Better Off?

October 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” asked Ronald Reagan of Americans in a televised presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980. Many people think that this question helped win the election for Reagan. That was then.

What about now? Back in August, I cited a New York Times article by David Cay Johnston showing that average income in 2005 was still lower than it had been in 2000. But I wondered why Johnston hadn’t used median income rather than the mean since the mean is so distorted by changes among the very rich.

Mr. Johnston has e-mailed an elbow in the ribs calling my attention to a Times article he wrote two weeks ago showing income changes for different income groups. I confess I hadn’t seen it (nor had any of the economist blogs I look at made mention of it.).

The message is basically the same. For all but the top 5%, incomes were still slightly lower in 2005 than they had been in 2000. But that’s not quite the whole story. The graph in the article shows both pre-tax and post-tax income.

Although pre-tax income for most people was slightly lower, thanks to the tax cuts, post-tax income was slightly higher. For the lower half of earners, average income in 2005 was $234 higher than in 2000. The graph also shows clearly that the big winners were the top 1%, whose pre-tax incomes were higher by about $18,000 but whose after-tax incomes were higher by nearly $65,000.

Were you better off after four years of Bush? For most Americans, the answer was, “Slightly.” For those at the very top, the answer was, “Yes, quite a lot, thank you.”

In Apprehension How Like a Guide

October 29, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston is looking for a few good guides. A “guide” runs a topic area., posting news, providing links to articles and Websites, and keeping a blog. If you’re a blogger, you might already be doing much of what wants. And pays money.

A reader of this blog passed along the info that needs a sociology guide, but I’ve turned it down and am putting it out there for you. Other guideless topics up for grabs include Race Relations, Moroccan Food, Bladder Cancer, El Paso TX, and . . . well, the list is pretty long.

It was hard to pass up all that loot. “If your page views grow you will never make less than $725 per month and it's likely you'll make much more than that over time (in some cases we have Guides who earn in excess of $100,000 per year)”.

Let’s see – 20 hours a week, $725 a month. It works out to roughly $8.50 an hour.

Primaries and Markets

October 27, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

My friend Marty Schram, who is a Real Journalist and not a blogger, had a column this week about what he calls “Campaign Calendar Leap-Frog.” So far, four states have rescheduled their presidential primary elections to come earlier than the traditional firsts, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Other states may join in the madness.

I see it as an example of classic laissez-faire – a negative example.

The Market is supposed to be a magical invisible hand that transforms self-interest into public good. Through each participant pursuing his own self-interest, the competition in the market generates the greatest amount of total satisfaction. Therefore, all we need to do is stop regulating and let people pursue their self-interest, and everyone will be better off.

The classic counter example is the guy who stands up at the ball game to get a better view. He’s doing what’s best for himself. But by standing, he blocks others’ view, so they in turn stand, and so on until everyone winds up standing for the entire game rather than sitting comfortably. Even if the Red Sox win, everyone winds up worse off than they were before.

The primaries are doing the same thing, though in the dimension of time rather than height. Michigan and Florida have decided that it is in their interest to have an early primary. They’re probably right. Early primaries bring lots of candidates with lots of money to spend. But then Iowa, still wanting to be first, has to leap frog its caucuses back to January 3, 2008. Maybe other states will get in the race as well. New Hampshire may hold its 2008 presidential primary in 2007.
In the free market of primary scheduling, most of the states will wind up worse off than they were before. More crucially, the system will probably not be as good at doing what the primaries are supposed to do – giving the public the candidates it wants and that can best serve their parties and the nation.

Maybe the free market doesn't always have mojo.

(Marty has a neat solution – regional primaries. But that would require a very visible hand of regulation telling each state when to hold its primary.)

Search Committee

October 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Wicked Anomie has created search engine for searching sociology blogs. Apparently, you too can cobble together websites for a customized search engine - once you figure out how to do it in Google. But the Caped Crusader (I think that's a cape she's wearing in the picture/icon) has done it for us. You can even add it as a widget to your own blog, as Anomie has done.

If you want your blog or site included, tell Anomie, and she'll put you on the list.

Cyberweight - Update II

October 22, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Update: October 23. I ended the count of hits on this website too soon. Since yesterday, Jeremy ("The Hits Just Keep on Coming") Freese narrowed the gap and then pulled ahead. See the chart below.)

How much influence does a Website wield? My own egocentric measurement is to count referrals to this blog.

So lets compare the personal blog of a sociologist (Jeremy Freese) with an commercial site (Inside Higher Ed). Both these sites mentioned the Montclair SocioBlog recently, and Google Analytics allowed me to count the number of times the link was clicked at each site in the two or three days following.

Las Vegas made Freese a 50 click underdog - hey, this is Internet influence, not Scrabble.

Here are the results.

