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, h’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 hapy” 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 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)


Words Matter

January 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s the word cloud from Trump’s inaugural speech.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

America and American are no surprise. They appear frequently in many inaugurals. But they occupy a more prominent place in Trump’s speech. Compare Trump’s with the first inaugurals of Obama and George W. Bush.


Words take their meaning from context. It’s the valences of America – the words and ideas that the speaker connects it to – that convey the message.  “American carnage,” for example, was a phrase that grabbed the attention of many people. But it was just a variation of disaster, the term Trump preferred during the campaign. Carnage is more graphic, but it carries no special overtones. “America first” does.



This was not one of Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks said with little reflection. Trump even repeated the phrase. 
From this day forward, it’s going to be only
America first, America first.
Trump’s writers, possibly Trump too, worked carefully on the speech. They must have known that after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “America first” became the watchword of those who did not want the US to join European nations in the war against Hitler.* So just in case anybody hadn’t already gotten the idea, Trump is saying that the US will not intervene in Europe if some strongman marches into neighboring countries to seize today’s version of the Sudetenland or Poland.

Putin probably loved this speech. Estonians, not so much.

“America First” was revived in recent years. It was similarly isolationist and similarly anti-Semitic – the most prominent member of the 1940 committee was Charles Lindbergh – and, no surprise, pro-Trump.


The other unusual word in the cloud is back. This echoes Trump’s campaign theme that he will return the US to some glorious past, mostly by restoring industrial jobs for men. (See this post of two weeks ago.)
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.
This economic nostalgia often combines with a social and moral nostalgia  – a longing for a time when norms, society, and identities were stable and predictable. As Archie Bunker sang each week at the “All in the Family” theme song “Those Were the Days,”                                       
And you knew who you were then.
Goils were goils, and men were men.
Back also echoes the “Take our country back” meme so popular among conservatives for these last eight years.  (See “Repo Men.”)

In sum, the word cloud shows, as many observers said, that the inaugural speech sounds very much like Trump’s campaign speeches. It has the same combative tone, and it runs on the same assumptions about American history: America used to be great, with abundant industrial jobs for men, few imported goods, and few documented immigrants, all of them documented. The world is a zero-sum game, and we were winning. Then They (liberals, globalists) took over the country. All aspects of American life became disasters. Foreign countries were beating us.  But now, I (Trump) will restore that glorious world.

Does this describe reality? Or is it, to use another term prominent in the word cloud, a dream?

Columbia U., Meet Trump U.

January 14, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

In academia, we’re tough on plagiarism, especially when it runs to more than just a copied sentence or two. Plagiarism is one of those areas where we lean towards moral clarity rather than wishy-washy liberal moral relativism. I think.

I’m putting my syllabus together, and it looks like I’ll have to make a change in my boilerplate about plagiarism,

Plagiarism and cheating on papers or tests will result in a 0 for that assignment and perhaps an F for the course. But it may also get you a job with Donald Trump.

In case you hadn’t heard, Monica Crowley,  Trump’s choice to be U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communicationsplagiarized big chunks of her Columbia Ph.D. thesis. . She has excellent conservative credentials. She worked for Nixon and more recently for Fox News. She has said that Huma Abedin’s parents were “essentially tools of the Saudi regime.” Her views of the Syrian refugee crisis were also straight from right field.  She wrote in the Washington Times  that “The EU is apparently intent on committing continental suicide” by letting in so many Muslims.  They “are using the European Union’s open doors-open borders policy to reach the West for social welfare and the longer-term goal of spreading Islam.”

Crowley is a serial plagiarist. It wasn’t just her Ph.D. thesis. Her book What the (Bleep) Just Happened had at least “fifty instances of copying directly from conservative columns, news articles, Wikipedia and in one case a podiatrist’s website.” (Politico) The Wall Street Journal published her 1998 column, an appreciation of Nixon, which borrowed considerably from a Commentary article some years earlier by Paul Johnson.

When Trump appointed her, she spoke of his “vision, courage, and moral clarity.” That figures. She obviously shares Trump’s vision of Muslims. And now it’s clear she shares a similar morality. So it’s almost certain that she’ll keep her job, nor will the plagiarism damage her standing among conservatives. Academics, by contrast, take plagiarism more seriously – usually. Columbia has not said a word about whether the university might rescind her doctorate. Columbia is a prestigious Ivy League school. I guess it remains to be seen whether their standards are as high as those of Montclair State.

