Nostalgia - The Way We Were (not The Way I Was)

December 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. That’s the gist of a Times op-ed this morning by Daniel Gilbert. In fact, in Gilbert’s view, nostalgia is a doomed emotion.
Maybe we’ve reached nostalgia’s end. . . . . Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered.
Gilbert presents no data, but he’s a Harvard professor of psychology (his course is one of the most popular) and a best-selling author and a serious researcher. So he ought to know, right?

The nostalgia on his mind is the nostalgia of place, and he assumes that we can be nostalgic only for places that are unique – luncheonettes with homemade pies, record stores whose offerings depend on the quirky preferences of the owner. You can’t be nostalgic for a homogenized landscape, where all downtowns have the same Starbuck’s and Gap, Gilbert says, because these will not change.
Americans may no longer need to gather at midnight on the last day of the year to yearn for their yesterdays, because wherever they are they will see the landscapes of their youths.
I think Gilbert is wrong. To begin with, even if the store names stay the same, the stores themselves will change, and in 2030 we may be remembering fondly the way all those Gap stores looked back in 2010.

Second, nostalgia seems attached much less to place than to objects and experiences. (I made this same argument two and a half years ago in connection with “American Graffiti.” In future decades, today’s iPods and X-boxes, Zu Zu Hamsters and World of Warcraft will occupy the emotional space now filled by IBM Selectrics and Allman Brothers LPs.

Third, and most important, memory may be psychological (Proust and his famous cookie), but nostalgia is social. Nostalgia is not for what is unique and personal but for what is shared – the TV shows we all watched, clothing styles we all wore. If every mall in America has a Gap and an Olive Garden, this should make them stronger candidates for nostalgia. You may have grown up in Tennessee; but the year is now 2030, and you’re living in California; the guy you meet in a bar comes from Wisconsin. But you can both recall the old Starbuck’s (“Remember how they sold CDs and called the workers baristas, and you could get a ‘vente’?”).

That’s the gist of Billy Collins’s poem “Nostalgia,” a spoof on the whole idea (“Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.”) Listen to Collins read the poem to a live audience here . (Scroll down to #15.)

(Today seems to be nostaliga day. As I was reading Gilbert’s column this morning, I was also watching “Annie Hall” – thank you, IFC – with its theme of nostalgia and loss, and Diane Keaton singing “Seems Like Old Times.” Then my son switched to the Sci-Fi channel, which is running Twilight Zones all day, black-and-white film with old actors when they were young, and Rod Serling eternally smoking a cigarette.)


Big Conclusions, Little Data

December 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Can the Recession Save Marriage?” That was the headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by W. Bradford Wilcox two weeks ago. Mr. Wilcox’s answer is a cheerful yes. And here’s the evidence:
The divorce rate is actually falling. It declined to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2008 from 17.5 divorces in 2007 (a 3% drop), after rising from 16.4 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2005 (a 7% increase).
Three data points – 2005, 2007, 2008. That’s more than enough. Case closed.

Yes, it’s possible that other things might have been going on in the country to affect divorce rates – the sorts of things that other researchers might have tried valiantly to factor into their regressions. But I guess that for the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia (Mr. Wilcox is its director) and the Institute for American Values (Mr. Wilcox is a fellow) a 3% drop after a 7% increase is slam-dunk evidence for “a silver lining in all this financial pain.”

The larger fish Wilcox is trying to land here is the idea that poor people can have great marriages even without money, and therefore reducing inequality and economic hardship will not strengthen families. But that argument seems to be a fish story.

Philip Cohen, at the Family Inequality blog, has an excellent critique. First he graphs Wilcox’s data, giving it the gee-whiz effect that fits with Wilcox's optimism.

Then he graphs a longer-range view of divorce and economic hard times (shaded purple).

The longer perspective makes the current dip in divorce rates seem a bit less impressive.

Wilcox wants to argue that people can have great marriage even as they lose their jobs, homes, and savings. No doubt, some people can. As Wilcox says, after acknowledging that some couples don’t do so well under that kind of stress, “anecdotal evidence suggests that other couples have
responded to the recession by rededicating themselves to their marriages.”

