences.

Masters: Do you find that people are negatively dealing with you because you’re a conservative
Long: Maybe. That is possible. I have never experienced it. Never. Quite the reverse. I could probably sit here and with enough time, enough memory, look through my diary and figure out how much money in Hollywood I’ve made not because I was conservative, but because my politics were somehow helpful to the work I was doing.

I usually find people in Hollywood in general to be remarkably open and interested . . .  They like to talk about politics. They like to argue about politics. They like to mix it up. But I’ve never felt that anybody said, y’know “Not him. Can’t have him around because he represents some political viewpoint I disapprove of.” It’s never been played back to me, and I don’t feel I’ve ever had any setbacks in my career, certainly none that I didn’t cause myself. I can only say my experience has been no, been fine.

I think that when politics are mentioned on screen, in a story or a script, they’re kind of  uniformly left-wing, but big deal, so what.


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*I highly recommend Long’s own podcast “Martini Shot,” where he offers his insights on Hollywood, mostly the TV business. He’s gently funny, as you might expect from a guy who wrote “Cheers” episodes, and each installment of the podcast runs only 3½ minutes

Political Baseball – Whose Fans Are Happy?

April 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Are conservatives happier than liberals. Arthur Brooks thinks so. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. And he’s happy, or at least he comes across as happy in his monthly op-EDS for the Times.  In those op-EDS, he sometimes claims that conservatives are generally happier.

When he makes those claims to the hundreds of thousands of Times readers, I point out, to the readers of this blog (hundreds on a good day), that when you’re talking about the relation between political views and happiness, you ought to consider who is in power. Otherwise, it’s like asking whether Yankee fans are happier than RedSox  fans without checking the AL East standings. (Those posts are here and here.)

Now that the 2016 GSS data is out, we can compare the happiness of liberals and conservatives during the Bush years and the Obama years. The GSS happiness item asks, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days –  would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” 
                                                           
(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

On the question of who is “very happy,” it looks as though Brooks nailed it, if you can call a difference of 5-10 percentage points nailing it. More of the people on the right are very happy in both periods. But also note that in the Obama years about 12% of those very happy folks (five out of 40) stopped being very happy.

But something else was happening during the Obama years. It wasn’t just that some of the very happy conservatives weren’t quite so happy. The opposition to Obama was not about happiness. Neither was the Trump campaign with its unrelenting negativism. What it showed was that a lot of people on the right were angry. None of that sunny Reaganesque Morning in America for them. That feeling is reflected in the numbers who told the GSS that they were “not too happy.”



Among extreme conservatives, the percent who were not happy doubled during the Obama years. The increase in unhappiness was about 60% for those who identified themselves as “conservative” (neither slight nor extreme).  In the last eight years, the more conservative a person’s views, the greater the likelihood of being not too happy. The pattern is reversed for liberals during the Bush years. Unhappiness rises as you more further left.

The graphs also show that for those in the middle of the spectrum – about 60% of the people – politics makes no discernible change in happiness. Their proportion of “not too happy” remained stable regardless of who was in the White House.  Those middle categories do give support to Brook’s idea that conservatives are generally somewhat happier. But as you move further out on the political spectrum the link between political views and happiness depends much more on which side is winning. Just as at Fenway or the Stadium, the fans who are cheering – or booing – the loudest are the ones whose happiness will be most affected by their team’s won-lost record.

Blaming the Bishops

April 5, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People who write op-eds sometimes attribute their own opinions and ideas not to themselves but to “the public” or “America.” “The public seems to be angry about values,” wrote David Brooks in 2010, though as I pointed out in this post, surveys at the time showed that values ranked low among the issues the public was concerned about. In January, 2016, during primary season, Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat was projecting his own feeling about “decadence” onto supporters of Trump and Bernie Sanders (here) .

Thomas Groome, who came to the US from Ireland in 1972, has a similar intuition about US Catholics and why they are no longer the loyal Democrats they once were. In a Times op-ed (here) he writes:

This was due at least in part to the shift by many American Catholic bishops from emphasizing social issues (peace, the economy) to engaging in the culture wars (abortion, gay marriage). Along the way, many Catholics came to view the Democrats as unconditionally supporting abortion.

The logic of the argument is this:
  • When bishops emphasized Church’s position favoring change on social issues, Catholics sided with Democrats because the Democrats too emphasized social issues.
  • When bishops emphasized the Church’s position against abortion, Catholics sided with Republicans because the Republicans opposed abortion.
Obviously, Groome doesn’t like the bishops’ shift in focus.  But has it really driven Catholics to abandon the Democrats? Protestants, too (White Protestants, that is), have become less Democratic, and surely they are not paying much attention to Catholic bishops.