Here is a screenshot of just part of the thesis plagiarism as highlighted by Politico, which has many other examples.

(Click for a larger view.)

Travis Hirschi (R.I.P.) and “Acting White”

January 12, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The day I heard that Travis Hirschi had died was the same day I read this Vox article  by Jenése Desmond-Harris about “acting White.” I sensed a common element, but what was it? Both Hirschi and Desmong-Harris were questioning widely held ideas. Hirschi had thown down challenges to the criminology theories that dominated the latter part of the 20th century,* and Desmond-Harris was trying to debunk the widespread idea – even Barack Obama seems to have accepted it –  that Black kids who did well in school were often rejected by their peers, who accused them of acting White. But the similarities were more specific than just skepticism about the conventional wisdom. What they were both skeptical about was the idea of cohesive “oppositional” cultures.

Hirschi’s “control theory” of delinquency emphasized what he called the “social bond,” a social and psychological connection between the individual and conventional society that restrained impulses to break the rules. An important element of that bond was “attachment” to other people and to institutions like school. This seems sort of obvious. Common sense tells us that the closer a kid is to parents, peers, or teachers, the less likely he is to commit crime. But what about “delinquent peers”?  Here common sense tells us attachment is no longer a damper on crime. The closer a kid is to peers who commit crimes, the more likely he will be to commit crimes.

Hirschi rejected that idea. It derived from a romanticized picture of youth gangs as hives of solidarity and mutual support, something like the Jets and the Sharks of “West Side Story.” But in Hirschi’s view, real gang members were no more likely to have solid friendships than they were to break out singing “Tonight” in tune and in unison while doing tightly choreographed dance numbers on the streets of New York. In the real world, delinquents were, in Chris Uggen’s phrase, “detached drifters.”  Detached from others and from social institutions, they drift, often into scenarios that are self-defeating and sometimes criminal 

Desmond-Harris’s article similarly questions the picture of a Black student subculture solid in its opposition to the oppressive and White-dominated institution, the school. She says that although it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence – “African Americans who say they were good students in school and were accused of acting white” – there’s little in the way of good systematic evidence. She quotes Ivory Toldson, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, criticizing Roland Fryer’s article, “Acting White: the Social Price Paid by the Best and Brightest Minority Students” (here ).

the most popular black students in his study were the ones with 3.5 GPAs, and students with 4.0s had about as many friends as those with 3.0s. The least popular students? Those with less than a 2.5 GPA.

It seemed that the "social price" paid by the lowest-achieving black students was actually far greater than the price in popularity paid by the highest academic achievers.

It’s not quite as simple as that, as the graph from Fryer’s paper shows.
                           


Turning “attachment to peers” into something you can actually measure poses some real problems, and any method will be subject to criticism. Still, I think Hirschi would feel vindicated by Fryer’s data. The effect is especially strong among Whites, but for both Whites and Blacks, kids who get lower grades have fewer friends.

Disaffection (lack of attachment) seems to be general. Attachments, whether in school or in friendships. require some self-control. Kids who act impulsively and unpredictably are not going to do well in either setting.  So the kids who are not much invested in school are the kind of kid it’s hard to be good friends with.  The detached drifters may sometimes for oppositional cultures and groups, but these are weak substitutes for those of the conventional world of conventional teenagers. 

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* Hirschi’s criticism of then-current theories was most explicit in A General Theory of Crime (1990), with co-author Michael Gottfredson. If you were in criminology, it was a book you couldn’t ignore. I remember one session at a crim conference in the early 90s where Rich Rosenfeld presented some data he and a colleague had from research in progress. I have no recollection of the topic (homicide maybe) or the findings, but they were somewhat puzzling. In the Q&A, when someone asked Rosenfeld about this he said, “We don’t even have a theory Hirschi and Gottfredson wouldn’t like.”

