Hug a Thug

Posted by Jay Livingston

September 28, 2006

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an article on a strategy used successfully against drug dealers in High Point, North Carolina and presumably elsewhere. Much of the strategy was familiar — undercover buys, videotapes, informants. The new twist was that the police did all they could to keep the dealers from going to prison.

The police sent out word to dealers who had more or less taken over one particular area turning it into a drug market: come to a meeting. The police got to know dealer’s mothers, grandmothers, and others who might be influential and asked them to pressure the dealers to come. A dozen were invited, with a promise of no arrests that night; nine showed up. In room one, clergy and community leaders talked to the dealers about all the harm they were doing the community. The dealers seemed bored. Then they moved to room two, where law enforcement people showed them all the evidence they had right up to arrest warrants filled out completely save for a judge’s signature.

The West End street drug market closed "overnight" and hasn't reopened in more than two years, says Chief Fealy, who was "shocked" at the success. High Point police say they have since shut down the city's two other major street drug markets, using the same strategy.
Not prosecuting people and not housing them in prison for years and years is obviously a lot cheaper than doing so. Yet something about the strategy, despite its success and savings, doesn’t quite sit right with some people. “Hug-a-thug,” some called it, and an Indiana prosecutor quoted in the article said, “Why not slam 'em from the beginning and forget this foolishness?”

The trouble with the program is that it doesn’t perform the symbolic function of clearly marking moral boundaries, and for some reason, that function is very important to a lot of Americans. Our typical way of thinking about a problem is to label it as evil and then declare war on it. The war on drugs is a good example. If you are fighting a war on some absolute evil, you can’t compromise, and you have to be punitive, even if your strategy, at least in terms or rational goal-attainment, is costly and ineffective. At least it makes you feel morally righteous. The moralistic orientation also explains why the war on drugs was (and continues to be) big on enforcement and light on treatment, despite much research showing that treatment is far more cost-effective. If someone is a “thug,” he should be punished, not hugged. To do otherwise would threaten our own moral purity.

Framing a policy as a war against evil does one more important thing. It justifies any means. If what you are fighting is an absolute evil, then it’s all right to violate the usual rules. As many others have pointed out, judges have been very willing to allow police and prosecutors in drug cases to do things that in previous criminal cases would have been unconstitutional if not unthinkable. I recall an article called “This Is Your Bill of Rights on Drugs” detailing some of these judicially approved violations of constitutional rights. (Obviously the war in Iraq and the War on Terror fall into the war-on-evil category.)

Over fifty years ago, sociologist Robin Williams listed a “moralistic” orientation as one of the characteristics of American culture. Basing policy on principles of moral purity may make us feel righteous, but we may be doing so at the cost of actually getting something done. But cultures are not monolithic, and in addition to our American moralism, we also have long history of pragmatism, which in the some cases may be our salvation. At least it saved the West End of High Point, NC.

Covers and Culture

Posted by Jay Livingston

September 27, 2006

Newsweek’s website shows the covers for their international editions. One of these things is not like the others. Can you tell me which one is not like the others? And why?

Is this just a “one-off” (as the British say), a unique occurrence? OK, here are the covers from the previous week (thanks to sociologist-blogger Kieran Healy).

Does Newsweek’s choice tell us something about American culture — that we prefer “lifestyle stories” to real news, especially when the news is bad? Annie Liebowitz, a very successful photographer who does portraits of the famous, here with her children; but spare us “losing Afghanistan.” Successful women— young, pretty, and smiling— but not China or Russia.
I’m reminded of a line from “The House of Sand and Fog.” Ben Kingsley as Behrani, an Iranian immigrant, a man who has worked hard and lived according to principle to achieve some moderate success, speaks to his son: “Americans, they do not deserve what they have. They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in the mouth.”

Small Worlds

September 26, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Six degrees of separation. Stanley Milgram (yes, he of the obedience experiments) didn’t coin the phrase, but he may have been the one to come up with the concept. The “small-world” hypothesis, he called it.