Some of the letters that the Times printed letters in response to Groome’s op-ed agreed that the Democrats’ support of abortion rights was losing them the Catholic vote. (“I’m an Irish-Italian Catholic who would normally vote Democratic, but the incessant and strident pro-abortion stance of the Democratic Party sickens me and perhaps others in the country.”)
 
This argument assumes that anti-abortion sentiment is more widespread among Catholics, regardless of whether the bishops were responsible for it. But the GSS and other surveys show little difference between Protestants and Catholics on this issue. 


Perhaps there is a difference in salience, with more Catholics, like the letter writere, making abortion their primary political concern. Unfortunately, the GSS hasn’t asked about that in thirty years, and I know of no other survey that allows for Protestant-Catholic comparisons on this question. What the mid-80s GSS found was that Catholics were indeed more likely to assign a great deal of importance to abortion. However, those Catholics were still a 20% minority. For the large majority of Catholics and Protestants, abortion was less important.


Besides, even if the views of the bishops were being relayed by parish priests, there were fewer Catholics in the pews to hear the message. Catholics have become less religious. The percent who say they never go to mass has increased while those who attend regularly has declined.


A better explanation seems to be that what the bishops say matters far less than do demographic trends. On things like income, education, urban/suburban/small town, etc. White Catholics resemble White Protestants. In presidential elections, Protestant-Catholic differences in voting have usually been only two or three percentage points. In the two most recent elections, the Republican candidate did better among White Catholics than among White Protestants (59-57% for Romney,  60-58% for Trump).

What’s significant is not that church doctrine these days has so little sway in the political views of US Catholics. We are long past the time when anyone thought that Catholic politicians would be “taking orders from the Pope.”  So it’s not surprising that Catholic voters are not taking orders from the bishops. More interesting is that religious identity has become so divorced from political identity. In 1960, Kennedy got 78% of the Catholic vote. Forty-four years later, Catholics preferred the WASP George W. Bush over Catholic John Kerry 52-47. (And if you factor out Hispanics, among White Catholics, Kerry lost by an even larger margin – 56-43.)

From Kennedy 78% to Kerry 43% is a big drop. But it’s unlikely that the bishops or even abortion had much to do with it. 

EdSpeak Deliveryman

April 2, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When my son lived at home, a favorite family game when we ate out was MenuSpeak – scanning the restaurant menu for meaningless adjectives and adverbs.

Tender moist morsels of succulent chicken sauteed to perfection and topped with a reduction of the finest white wine delicately seasoned with fragrant, aromatic spices and herbs carefully selected by our talented chef.

Restaurants are always cooking things “to perfection,” probably because the instructions on the pre-portioned, flash-frozen dishes tell the staff exactly how long to set the microwave for.

I was reminded of our game recently when I received* a copy of the Executive Summary of a report that a university prepared for an accreditation review. The Key Findings of the  Summary comprise seven “standards,” written to perfection in EdSpeak. I give you Standard III.

Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience.
The University provides students with rich and diverse interlocking learning experiences that include a revitalized General Education Program that reflects stronger coherence, rigorous and innovative academic programs that are relevant and integral to the generation of the flat global world, and a range of other high impact co-curricular activities that offer significant opportunities for students to enrich their learning experiences.

I took out the adjectives and similar verbiage. Here’s what was left.

The University provides students with a General Education Program and co-curricular activities.

I think this means that they offer a lot of courses and also credits for non-classroom work. As for the rest, I have no idea. I do see that if I were there, I would not be a teacher. I would be a Student Learning Experience Deliveryman. I would deliver tender moist morsels of learning experience.

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* In keeping with the political spirit of the times, I am not going to disclose my sources. 

The Winds of Privilege

March 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

One day last summer on Long Beach Island, I was riding my bike to the fish store. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful ride. I was pedaling along almost effortlessly. Just a couple of weeks of getting around by bicycle – no car, no subways – had made a difference.

I got some scallops – always fresh on LBI and always delicious – and headed home. But on the way back, I suddenly noticed that I was pushing against a headwind. By the time I got home, I had broken a sweat. The funny thing was that on the way up, with a strong breeze at my back easing my ride, I hadn’t noticed the wind factor at all.

(Not me, and not Long Beach Island.)

Privilege is like cycling with the wind. It’s invisible to the privileged.

The picture below has been making the rounds of the leftish hemisphere of the Internet. It shows Republican legislators discussing the health care bill – Ryancare, Trumpcare, GOPcare, the AHCA, whatever. It’s the bill they promised to vote on yesterday and then didn’t. One of the issues under discussion was whether “essential benefits” would include maternity services.


Mike Pence (that’s him in the center) tweeted the photo, adding “Appreciated joining @POTUS for meeting with the Freedom Caucus again today. This is it. #PassTheBill 2:21 PM - 23 Mar 2017.”

What’s striking is not that a men-only conference is deciding on health care legislation about women. It’s that none of them noticed. If they hadn’t been so utterly clueless, one of them would have suggested bringing in a few token women for the photo op. (I suspect that some of them later regretted their insensitivity – not to women, but to “optics.”)