But a small drop in the divorce rate is not evidence of
a departure from the past four decades, when many Americans came to see marriage largely as a chance to pursue a "soulmate" relationship, where couples focus on emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction and personal fulfillment, rather than as a chance to share childbearing and childrearing and economic cooperation with an extended family.
If Wilcox is right, we can all be relieved that the recession has finally led couples to reject marriage as personal fulfillment and replace it with sharing and cooperation. But then what are we to make of the numbers reported in today’s Times: New York courts have seen an 18% increase in cases of family members assaulting one another. (And those are just the ones that make it all the way to court.)

(Huge hat tip to Philip Cohen at Family Inequality.)

Christmas and the Destruction of Value

December 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

What was in those boxes we unwrapped and opened today? Gifts, most people would say.
But according to a Grinch-famous 1993 economics article by Joel Waldfogel, those boxes were also crammed with “deadweight loss” – the difference between what the giver paid for the book or bauble and what it was actually worth to the recipient. Waldfogel surveyed Yale undergrads and concluded that “between a tenth and a third of the value of holiday gifts is destroyed by gift-giving.” Destroyed. That $40 sweater you gave to your cousin’s husband – you destroyed $10 of its value. Here’s the key question Waldfogel put to his Yalies about gifts they’d received: “If you did not have them, how much would you be willing to pay to obtain them?”* By this method, a really good gift would mean a high deadweight loss. For example, I would never pay more than $40 for a sweater for myself. No sweater to me is worth more than that. But suppose a good friend bought me a really, really nice $200 sweater. I love that sweater. I love it precisely because it’s an extravagance I never would have allowed myself. But the most I’d be willing to pay for it is $40. So according to Waldfogel, my friend destroyed $160 (80%) of the sweater’s value. When I first heard about the Waldfogel study, I thought it was a bit of self-parody – like those jokes about engineers , where the engineer sees everything in terms of the concepts of his profession and thus misses the point. (Waldfogel, for example, refers to the “inefficiency” of gift-giving, as though the point of gift-giving were efficiency.) But Waldfogel wasn’t kidding. He just published a follow-up book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. In fact, gift-giving has become increasingly rationalized and efficient. Children write letters to Santa specifying what they want; brides and grooms have bridal registries that do the same. Cash and gift cards are becoming more popular as gifts. There is no doubt that gift-giving is an economic exchange, and it would be silly to pretend thateconomic value has nothing to do with it (it’s the thought that counts). But it’s equally silly to think that it gifts are only economic and that they have no social meaning.
*The Form-1040-instructions quality of the prose is typical. For example, the Waldfogel survey also asks respondents to estimate the value of the gifts as “the amount of cash such that you are indifferent between the gift and the cash, not counting the sentimental value of the gift. If you exchanged the original gift, assess the value of the object you got in exchange for the original gift. If you exchanged the original gift for cash, put the cash amount you received here.”

Sexting and Percentaging - The Wrong Way

December 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Pew survey on sexting – it came out over a week ago. I don’t know how I missed it. Must be the holiday blahs. And where was the media hysteria? Most news outlets ignored it, probably because the results weren’t all that alarming.

For the entire sample of eight hundred 12-17 year olds, the estimated proportion who sent “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves” was 4%. Given the margin of error, that means that the actual percentage, as Dan Ryan at Sociology of Information notes, is somewhere between 0% and 8%.

Of course, we’re not going to see a headline like “Sexting Teens May be 0%.” Not when you can goose up the numbers to 30%. Here’s the headline that ran in The Washington Post:
Sexting hasn't reached most young teens, poll finds;
30% of 17-year-olds report getting nude photos on their cells
That subhead manages to get the highest percentage by
  • using only the oldest subgroup in the sample
  • measuring receiving rather than sending

Dan has some other methodological criticisms, including this one. First the Pew summary paragraph:
One parental intervention that may relate to a lower likelihood of sending of sexually suggestive images was parental restriction of text messaging. Teens who sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images were less likely to have parents who reported limiting the number of texts or other messages the teen could send. Just 9% of teens who sent sexy images by text had parents who restricted the number of texts or other messages they could send; 28% of teens who didn’t send these texts had parents who limited their child’s texting.
I spent the last two weeks of the semester trying to get students to percentage tables correctly. “Percentage on the independent variable,” I repeated and repeated. And now Amanda Lenhart at the Pew Foundation undermines all my good work. As Dan says,
It is unlikely that the authors are thinking that sexting causes parental restrictions – the sense is just the opposite – and so the percentaging should be within the categories of parental behavior and comparison across these.
Dan even does the math and finds:
  • Children of restrictive parents who ever sent a sext: 1.4% (3 of 218)
  • Children of non-restrictive parents who ever sent a sext: 5% (29 of 572)
Read Dan’s entire critique. Or for the truly absurd and probably counter-effectual, see the anti-sexting videos featuring (I am not making this up) James Lipton.