A Ram, a Plan, a Repeal, Obamacare

January 8, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mitch McConnell said that the Republicans will act this week to repeal Obamacare – or at least start to repeal it. Their previous votes on the matter were symbolic gestures. Now they Republicans can actually repeal it because they now control the Senate, the House, and the Presidency. They can do repeal the law even they do not represent the majority of the electorate.

Kevin B. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, has closely examined the returns – he got House data from the secretaries of state of all fifty states – and graphed the results (here). The truncated Y-axis makes the results look more dramatic, but the point is the same. Republicans won control of the White House and Senate though far more people voted for Democrats. Republicans’ share of seats in the House is greater than their share of votes for those seats.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Back in 2010 when Obamacare was being passed, Republicans’ favorite phrase in describing the process was “ram down the throat.” This gem must have been  issued from GOP central; everyone on the right was using it. The Affordable Care Act, they said, was being “rammed down the throat” of the American people.* I Googled it.


The ramming took the form of votes in the Senate and House to pass the bill and then the signature of the president. In all these, the Democrats had a majority of the votes, and unlike the Republicans today, those Senators, Representatives, and the President had all received a majority of votes.
Most people would see this as the normal process of lawmaking in a democracy. The Republicans saw it as force-feeding. This time around, it really will be more like ramming – a minority government passing legislation that most Americans do not support. According to a Kaiser poll, only one in five favor immediate repeal.
,
The minority government will pass more laws, probably very quickly, i.e., in the first 100 days. Even now, they are trying to rush the confirmation of Trump appointees even before the ethics reviews have been completed. The Democrats could legitimately characterize these laws and appointees as being “rammed down the throats” of the American people. But they probably won’t. Liberals seem to be a bit squeamish when it comes to imagery suggesting the blunt use of force, even when they are the victims. Republicans, as I have argued elsewhere (here), are much more comfortable with the idea of torture. Their response to accusations that they were ramming something down someone else’s throat would probably resemble Trump’s response to accusations that he paid no taxes: it’s a matter of pride rather than shame.

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* The Republicans seem to prefer metaphors that show a deep concern with violation of the body. A year earlier, when it looked like the CIA might have to stop torturing people, the conservative talking point was that this new policy would “emasculate” the CIA. (See this earlier post here.)

Men’s Work, Men’s Votes

January 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The sexual dimporphism in Disney films that Philip Cohen keeps pointing out (here, for example) is nothing compared to gender differences in the recent presidential election. Trump was the man’s candidate, as the 538’s pre-election maps clearly showed.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Maps based on the actual vote would, I suspect, be just as different.

But why? At Sociological Images, Alisha Kirchoff (here) suggests that Trump took his inspiration from Putin. Trump could not imitate Putin stunt for stunt – let’s try not to imagine a shirtless Trump on horseback, and the hair thing pretty much precludes emerging from the seas in scuba gear – but he projected a liking for toughness, even violence, and a generally combative view of the world.

His performances of masculinity – his so-called “locker room talk,” discussion of genitalia size, and conduct towards pageant contestants — could go from publicity stunt to public support to actual policy measures. His bombastic language about defeating ISIS and the need for more American “strength” at home and abroad, for example, could easily translate into foreign policy.

No doubt Trump’s attitudes and actions towards women were odious. Some people saw them as profoundly anti-woman. But even for those who saw them as normal masculinity expressed more frankly, this part of the Trump persona was probably not sufficient reason to vote for Trump.

True, his views of foreign policy evoked the image of a Mark Burnett game show, a world of winners and losers where one side beats the other by being stronger, more clever, and perhaps more ruthless.  But foreign policy is rarely decisive in elections.

The Trump persona may have had some appeal.  Men might have envied or identified with the wealth winner, the man who says what he thinks uninhibited by norms of decency, the guy who gets gorgeous girls. Besides, he was going to crush the forces of political correctness that were repressing men in the same way that he would crush foreign countries that did not fully do what we tell them to.

But the Trump promise was not just that he would be men’s champion, doing what they could not themselves do. More important was the promise that with Trump in office they could restore their masculine identity throught the most important element of that identity – manly work.The Trump campaign was a Viagra ad transposed to the labor market.