In July 2016, Pew Research (here) did a survey on perceptions of gender discrimination. The question offered two choices
  • Significant obstacles still make it harder for women to get ahead than men
  • Obstacles that made it harder for women to get ahead are largely gone.
The results are not all that surprising.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

A gender gap cuts across party lines, though it cuts most deeply in Republican territory, where twice as many men as women think that obstacles to women’s success are history. That GOP stag party deciding on maternity benefits is fairly representative of the party, though as the survey shows, ideology is purer among those at the top. Besides, the boys in the photo are the Freedom Caucus. If Pew had surveyed Tea Partistas, the 75% bar in the graph would be even higher.

Half the Republican women think that women face significant obstacles, but the issue may not be high on their list. After all, ninety percent of them voted for Trump (or perhaps against Hillary). If you’re going to vote for a serial pussy-grabber, that headwind you’re pedaling against can’t be very important.

The BBC, in its story (here) on the Pence photo, also included this companion picture from Saudi Arabia – the group that was launching the Qassim Girls Council.


Also seated, though not seen in the photo, were five other members of the council. All men.



Ignorance, Bliss, and Political News

March 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I can’t listen to the news anymore,” I said, “It’s too depressing.” The guy I said this to has been in journalism most of his adult life, so I’m sure he hasn’t cut back. If anything, he’s binge newsing these days. But I’m not alone. Google “news depressing” and you get nearly 40 million pages to choose from.


(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Arthur Brooks thinks so too in his Times op-ed today.

in the past couple of years, I have noticed a happiness pattern that relates to politics. Namely, the people most in the know tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention.

Does an interest in politics lead to depression?  Is political ignorance bliss? When Arthur Brooks thinks what I think, I have to check my personal reactions and impressions against better information. Brooks provides some.

I analyzed the 2014 data from the General Social Survey. . . The results were significant. Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views, being “very interested in politics” drove up the likelihood of reporting being “not too happy” about life by about eight percentage points.

I went to see for myself. I didn’t control for all those variables – I figured the cell sizes would get very small. But the overall picture I got from the GSS was very different from what Brooks said.



(GSS respondents have three choices on the Happiness variable: Very Happy, Pretty Happy, Not Too Happy. I have left out the middle group.)

I don’t know why I didn’t find what Brooks found. Nor am I not sure what to make of the results. Unhappiness is highest among both the most interested and the least. Does this suggest “moderation in all things (or at least all things political interest)”?

Maybe 2014 was a strange year. The GSS had asked a similar question about political interest in three previous years. The sample size is larger, and the data spans sixteen years.


This time the trend is clear, and it clearly contradicts Brooks. As political interest decreases the percent who are “not too happy” increases, and the percent who are “very happy” increases.

But even if the correlation went the way Brooks thinks it does, his explanation makes a huge leap of logic. The news is depressing, he says, because it shifts our “locus of control” from internal to external. It creates “a belief that external forces (such as politics) have a large impact on one’s life.”

An external locus of control brings unhappiness.. . . . An external locus is correlated with worse academic achievement, more stress and higher levels of depression.

To be sure, an external locus of control is not necessarily inaccurate. . . . However, the external locus of control can also be based on an illusion that something affects us — meaning that the resulting unhappiness is unnecessary.


Brooks assumes that what news junkies get from the political news is information about things that will affect their lives. That’s a big assumption. My impression is that for many news watchers, the political news is like sports. They root for their preferred politicos and policies in the same way they root for their team– not because a victory directly affects their lives but just because they want their side to win. The support for banning Muslims in order to keep America safe from terrorism is strongest in places where people’s lives are least likely to affected by a terrorist attack.

Unlike sports news, political news often has a moral component. We want to see our team triumph not just because winning is fun but because in this case it is morally right. People might hate the Yankees or the Cowboys, but nobody is chanting for them to be locked up for their sins. The partisan news shows specialize in stories that provoke moral outrage, and these are the shows most likely to be watched by those with a strong interest in politics.

But even if Brooks is wrong about the data, and even if he is wrong that paying attention to the news shifts our locus of control to external, his advice about locus of control seems sensible.

Get involved in a tangible way — volunteering, donating money or even running for office. This transforms you from victim of political circumstance to problem solver.


How Do You Solve a Problem Like Murray . . . uh?

March 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do you do when someone like Charles Murray is invited to speak at your college? By “someone like Charles Murray,” I mean, well, let me quote a letter signed by more than 60 Middlebury faculty and sent to the college president. (The “as you know” in the second paragraph is a nice touch.)


Dear President Patton,

We the undersigned faculty respectfully request that you, as our president, cancel your introductory remarks at the Charles Murray event on Thursday.