The late surge of Jeremy's readers put him ahead by only 3 clicks , 89-86. Not bad for a single blogger up against a team of at least eighteen on staff at IHE.

Take This Job And . . .

October 20, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Both New York City tabloids had the same front page yesterday – a photo of Joe Torre and the headline SHOVE IT.
The Torre story is big news in New York. Even the Times had it on the front page, and all the TV networks pre-empted their afternoon soaps (or Judge Alex on Fox) to carry Torre’s press conference live.

Torre – does anyone not know this?– has been the manager of the Yankees for the last twelve years. In that period, the team made the playoffs every year, the ALCS seven years, the World Series six years, and won the Series four of those six times.

After the Yanks lost in the division series this year, the management, disappointed, offered Torre a one-year, $5 million contract – not as much as his current salary but higher than any other manager in baseball.

So it’s interesting that the tabloids and probably most of the fans approve of Torre’s decision to quit. They see the Yankees’ offer as an insult, one that well merits the Johnny Paycheck response. Maybe it’s because of the Boss he worked for.

George Steinbrenner, prior to the Torre era, used to fire and hire managers – usually Billy Martin – more often than most of us get an oil change. But the pace of change – different in degree, not in kind from other teams – represents a general tendency in sports. When the team does badly, change managers. But why?

Here's one idea: In an environment dominated by uncertainty, people attribute greater power to leaders. Charismatic leaders don’t arise in times of certainty but in times of crises. If things turn out well, we glorify the leader (or in cases like Rudy Giuliani, the leaders glorify themselves). Institutions that operate in a climate of uncertainty (e.g., a baseball organization) follow a similar logic. If things turn out badly, fire the manager.

But how much difference does a manager make? Managers don’t pitch down the middle, they don’t boot ground balls, they don’t pop up with men on base. More important for social scientists, how could we get any evidence that would allow us to measure that difference? I can’t think of anything. You’d have to have some way of controlling for the quality of the players on the team.

Either that or something like a duplicate bridge tournament. As football coach Bum Phillips said when asked how good a coach Don Shula was, “He can take his’n and beat your’n, and he can your’n and beat his’n.” But in the real world, no such switcheroo experiment is possible.

I did a quick search at the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports (statisticians love sports, or at least those who like sports love to analyze them statistically), but I struck out swinging.

Hat tip to my brother for the JQAS lead and for reminding me of the Phillips quote.

Attributions and Contributions - Radiohead Edition

October 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

In class the other day, I was trying to come up with examples of personal and situational attributions, when I remembered the Radiohead ploy: offer your new album as a download and let people pay whatever they want, from nothing on up. What kind of person would take something and not pay for it?

Conveniently, economist Tyler Cowen asked people to post to his blog saying what they paid. Most people gave not just the amount but also a comment.

None of the people who paid nothing attributed their decision to their own character traits. Nobody said, “I guess I’m just a cheap bastard.” Instead, they attributed their actions to external factors. (Deviance people take note: many of these resemble “neutralizations”)

It was the band’s fault
  • If they wanted to offer that option I was going to take it. If I had to pay a minimum of five pounds, or ten pounds, I would have.
  • I did not pay anything for it. That was their risk.
Or there was something wrong with the music or the website
  • I have not been satisfied with Radiohead's recent work and didn't think I would like this one (after two listens I think it's mediocre)
  • They have an ugly website that doesn't work very well, so I bummed it from a friend.
  • because they charge so much for their damn t-shirts. I feel like it evens out now.

But, as attribution theory predicts, the people who shelled out money for something they could have had free also refused to see their behavior as a sign of some internal trait like generosity. Instead, they saw it more as a strategy to achieve a goal.
  • I paid 10 bucks. But in reality, part of what I was paying for was the beauty of the idea. Probably would have paid between $5 and $7 if this was already commonplace.
  • £5 plus the service charge. I thought it was a fair price and a concept that needed supporting.
  • 10 pounds. That's the going rate for a cd download, right? I thought it was brave of them to leave it up to the buyer
Now here’s the thing that really surprised me: none of my students had known about the download offer, and it appeared that most of them did not know of the existence of Radiohead. Small class, small sample, but still . . . .

Outside Higher Ed

October 16, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here's what happens if your blog gets a mention in the “Around the Web” section of the Inside Higher Ed website: fifty-five people linking in. At least that's what happened with this blog yesterday. I would have thought it would be more since IHE picks only two websites each day. And the effect fades quickly. Today, there were only five referrals.

The strange thing was the post they chose to link to –“Scholarship as an Avocation” rather than the following post, “What Can I Do With an MA?

Of course, your mileage may vary. If IHE had mentioned bloggers like Dan Myers or Jeremy Freese, people would have been clicking in by the hundreds.