“I ain’t gonna be a nurse; I don’t have the tolerance for people. I don’t want it to sound bad, but I’ve always seen a woman in the position of a nurse or some kind of health care worker. I see it as more of a woman’s touch.”
Health aides earn a median wage of $10.50 an hour. Mr. Dawson used to earn $18 an hour making railroad traction motors. “I was a welder — that’s all I know how to do.”

That’s from a recent New York Times article (here) about the disappearance of traditionally male jobs. (Note the welder’s nod to politically correct views about gender: “I don’t want it to sound bad, but . . .”). The projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the trend will continue. Of the fifteen jobs expected to have the greatest growth in coming years, all but five currently employ more women than men.

Trump is telling the Mr. Dawsons of America to ignore the data and even to ignore the evidence of their own experience. He is saying in effect, “I, Donald Trump, will bring manly jobs back to America.” It’s not “I will be manly for you.” It’s “I will change the economic world so that you can be a man again.” Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that Trump can restore the world of thirty years ago.

Those manufacturing jobs are not coming back. Saving 800 jobs at a Carrier plant is a symbolic gesture, and while symbols are important and may temporarily change perceptions of reality, they do not change the reality itself.

It’s as though on the subject of climate change Trump were saying, “Ignore what the scientists say; ignore the evidence from you own experience – the heat waves, the droughts. I Donald Trump will bring back the temperatures of thirty years ago.” And then, in a symbolic gesture to prove his point, he holds aloft a snowball.

Some of My Best Friends

January 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I was a child, I remember, I heard my parents say dismissively of someone, probably a politician, “Yeah, some of his best friends are Jewish.” I didn’t understand. How could my parents resent someone who had Jewish friends and said so publicly? When I was a bit older, I understood – anti-Semitism is not merely a matter of personal friendships or public sentiments.

What reminded me of this incident was today’s Washington Post story on the letter signed by over 1100 law professors opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General. The Post leans toward framing the issue as one of personal bigotry. It excerpts this sentence from the letter:  “Nothing in Senator Sessions’s public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge.”

The opposing statement comes from William Smith, an African American who has been Sessions’s chief counsel.  “In the last 30 years, they probably haven’t spent 10 hours with him. I spent 10 years working with him . . . as his top legal adviser. There are not statements that he made that are inappropriate.”

Is Jeff Sessions a racist? Is he, as the law profs say, “racially insensitive”? These questions are irrelevant, barring a history of blatantly racist statements or membership in the Klan. But also irrelevant is the question of whether some of his best friends or advisors are Black.

That “1986” in the law professors’ letter refers to a case Sessions, as US Attorney, brought against three African American civil rights leaders who helped elderly Blacks – some housebound, some illiterate – complete their ballots. The case was so flimsy that the judge dismissed more than half the charges for lack of evidence. On the charges that did go forward, the jury quickly found the defendants not guilty.

Was Sessions’s racist? Well, if you bring trumped-up charges against three Black people – charges that carry sentences of 100 years – it’s a pretty good guess that you want to scare everyone, maybe especially other Black people, from doing what those people were doing. In this case, what they were doing was helping more Black people to vote.  But Sessions’s motive need not have been racist. I suspect they were more political. It wasn’t that the voters being helped were Black; it’s that they were voting for Democrats.

In the US, especially the South, there is such an overlap of race, lack of education, poverty, and political party that laws and legal actions that will suppress Democratic votes need not appear explicitly racist. The new laws in North Carolina and elsewhere that make it harder for people to vote are race neutral in their language. But so were literacy tests and the poll tax. (See my earlier post and joke here.). In prosecuting the Black-vote workers, Sessions was merely invoking the law in its majestic equality.*

Does Sessions have Black friends and advisors? Has he spoken nicely about civil rights? The more relevant questions are about the cases he brought when he was a US Attorney. In what ways did these advance the cause of civil rights and racial equality?  Or stall that advance? (For more on this question see this op-ed from three DoJ civil rights lawyers.)

It’s like the question of whether Steve Bannon – the man Trump has chosen as his chief strategist –  is an anti-Semite. His defenders, of course, say no and point out that he has worked for Jews and hired Jews to work for him. But under his leadership, Breitbart became, in his words, “a platform for the alt-right,” a category that includes people who really are blatantly anti-Semitic. But hey, some of his best friends are Jewish.

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* “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges” — Anatole France.