Mr. Murray is, as you know, a discredited ideologue paid by the American Enterprise Institute to promote public policies targeting people of color, women and the poor.

Some students went further than requesting that the president cancel her intro. They went to the lecture and excercized the “heckler’s veto,” shouting and chanting so loudly and continuously that Murray could not be heard. The protestors had in effect cancelled the lecture. (InsideHigherEd )

As I’ve said before (here and here), these protests are not about being afraid of hearing objectionable ideas and arguments. If a professor put Murray’s Coming Apart on the syllabus, I doubt that students would protest. They’d do the reading, and on the exam they’d write a snappy critique. I also doubt that the students were really worried that Murray might persuade some of their peers with his seductive message.

For the students involved, it’s not about ideas, it’s about evil – the presence of evil on campus. The great thing about labeling something as evil – e.g., Saddam Hussein, the axis of evil, ISIS – is that it allows you to ignore all the usual restraints and rules.  After all, you’re not just fighting an enemy. You’re fighting evil. 

The campus left doesn’t toss around the word evil, but a similar absolutism often attaches to racism. If you can label someone a racist, you can jettison the usual liberal principles. “No free speech for racists” (also fascists). Fighting racism (or whatever evil) by whatever means is a moral imperative.

But how much ground will you gain in that fight by shouting down a speaker? My own view is: not much, certainly not enough to justify violating principles of free speech. But although the heckler’s veto may not do much to further the cause, it can bring a feeling of having done something against evil. The effect is not practical – helping to bring some desired change in the external world; it’s emotional – bringing a sense of righteousness to the heckler.

The question is why students attribute so much importance to a campus lecture – why, in Jonathan Haidt’s inelegant coinage, they “catastrophize.” Is Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury of world-shattering importance? Well, yes, if the Middlebury is your world. And for students at residential, somewhat isolated schools, the campus is their world.* They don’t get out much.

Of course, even at schools like Middlebury, “no free speech for. . .”  is a minority view. College students generally favor free speech, even if that includes ideas that are “offensive and biased.”  Here’s the full Gallup question:

If you had to choose, do you think it is more important for colleges to
  • create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people, (or to)
  • create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?

College students went for free speech more than did the average American.


The General Social Survey gets similar results on its item about banning a racist from giving a speech in the community. The college educated are more liberal than others. The percent who would ban a racist speaker his risen somewhat in the past four decades from about 22% to about 27%, but the overwhelming majority favor letting the racist speak.


It’s a mistake to think that the dominant view on US campuses favors political correctness over free speech as some handwringing writers on the right seem to think. (Catastrophizing is not the exclusive province of the left.) But a handful of students, representing a minority view of free speech, can still make enough noise to cancel a speech and make headlines.

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* Not all schools are like Middlebury. Here at Montclair, many students, most perhaps, live at home and commute. Even the ones who live in the dorms go home on weekends. (The weekend begins roughly at 2:00 on Thursday.) They have jobs. They hang out with friends (including boyfriends and girlfriends), from their home towns or other non-campus places.

Church of “La La Land” Saints

February 26, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why is “La La Land” so popular among Mormons?

The New York Times (here) has maps (chloropleths, if you want to show off your vocabulary) showing the popularity of the nominees for best picture. The maps look like different countries. “Fences,” for example, did best in the Southern swath from Louisiana to North Carolina but nowhere else except for Allegheny County, PA (it was filmed in Pittsburgh, where the story is set). In those same areas, “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea” basically don’t exist. The maps of “Fences” and “Arrival” look like direct opposites.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The map that puzzled me was “La La Land.” It’s big in LA, of course (like “Fences” in Pittsburgh). But its other strongholds are counties with a high proportion of Mormons: Utah plus Mormonic counties in neighboring states – Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.





The maps match even for distant counties in Missouri and Virginia, where those dark spots on the map might indicate only 5-10% of the population. Most counties in the US are below 3%.

How to explain the “La La Land” - Latter Day Saints conncection? The movie is rated PG-13, but so are “Fences,” “Arrival,” and “Lion.” And “Hidden Figures” is PG. But then, the cast of “La La Land” has very few non-Whites and zero aliens. That might have something to do with it.

Or maybe it’s just because Ryan Gosling grew up with seriously Mormon parents. He is no longer a Mormon and says he never really identified as one. He has long since left the church. He is neither a singer nor a dancer but has to sing and dance in this film. His character is supposed to be a jazz purist, but the music he plays is what you might call Utah jazz (one of the great oxymorons of our time). But those minor quibbles mean little compared with the fact the for the first years of his life, he was raised as a Mormon.

Health Care as a Positional Good

February 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Which job would you prefer.

Job A: your risk of serious injury is 10%; everyone else’s risk is 15%
Job B: your risk of serious injury is 5%; everyone else’s risk is 2%.