The New York Walk - Homecoming Edition

October 15, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Walk planners hadn’t checked their calendar. They scheduled it for the same day as the Montclair Homecoming Game, so we had fewer students than usual on the walk. (And as we walked around Manhattan, Montclair State was defeating Kean, 27-12.)

So we were a small group of tourists, something like these.

(These bronzes are at the clock at the Hilton Hotel just across from Port Authority - public art by Tom Otterness.)

It was a beautiful autumn day, and Bryant Park behind the Library was just beginning to fill up. The Library puts out books for people to read while the sit in the park. (The red shelf has books for kids.)

I suppose there's something to be said sociologically about the trust and public spaces. Anybody could walk away with a book or two. Or a chair or table, for that matter. But I suspect that the attrition rate is low.

Bryant Park also has the cleanest pubic restrooms you can imagine. Laura Kramer, as she was leaving the women's room, complimented the custodian and asked a brief question (sorry, Laura, but I can't remember what it was), and the woman beamed and gladly answered. As Laura reminded us, though it shouldn't have been necessary, "People love to talk about their work."

Two of us were from Germany – Agnes, who was born in Poland, and Miriam – and they wanted East European food for lunch, so we stopped here.
(Agnes and Miriam are on the left of the photo. The others, though it's hard to distinguish them in this photo, include George Martin, Laura Kramer, and Peter Freund.)

And speaking of work, you may be familiar with this famous photo by George Ebbets of construction workers having lunch, sitting on a girder high above the city. (I think they were working on the Chrysler Building in the early 1930s).

A sculptor has transformed the picture into metal, and he displays his work on a truck he parks on the street in Greenwich Village.

Here are Peter, Miriam, and Agnes getting a closer look.
There was much more. Not just the usual New York sights, but quirky stuff you don't expect to find but aren't all that surprised by either, at least not in New York. Like the Dachshund rally in Washington Square.

I'm looking forward to the Spring edition of the walk. Join us.

What Can I Do With an MA?

October 12, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Undergraduates often ask what they can do with a degree. Students who go into graduate programs presumably have resolved that question. So without further comment, here's a sign I saw posted at a bookstore in New Haven last month. I've blacked out the phone number, though I'm not sure why.

Scholarship as an Avocation

October 10, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Max Weber wrote an essay about “Scholarship as a Vocation” (the more commonly used translation is “Science as a Vocation”). It’s a classic, but Weber, in focusing on the professionals, forgot about the hobbyists tinkering in their garages. Sometimes, they do it better.

When I was an undergraduate, there was a lab technician who worked for the biochemistry department – I don’t think he had a college degree, he may even have been a high school droupout – who knew more than most of the doctoral students and probably some of the faculty. He was also the quarterback on the biochem intramural football team, which is why they usually won.

I was reminded of this by two things this week: my sister-in-law’s birthday dinner and Andrew Gelman’s Social Science Statistic Blog.

Gelman prints a rant (his word, not mine) that someone sent him about a wrongheaded statistical analysis done by some consultant for a local government project.
Gelman agrees and adds:
This certainly doesn't surprise me: I've seen worse from paid statistical consultants on court cases, including one from a consultant . . . who reportedly was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for his services.
The key problems seem to be:
1. Statistics is hard, and not many people know how to do it.
2. The people who need statistical analysis don't always know where to look.
The people with credentials can be wrong. And sometimes the uncredentialed guys – like the lab technician – surprise you.

Take Howie, a guy you would never mistake as an academic. He’s an old friend of my brother- and sister-in-law, and Sunday we were celebrating her birthday somewhere out in Queens at an unpretentious Italian restaurant (decent food, reasonable prices, no tablecloths, Yankees on a couple of TVs in the bar). I was seated down at the end of the table with my brother-in-law and Howie. Talk turned to politics – Hillary, Obama, Rudy – and what about Gore? That got us to Gore 2000 and the electoral college, then to Kerry and the Ohio vote in 2004. Were the elections stolen?

It became clear that Howie knew a lot about voting and irregularities and how you might audit results to detect vote-count tampering. He knew about sample sizes and statistical errors. He knew that no single sample size or percentage was perfect and that you optimize sample size by taking account of of electoral shifts and winning margins. He knew all the ways that a House bill on election audits was flawed. He also knew about hacking electronic voting machines, but he thought the computer scientists were focused on the wrong part of the problem. If you wanted to ensure voting integrity, you had to go for statistical audits. (“The computer science guys, they’re not interested in this stuff.”)

But as far as I knew, this was purely a hobby for him. It certainly wasn’t his job. (The last job he had was for an airline.) He had learned the statistics on his own – books, the Internet – after he’d gotten interested in the problem of election integrity. Now he’s publishing papers with academic co-authors and offering expert testimony on proposed federal legislation.