Max Weber Takes on the Left and Lieberman

December 19, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The politics of health care reform presents a dilemma for those who want change. It’s the dilemma of compromising with evil. Do we sacrifice real improvement for the sake of ideological purity? wants me to sign a petition that says, “America needs real health care reform—not a massive giveaway to the insurance companies. Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressives should block this bill until it’s fixed.”

With illness, we have to understand that bad things happen to good people. But with health care (and other issues) the difficulty is that good things may happen to bad people. With the bailout, it was galling that in order to save the country (i.e., most of us) from economic disaster, we wind up rewarding the bankers and traders who got us into this mess.

With health care, it’s the insurance companies. says better to risk letting the whole bill fail, with its added protections for millions of people, than to let the bad guys continue make a profit.

The dilemma sent me back to Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” (and not just because the squabbles on the left made me think that maybe the German title was “Politik als Beirut”).

Weber distinguishes between the politics of purity (“ethic of ultimate ends” and the politics of the possible (“ethic of responsibility”)
There is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends – that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’ – and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.
I like “abysmal.”
The believer in an ethic of ultimate ends feels ‘responsible’ only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quenched: for example, the flame of protesting against the injustice of the social order. To rekindle the flame ever anew is the purpose of his quite irrational deeds, judged in view of their possible success. They are acts that can and shall have only exemplary value.
I like “quite irrational.”

So Weber knew about the MoveOn.orgs in his day and in history. Weber also had this to say about Joe Lieberman.

Vanity is a very widespread quality and perhaps nobody is entirely free from it. . . . The sin against the lofty spirit of [the politician’s] vocation, however, begins where this striving for power ceases to be objective and becomes purely personal self-intoxication, instead of exclusively entering the service of ‘the cause.’ For ultimately there are only two kinds of deadly sins in the field of politics: lack of objectivity and – often but not always identical with it – irresponsibility. Vanity, the need personally to stand in the foreground as clearly as possible, strongly tempts the politician to commit one or both of these sins.

Weber, however, lacked YouTube and sock puppets.

Hat tip Ezra Klein.

The Best Way to Travel

December 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

When you take your seat on JetBlue, here’s what you see on the screen – the one on the back of the seat in front of you, the seat your knees are pressing into unless you paid the extra $3-4 an inch for more leg room.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Yes, while the plane sits on the runway, before it lifts off and that screen now offers you 43 television channels and 94 XM channels, you see this picture, and you think, Ah, that’s the way to travel.

It’s a train – the ocean on one side, trees on the other, and it’s whizzing along the coast so rapidly that that it appears slightly blurred in the photo. (That’s JetBlue’s camera blur, not mine. Compare the sharpness of the Fasten Seat Belt message.) Meanwhile, you sit on the runway, looking out at the tarmac and wishing that your seat wasn’t so close to the toilet and that the woman squeezed in next to you wasn’t wearing all that perfume. You hear the pilot’s voice crackling on the PA to tell you that we’re now fourth for takeoff.

And you look at this picture of the train. What is JetBlue trying to tell you?

The Recession - The View from a Cab

December 16, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Poll Reveals Depth and Trauma of Joblessness in the U.S.

That was the front page story in the Times yesterday.

I hadn’t seen the paper when I got into the cab at 6 a.m., but my ride to JFK was itself a look at the recession. The cabbie wasn’t what I expected – a woman, for starters, with an accent that wasn’t Asia or Africa but pure New York. And she asked me whether I wanted to go via the Triboro or the Midtown Tunnel.

She had just started her shift, picking up the cab from a fleet in the Bronx. She had three kids – a daughter recently graduated from Fordham, a son at NYU, and another son at Yale. She had worked on the trading floor for JP Morgan, not as a trader but in some auxiliary role that was nevertheless important and probably well rewarded. Family trips to London most winters.