You’d probably take Job B, even though your risk relative to others is greater. With income, relative position carries more weight – $100,000 in a world where everyone else makes $85,000 might be more attractive that $125,000 in a world where everyone else makes $200,000.

Income is positional; safety is not.  (See the previous post for more on positional and non-positional goods.)

Health care too should be non-positional – more is better, and less is worse.  But then why would people whose healthcare had been substantially improved under Obamacare vote for the candidates and party who promised to eliminate it? That’s the question Vox’s Sarah Kliff took to Kentucky. The state had done a very good job of implementing the Affordable Care Act – expanding Medicaid and getting people to sign up on the exchanges.

But Kentuckians voted overwhelmingly for Trump and the Republicans – the people who had promised to end Obamacare. Kliff had to go back to Kentucky to find out why.

Kliff had gone there in 2016 and talked to people who, thanks to Obamacare, now go to the doctor when they were sick or injured. She talked to enrollment workers – people whose job it was to sell the program to Kentuckians, advising them of its benefits. They all voted for Trump, and after the election Kliff went back to find out why?

Some said that they didn’t think Trump really meant what he said.  Others thought that the Republicans would replace it with something better. Many had been soured by the increases in the cost of their health plans, especially high deductibles.

But many people seemed to see their own health and healthcare as a positional good. Its value depended on what others had.  “Part of their anger was wrapped up in the idea that other people were getting even better, even cheaper benefits — and those other people did not deserve the help.”

[A 59-year old woman] sees other people signing up for Medicaid, the health program for the poor that is arguably better coverage than she receives and almost free for enrollees.

“They can go to the emergency room for a headache,” she says. “They’re going to the doctor for pills, and that’s what they’re on.”
       
She felt like this happened a lot to her: that she and her husband have worked most their lives but don’t seem to get nearly as much help as the poorer people she knows.

She has changed the terms of the discussion. It’s no longer about health, even one’s own health, it’s about morality. And apparently many people are willing to sacrifice their own health to punish the undeserving poor. 

Oller, the enrollment worker, expressed similar ideas the day we met.
       
“I really think Medicaid is good, but I’m really having a problem with the people that don’t want to work,” she said. “Us middle-class people are really, really upset about having to work constantly, and then these people are not responsible.”

This one really puzzled me. Medicare had helped her in a time of need, and she felt that she deserved to the help it offered. Still she was willing to have it repealed because “those people” were getting a better deal.


“It’s made it affordable,” Mills says of Healthcare.gov. This year, she received generous tax credits and paid a $115 monthly premium for a plan that covered herself, her husband, and her 19-year-old son.

Earlier this year, Mills’s husband was diagnosed with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. He is now on the waiting list for a liver transplant. Obamacare’s promise of health coverage, she says, has become absolutely vital in their lives.

[She asked me] a few questions about what might change and whether the coverage she would sign up for in a few minutes would still be valid. I didn’t know what would happen.

Our interview began to make her a bit nervous.

“You’re scaring me now on the insurance part,” she said. “I’m afraid now that the insurance is going to go away and we’re going to be up a creek.”


That righteous vote to punish the undeserving poor may have seemed like a good idea at the time. But the protests at town meetings this week suggest that she might not be alone in her buyer’s remorse. In the abstract, health care may be a positional good. But when you really need medical treatment, you might not be so concerned about what other people are getting.

Is Love a Positional Good? (A Belated Valentine's Post)

February 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Decisions, decisions.

Which world would you rather live in,  A or B
World A: You have 2 weeks of vacation; others have 1 week.
World B: You have 4 weeks of vacation; others have 8 weeks.

It’s a no-brainer, right? Four weeks vacation is better than two. No surprise that 85-90% of us choose World B. Now try this one.

World A: You earn $110,000 per year, others earn $200,000
World B: You earn $100,000 per year, others earn $85,000

The income figures represent real purchasing power. Thus your higher income in World A would enable you to purchase a house that is 10 percent larger than the house you would be able to afford in World B, 10 percent more restaurant meals, and so on. Faced with a once-for-all choice between these two worlds, which would you choose? (From Frank and Sunstein, here.)

This question doesn’t get the same kind of consensus.  Somewhere between a third and a half of us choose the lower income, $100,000 rather than $110,000. Why leave $10,000 on the table?

Apparently, how much your income is worth depends on its position in relation to others. Income is a “positional good.” I’ll let Sheldon Cooper explain.



How you feel about your $100,000 income depends on how much others are making. When it comes to things that employers or governments can provide, income is a positional good. But vacation time is non-positional. Four weeks good, two weeks bad (or at least not as good) regardless of anyone else’s deal. Robert Frank and Cass Sunstein, who have written extensively on the topic, identify  other non-positional goods: “health care, safety, parental leave, and leisure time, are largely or primarily nonpositional goods, valued for their own sake and more independently of what others have.”