Moral Wars

October 6, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, came out against the War on Drugs.
“You want to get serious? Reduce crime in this country by 70-percent overnight? End this war on drugs.”

The mayor calls the national drug policy an abject failure, especially crack cocaine sentencing.
The mayor’s comment was all the more surprising for coming in response to news that San Francisco’s murder rate is up sharply this year. Instead of saying the war on drugs is a failure, an American leader should be calling for a surge. At least that’s what we would expect.

Why do we find war such an attractive idea? The appeal of war and its metaphors seems to clash with the American pragmatism. We supposedly prefer looking for practical solutions to problems. Yet we also seem to gravitate naturally towards moralistic views of the world. If there’s something we don’t like, we prefer to think of it as an evil. The next logical step is to ban it and then to declare war on it. Prohibition wasn’t the first such effort, and it wasn’t the last. It’s just the only one that’s written into the Constitution. Later wars, on terror or on drugs, are written in legislation and in judicial decisions. And in our consciousness.

We are, of course, a peaceful nation; we never start a fight. We’re Gary Cooper in High Noon. We react to a threat from the bad guys. When that threat is so evil as to require a war, the obvious corollary is that if we don’t fight this war and achieve victory, our very existence will be undermined. That’s the logic behind the idea that if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them here. It’s the logic of moral absolutes rather than the logic of geography, politics, and strategy.

Framing something as war has some important consequences. First, even to question the usefulness or effectiveness of the war becomes tantamount to treason. There’s a war on drugs, and Mayor Newsom wasn’t supporting the troops. He was practically on the side of the enemy.

Second, since the enemy is evil incarnate and threatens our existence, and since we must defend ourselves against this aggression, anything we do is justified. If we’re fighting for our life, anything goes. The war on terror has given us a running tab of $10 billion a month, Abu Ghraib, Guantànamo, torture, and the Patriot Act. The war on drugs has had similar consequences (see “This is Your Bill of Rights on Drugs”). It has cost an enormous amount of money, giving rise to the incarceration-industrial complex, and it has needlessly and wastefully locked up tens of thousands of people. All with meager results.

It turns out there has been some progress in the war on drugs. In the past few months, cocaine prices are up and purity is down. The cause, however, is all on the supply side of the equation and the Mexican side of the border. The Mexican government is cracking down on the cartels, trying to win back cities controlled by the them. Perhaps more important, the cartels are in the midst of a serious war with one another for control of border crossings. Neither of those factors has anything to do with the long sentences we are still handing out to US buyers and sellers.

Other countries, at least their governments, prefer to approach drugs and terror as problems to be mitigated or even solved. Last month, in a lighter post on men’s room carelessness, I contrasted the Dutch solution (a trompe l’oeil fly in the urinal for guys to shoot at) with an imagined American approach – a War on Splashing with severe penalties for bad aim.

Punitive solutions are morally satisfying – I’d really like to stick it corporate polluters rather than let them trade emissions allowances; it’s just that non-moralistic approaches often work better and at less cost to our finances and our freedoms.

Survey This

October 4, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Often in class when I ask students how they might find out about some variable, their response is, “Do a survey.” It’s almost as though a survey were a magical rite with mystical powers able to reveal the unknowable. Maybe some of them are, but the reality – the way many surveys are actually done – has made me a bit skeptical.

I was polled twice yesterday. My phone number must be on a “do-call” list for pollsters. I don’t mind. In fact, I find it interesting to be on the other side of the questionnaire. When the interviewer asks if I’d be willing to participate, I say, “Yes, if you’d be willing to answer some of my questions when we’re done.”

I usually ask the same questions. Last night for example, I discovered that my interviewer was in New Mexico, though he was asking me about a court case – a complicated civil suit – in New York. He was getting $6 an hour, which is maybe why the polling company hires people in Las Cruces rather than in Las Bronx. In three nights of calling, he’d completed five interviews and had a lot of refusals. So we respondents were not exactly a random sample. He didn’t know whether it was the defendant or one of the plaintiffs who was footing the bill for this research, which we agreed was probably good methodology.

The case was complex – it involved at least four “parties,” verbal agreements vs. written ones, and multiple deals that were contingent on other deals. I’d tell you more but I promised I’d keep mum till after the trial. Besides, I’m still not sure I understand it. The questions setting up the case were long and involved, and my interviewer (a college kid studying athletic management) read through them at verbal warp speed. I was surprised that anyone would respond. Or if they did respond, whether they knew what they were responding to. It wasn’t until he’d gone through three or four questions that I was able to form even a murky picture of the case. I'm still not sure I have the names straight.

On the basis of this, I thought, they’re going to decide who to select for the jury and how to present the case. And then I wondered: if they lose, are they going to sue the company that sold them on this survey?