Then she got fired, and since last spring, she’s been driving a cab. And she knows many people, former colleagues, who aren’t even doing that. (I didn’t ask her about money and how she managed two high-end tuitions. She never mentioned a husband, so I assumed she was a single mom. But I didn’t ask about that either.)

She also sold Christmas trees on the street, though that was mostly to support the Boy Scouts. Their trees were expensive – $60 and up – but sales were very slow, and even now, well before Christmas, she was knocking down prices for customers who seemed reluctant. (This is all anecdotal evidence. The Wall Street Journal reports that tree sales are strong. )

Funny, It Must Be a Guy Thing

December 14, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a question (not taken from a publisher’s test-bank) from the final exam I gave today:
2. One observer of culture commented, “I'll tell you what I like about Chinese people. They're hanging in there with the chopsticks. You know they've seen the fork; they're staying with the sticks. I don't know how they missed it— going out all day on the farm with a shovel. Come on: shovel — spoon. You're not plowing 50 acres with a couple of pool cues.”

To say that using chopsticks instead of a fork and spoon is like plowing land with pool cues — this idea is an example of
a. particularism
b. ethnocentrism
c. the sociological imagination
d. group polarization
I offered a bonus point to anyone who could identify the culture critic who was the source of the quote. (Answer here.)

I didn’t realize it when I was composing the exam, but I was guilty of sexism. None of the females in the class even took a guess. Most of the guys did, and sixty percent of them got it right. I might as well have asked which NFL teams Brett Favre has played for (or hasn’t played for).

I do know at least one female Montclair sociology graduate who would have nailed the bonus point. But in general, comedy, especially stand-up, seems to be a guy thing, and I’m not sure why.

Maybe I should have used a quote from Gray’s Grey’s Anatomy.

The Power of Positive Phrasing

December 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. T / F ____ Most universities are now in the final exam period.

2. T / F ____ A negatively-phrased question is rarely less confusing than a positively-phrased question.
To answer Question #2 correctly, to say that negatively-phrased questions are more confusing, you have to go through the mental contortion of negating the negative.*

Take a look at the test-bank that accompanies a textbook, and you’ll see at least a few items like this. Those questions are not written by professional test-makers. Sociology textbook test banks are written by sociology instructors, history test banks by history instructors, and so on. Neither they nor the authors of the books themselves are schooled in writing test questions.

But what about this item?

Agree or Disagree: My home life is rarely stressful.

Maybe you recognized it. It’s from the GSS (STRSSHME). A student in my class had used it in her cross-tab exercise. She had thought that women would be much more likely than men to experience stress at home. But, she said showing me her table, 43% of women disagreed; only 28% of men.

I had to look twice at the item and think it through carefully. The item is about stress, I explained, but if you want to say that you agree that your home life is stressful, you have to disagree with the question.

I assume that the GSS questions are written by people who know what they are doing, not instructors who need to supplement their income by writing textbook supplements. I also assume that the survey experts at the GSS test drive each item before including it in the interview schedule. But STRSSHME makes me less confident about the way the GSS develops questionnaire items.

Did the GSS compare this item against the same idea phrased positively:

My home life is often stressful.

No. STRSSHME seems to be part of a 2002 module that was given only once. I wonder if the GSS will use this question again.

*Another post on negativity is here.

Values in Air Travel

December 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I went to church last weekend. Well, not really. I went to see “Up in the Air.” But the sermon was such a familiar one about American values that as the house lights went up, I expected the audience to do the handshake of brotherhood or whatever non-touching H1N1 substitute is currently in effect.

Here’s the message, sinners. Pursue not selfish career goals, especially in place of human relationships.

We’ve all heard it before. Don’t sacrifice human connection for the sake of individual mobility. It’s a staple of American fiction, movies, and TV. And maybe it is in fact like a church sermon, something we Americans like to hear over and over again each Sunday because we spend the rest of the week doing just the opposite. That seems to be the schedule: M-F, Achievement/Success; Sunday, the sermon about relationships (Saturday is more open, though shopping, fixing up the house, and kids’ soccer games are strongly encouraged).