This distinction closely parallels the research on happiness, which says to spend your money on experiences rather than objects. The happiness that a new gadget or piece of jewelry brings fades more quickly than what you would get from travel or a concert. That’s probably because as your phone or couch or sneakers grow a bit older, you start thinking about newer ones, comparing objects in the same way that people compare their incomes with those of others. We’re especially likely to compare upwards, keeping our eyes on the next and more expensive object or the higher income. We’re less likely use other people’s experiences as a baseline for evaluating our own.

Besides, experiences are unique to the individual. You really can’t compare them on some universalistic scale in the same way that money allows us to compare Apples and Androids. That’s the point of all those MasterCard commercials. It’s the things that you can’t put a price on that are most important. They are also non-positional.

So love and relationships should be non-positional. The joke in the “Big Bang Theory” video is that some people can turn even love, or at least a girlfriend, into a positional good. The excerpt is funny because Howard admits to making the comparison downward, admitting that Raj’s being alone and miserable is “a perk.”

Comparison upwards is less funny – the Have-nots comparing themselves to the Haves and, like Raj, feeling miserable. It’s also probably more common. Think of the people who were unpaired last week on Valentine’s day. Or go to Google Images and search for “single on Valentines,” and you’ll see many variations on the alone-and-miserable theme, most of them a transparent, defensive denial. They make the same positional point: These people would not have felt so bad if it weren’t for knowing that so many others were coupled up in the world of roses and chocolates; and that positional goods (car parts!) are a poor substitute for personal, non-positional relationships.



No Evidence

February 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The federal appeals court considering Trump’s travel ban said that the administration had provided no evidence that people from the seven countries had committed terrorist acts in the US.

Trump of course disagrees. In his view, those who oppose the travel ban – including judges and so-called judges – are ignoring a vast global threat. The cause of their ignorance is that the media are underreporting terrorism. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported, and in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it.”

Even Fox News says that Trump is wrong. (Note that Fox puts this item under “Religion.” Apparently, saying things that aren’t true is a pillar of the Trumpist faith.)


The obvious reason for Trump’s exaggerating the threat is that it justifies his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies. But some on the left suspect something broader and more ominous –  “authoritarianism, American-style,” as Paul Krugman puts it in his column in today’s New York Times:

Never mind the utter falsity of the claim that bad people are “pouring in,” or for that matter of the whole premise behind the ban. What we see here is the most powerful man in the world blatantly telegraphing his intention to use national misfortune to grab even more power.

Some on the left go even farther. Widespread fear of terror will allow Trump to stifle opposition. Those who protest Trump’s policies will no longer be merely dissenters. They will be traitors, putting the country at risk. As such, they could be thrown in jail.

The hypothesis is this: when members of a group perceive an external threat to the group, they demand more loyalty and are less tolerant of dissent.

It seems logical, and I can think of examples from recent history. But I wondered if there was any support from controlled experiments in social psychology. I asked an expert who knows the literature much better than I do (not all that difficult since I let my subscription to the JPSP lapse somewhere back in the Harding administration). The answer was that we have research on the “rally effect” –  the perception of threat causing people to rally ’round the flag and to support a strong leader.*

But what about throwing dissenters in jail, or whatever the social psych experiment analogy would be? On this, my source wrote:
“I don’t know of anything on intolerance of dissent. That might be an important literature gap to fill!”
Never mind the hint that I should sharpen up my experimenter chops and get to work. What this means for the “more threat, less tolerance of dissent” hypothesis is: “no evidence.” At least, no evidence from controlled experiments.

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* Not all of this research supports the rally effect.

Losing My Religion . . . And Its Swears

February 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Walking across campus yesterday, I heard a loud, long belch. About ten yards away were two girls, one drinking a can of soda as they walked.

“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed her friend.

Wow, I thought, that’s something I rarely hear these days – not belching, but “Jesus Christ.” We must have found some other phrase to express a mixture of surprise and disapproval. Or was this just my idiosyncratic sampling of language?

No, my impression was correct.  Linguist Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, says that “Jesus Christ” doesn’t even make it into the top 20 among swears these days. as religion ecome more powerful and able to impose its taboos? Just the opposite. Religion is declining in importance, especially among the young, and as a consequence, religious swears have lost the power entwined with taboo.

Religious swears – words once deemed blasphemous – are now perfectly acceptable.  The Hollywood Production Code of 1927 banned damn, hell, God, Jesus, Christ, and even lord (unless used in a religious sense). The Code faded in the 1950s, but television adopted many of its rules. That was then. Now, if you told young people told that invoking the lord’s name was once unacceptable, they would probably text back, “OMG, why?” 

Some of those no-longer-powerful religious curses are being replaced with sex-based terms. In earlier generations, you might have said that a room was “hot as hell.” Now, it’s “hot as fuck.” As a simile, it makes no sense, but fuck emphasizes the heat in a way that hell no longer does.