I was reminded of it twice yesterday.
1. Last night I went to a memorial service for someone. I had barely known him, but our kids have been in the same schools since kindergarten. Even after this man and his wife split up and he had left, my family remained friendly with his wife and son. But at the service, I saw people I knew not from the schools but from completely different contexts. Here was a couple I knew only because they were friends of a mutual friend, and we’d see them at her house. Another woman I knew asked me almost accusingly, “What are you doing here?” She had known the deceased professionally (they were musicians) but knew me only because our kids had been in the same school. Two different networks leading to the same place. Small world.
2. I think the explanation for the six degrees is that you go from small people to big people and then back down. People fairly far down in some organization will have some connection to those higher up in that organization. Those higher-ups know higher-ups in other organizations, who will in turn have a connection to those lower down.
Example. My wife has a good friend whose husband is high up in some do-gooder federal agency or program (something about the arts perhaps). Yesterday, the friend phoned to say that she’d been at some benefit in Washington at the Kennedy Center focused on this agency. So while her husband was on stage in some official capacity, she was seated in the Presidential box with just a few people, including Laura Bush. For some reason, the President himself decided to pop in, and he chatted in his friendly way with the people there. Politicians are glad-handers— Bush is a good example — they like people, they remember them.
So now I know someone who “knows” Bush. From there it wouldn’t be too difficult to connect me with anyone in the country, maybe anyone on the planet. (We’re talking about “knowing” and “connections,” not liking or agreeing with.) And if you are acquainted with me, then you yourself are only three degrees from Bush.

Negative Results

September 20, 2006

Posted by Jay Livingston
A man gets thrown into a jail cell with a long-term occupant and then begins a series of attempts to escape, each by some different method. He fails every time, getting captured and thrown back in the cell. The older prisoner looks at him silently after each failure. Finally, after six or seven attempts, the man loses his patience with the old prisoner and says “Well, couldn’t you help me a little?” “Oh,” says the old guy, “I’ve tried all the ways you thought of—they don’t work.” “Well why the hell didn’t you tell me?!” shouts the man. “Who reports negative results?” says the old prisoner.
thanks to sociologist and blogger Kieran Healy (
I hadn’t heard the joke before, but I’ve certainly heard of the bias towards positive results. Back when I was in graduate school, one of my professors, an experimental social psychologist, proposed that journals evaluate papers solely on the basis of research design. Researchers would submit all the preliminary stuff including the design but not the results. Then, if they accepted the article, it would be published regardless of whether the results showed the intended effects.
Healy used the joke in connection with an article on biases in political science journals. Articles which just make the p <.05 level are much more likely to be published than are those that just miss it. I’m not sure if political science and other disciplines (like sociology) that rely on survey data could use the same strategy on deciding on publication before they see the data. That strategy may be more applicable to experiments rather than surveys.
I find it interesting, even ironic, that my social psych professor who proposed this soon became very well known for his own experimental study, whose results were widely discussed even outside academia. But statisticians reviewing the data claimed that he had used the wrong statistical analyses in order to make his results look significant. His idea might be right, the critics said —in fact they probably hoped it was right — but the numbers in the study didn’t prove it. The professor and others claimed that the numbers did support the idea and defended their analyses. Clearly, it was a case that needed replication studies, lots of them. But I’m not sure what attempts to replicate the study have been done, nor do I know what the results have been. But I am fairly certain that researchers who attempted to replicate and got negative results had a harder time getting published than did those who got positive results.
This professor also had our class do a replication of one of his experiments. It didn’t work. In fact, the strongest correlation was with a variable that by design was randomized. There were two versions of some test, A and B, distributed randomly to seats in a room. We wanted to see if the two versions of the test produced different results. People came in, sat down, and did the test. But it turned out that the strongest correlation was between sex and test version. That is, the A version wound up being taken mostly by girls, the B version by boys, just by accident of where they chose to sit. No other difference between the two versions was nearly so strong. It made me a bit skeptical about the whole enterprise.