I’m not sure what most college-age people would say these days when a friend unabashedly emits a loud belch. I am not a religious Christian; I’m just old. So I found it comforting to hear America’s youth repeating the familiar words, “Jesus Christ!”

The Wisdom of Crowds Redux —Bookies and Bettors

February 5, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Several posts in the early years of this blog (e.g., here ) looked at the “wisdom of crowds” – the idea that the collective wisdom of large numbers of interested people is usually more accurate than the guesses of a few experts. Each post focused on a single event, usually a football game, where the public favored one side while the “smart money” (a small number of professional gamblers) favored the other. 

My thesis was that at least in sports gambling, the crowd was not so wise. If it were, it would have put a lot of bookmakers out of business.

The only data I had, unfortunately, was anecdotal – a few games, like the 2010 Superbowl, where the public heavily favored one side and lost. But this season, I’ve compiled a more complete data set – all NFL games. My indicator of the crowd’s opinion is the change in the point spread late in the week – from Friday to kickoff.*  If the spread goes up, it’s probably because the public is betting the favorite. The bookies are raising the line to attract more money on the underdog and thus balance their books. (On most bets the bettor puts up $110 to win $100. The book with equal amounts on both sides – say $1100 on the favorite, $1100 on the underdog –  is guaranteed a net of $100 no matter who wins.)

I looked at games this season where the line moved by at least one point.** Here are the results.


If you had bed against the wisdom of crowds, you’d have won 54 bets and lost 32. Putting up $110 to win $100 on each of the 86 games, you’d have come out $1880 to the good on a total investment of $9460 – about a 20% return. And except for the first week – 1 Win, 3 Losses – the whole season you’d have been in the black, playing with house money.

As for today’s Superbowl, there has been no movement in the line. It opened at 3 two weeks ago and has stayed there.*** Small bettors are tending towards the Patriots, larger bettors towards the Falcons, so the money is about evenly distributed. Of course the deluge of bets in the next few hours could change that balance.

My own hunch is that the Falcons will win it on the field.


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* Line changes early in the week are usually caused by large bets from “sharps.”

** The change in the point spread is not a perfect variable. For one thing, different books put out different lines. I used the consensus number. For another, bookmakers now respond to betting imbalances by changing the odds rather than the point spread. For example, in today’s Superbowl, the point spread is 3. If a book is getting too much action on the Patriots and needs more Falcons money, rather than raising the line to 3½, they will adjust the “vig.” Bettors usually think of the vig as a tax on losing bets. If you win, you get $100. If you lose, you pay $100 plus the tax – usually 10%. But to balance the bets, a book might raise the vig on the Patriots to 15% or 20% and lower the Falcon bettors’ rate to 5% or even 0%.  In this case, the unchanged point spread would be misleading. The public would be betting on the Patriots, but the line remains at 3.

*** Books are very reluctant to change a point spread of 3. It’s the most common outcome – out 10% of games are decided by three points. If a book raises the line to 3½ and gets a lot of action on the underdog, and if the final score is 20-17, the book loses all those 3½-point bets while not collecting on the 3-point bets. That’s one reason that when the line is 3, books are much more likely to adjust the vig rather than the points.

The Language Anachronism That Nobody Notices

January 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The opening of “Bridge of Spies” shows us New York, 1957. Federal agents tail Rudolf Abel as he walks through the streets and now into the Broad Street subway station. Here is a screenshot.


Hollywood does this sort of thing so well. Every period detail is perfect – the cars, the clothes, the street signs and advertisements, the subway station signs, the shoeshine stand,* even the candy bars inside the candy machine though they are on screen for less than a second. When the Feds come to arrest Abel a few minutes later, his Brooklyn apartment breathes the same authenticity. Ditto his false teeth (Abel is just coming out of the bathroom in his underclothes). The script continues.

One of these two lines is an anachronism – the equivalent of having someone drive up in a Toyota. It’s “need to.” I’ve mentioned this before, but once I became sensitized to it, every time I now hear “need to,” the actor may as well have shouted it.

Before 1970, “need to” was not an imperative. We told people that they “had to” do something, or that they “should” or “ought to” do something. You’ve gotta remember, this is 1957.

This chart from a post in The Atlantic by Benjamin Schmidt about the language in “Mad Men” shows  the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected scripts all set in the 1960s. Some of them were written in the 60s, others in this century. The simple need/ought ratio is all you need to figure out which is which.



I checked a couple of those old scripts (“The Apartment,” “The Hustler” – both are great movies). The “need to” count is basically zero. And if Schmidt had used “have to” instead of “ought to” the differences would have been even more exaggerated.

My own speculation (here)  on why “need to” became so widely used starting in the 70s is that it was part of a general shift from a language of morality to a language of therapy. But I have no idea why the change went unnoticed. The lead scriptwriter on “Bridge of Spies,” Matt Charman, is only 37 years old. He grew up in the “need to” world. But the other writers, the Coen brothers, are in their sixties, and Spielberg, the director, is 70. They too were ignorant of the change from the language of their youth.

“Need to” appears fourteen times in the script. One of these lines manages to use it in tandem with yet another anachronism. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the American lawyer enlisted by the CIA to negotiate the spy exchange, is speaking with a Russian official.

“Conversation” – in the sense of a full exploration of issues and positions and options – is, I think, very recent. In 1957, governments may have had “discussions” or even “talks,” but they did not have conversations. 

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* The shoeshine stand is on the platform where people stand waiting for their train. I wonder what happened when the train came in before the shoeshiner had finished. Of course, this is the Broad St. station, and on the BMT lines, there was probably plenty of time between trains. (And by the way, if anyone knows what year it was when the subway system finally stopped using the IRT, BMT, IND designations, please tell me.)

You Can’t Argue With a Joke

January 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Of all the responses I’ve seen to the Trump/Spicer claim that the inaugural drew the biggest crowds in history, this one – from a hockey game in Dallas –  was by far the most effective.


Whoever runs the Jumbotron for the Dallas Stars deserves a Peabody. The attendance figure pokes fun and deflates Trump’s assertions but without being derisive. The factual criticism that followed Trump’s and Spicer’s performances can be disputed, as Spicer tried to do.  Even if the “facts” that Team Trump presents are false, at least there’s an argument about who’s right. Besides, Kellyanne Conway may have gotten some sympathy for the way that journalists pounced on her “alternative facts.” How would you feel if a bunch of smart-ass reporters checked your every word? 

The Jumbotron avoids those traps. You don’t notice it right away. So a second later, when you do notice the attendance figure, you feel like one of the in-crowd that gets the joke. You’re on Jumbotron’s side. If you laugh – how could you not? – you already share the assumed story behind the humor: that Team Trump is lying about the numbers. Game over. If Trump and company argue with it, they come off as tedious and tendentious. Imagine Trump ranting about how the Jumbotron is the most dishonest scoreboard in history by the way. Imagine Spicer and Conway offering alternative facts about the hockey game attendance. They’d just be digging themselves in deeper while showing that they are utterly humorless.*

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* I make no predictions. Trump may still tweet something about this.

Why Deny the Obvious Lie?

January 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston
Is there method in Trump’s megalomania?

Why would Trump say things that are obviously untrue? Not only untrue but easily demonstrated as untrue, like his claim that his inauguration had drawn the largest crowds in history. Photographs clearly showed that the crowd on the mall at Obama’s first inauguration was larger.


This screenshot is from an interactive graphic (here ) that allows you to slidethe dividing line back and forth to see the whole mall for both inaugurations.

Trump, as we have come to realize, never admits that he was wrong. And now he has a press secretary who does the same. Yesterday, Sean Spicer repeated the false claim.
This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period.
He criticized other estimates, saying,
No one had numbers, because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out.
Spicer did not take any questions, so we can’t know whether he realized the contradiction between these two statements. If no one has numbers, how can Spicer be so sure that Friday’s crowd was the largest in history?

Spicer went further.
We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural.
Reporters checked with the actual Metro statistics. Spicer was lying.*



Why would Trump leave himself open to headlines like this?


The psychological answer is that he can’t help himself. He really believes that everything he does is the most stupendous, and he makes up evidence to support his beliefs. To protect his ego from contradictory evidence he launches vigorous attacks on those who provide contrary factual evidence, even – as with his “landslide victory” or the size of the crowds at the inauguration – when the truth is easily available to anyone. Other politicians would be embarrassed to have their statements exposed as blatantly false. But Trump cannot be embarrassed by the truth because he cannot be embarrassed by anything. He is shameless.

But Ezra Klein at Vox thinks the attack on facts is not just psychological, it’s also strategic.

   the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true.
   Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.
   It’s not difficult to imagine the Trump administration disputing bad jobs numbers in the future, or claiming their Obamacare replacement covers everyone when it actually throws millions off insurance.

The strategy certainly works among Trump’s supporters, the folks who get their news only from Fox or right-wing Internet sources. For the rest of the public, it will depend on the strategies that the media take for reporting on an Administration with so little respect for facts.

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* The New York Times (here) has documented a few other falsehoods from Trump and Spicer, including Trump’s false assertion that during his speech the rain stopped and the sun shone and that “it poured after I left. It poured.” In fact, the rain was light and continuous throughout –  no sunny skies, no downpour.

Me Or Your Lyin’ Eyes

January 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Trump accused television networks of showing “an empty field” and reporting that he drew just 250,000 people to witness Friday’s ceremony.
“It looked like a million, a million and a half people,” Trump said. (WaPo)