The nice thing about “Up in the Air” is that it doesn’t stack the deck so obviously (pardon the abrupt change of metaphor). Make no mistake – the central character, Ryan Bingham, is all about mobility. He spends most of the year traveling. His main goal in life is to accumulate ten million miles and get the sacred black airlines card possessed by only a handful of other fliers. He disdains relationships. He never married – all sex is causal sex – and he’s distant from his siblings and their families. And, he repeatedly tells us, that’s the way he likes it.

And what is his job that requires so much time away from home (not that he has a home; his apartment is bare, his refrigerator empty)? He fires workers. Their own employers are too fearful or incompetent to do it well or do it at all, so they hire Bingham’s firm. Bingham loves his job, and he does it very well.

OK – a guy who like firing people, wants no real relationships, and aspires mostly to a small, black plastic rectangle because almost nobody else has one. In most movies, you’d dislike this guy from the moment he walked into the frame. You’d easily reject him and his values. But with “Up in the Air” you can’t, mostly because it’s George Clooney. I mean, you just cannot dislike George Clooney. The film makes it even easier to like him by giving him a young apprentice – a 23-year-old MBA – who wants to make firing people even less human by instituting an online version. With her austere suits, severely pulled-back hair, and impersonal style of speaking, she makes Clooney’s character look even nicer.

The movie is worth seeing – most critics gave it high marks (check it out at MRQE) – so I won’t go more into the plot except to say that the ending (possible hint of a spoiler here) doesn’t cheat. The ending also shares something with “Funny People” and very few other American films that I can think of offhand. (However, in other ways, the ending of “Funny People,” as I noted here, does cheat.)

Here’s the trailer. It says pretty much what I just said.

Signs of the Times

December 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The fifty best protest signs of 2009 (collected at Buzzfeed) included this one – for academics only.

(Click on the picture to see it larger.)

A lot of the good ones seemed to come from the gay side of the street.

See all 50 here.

Hat tip: Jenn Lena

Sociologists on the Gridiron

December 10, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NFL has six African American head coaches (and one of them was a sociology major). Six out of 32. In the NCAA’s 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, there are just nine black head coaches.

The pros are apparently less racist than colleges. And it is racism, not the lack of talented black coaches. Some of those NFL coaches couldn’t even get an interview at the college level. Tony Dungy (African American and a former NFL head coach) isn’t a sociologist, but he has sense of where to look for the racism in the social structure. Not the athletic directors and college presidents who do the hiring. It’s those middle-aged wannabes and jock sniffers waving their pennants at the homecoming game. In a Times op-ed earlier this year, Dungy wrote of his unsuccessful efforts to get colleges to hire black coaches: “Alumni and boosters were involved, and the presidents often felt pressure to hire coaches the boosters would support.”

In the pros, the coach’s job is to win. In the colleges, winning is good thing for a coach to do, but the head coach is also a PR man, a fundraiser. He has to make nice with boosters and alumni, and those people want a coach that they’d feel comfortable hanging out with. Someone who is, you know, more like us.

Dungy repeated this argument on NBC Sunday nigh. (The video, which I cannot embed, is here.) Dungy urged college presidents to show some spine and stand up to the boosters. He also said that the lack of black coaches was “disgraceful.”

The same word might have been applied that night to the Steelers. They lost – at home, yet – to the Raiders forgodssake, blowing the lead twice in the fourth quarter. (Dungy was a defensive back and later an assistant coach for the Steelers.) Whither the Steelers? Superbowl champs just 11 months ago, they have lost four straight. Tonight they play the Browns, who have won one – count ’em one – game this season. Maybe, just maybe, the Steelers can win.

(Update: Several weeks ago, under a photo of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger I added a caption to the effect that they were discussing sociology. Ridiculous, I know. Ben was not a sociology major.

But two weeks ago, with Ben concussed and backup QB Charlie Batch out with a broken wrist, the Steelers went with Dennis Dixon, who in fact was a sociology major and academic all-American at Oregon.

Dixon, whose NFL experience had consisted of throwing two passes, exceeded expectations and even ran 20 yards for a touchdown, and the Steelers took the favored Ravens into overtime. Unfortunately, in the overtime, Dixon misread the defensive pass coverage and threw an interception that cost the Steelers the game.

Inequality and (Missed) Opportunity

December 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was supposed to be about the distribution of income. It turned out to be about something else, and I keep thinking I let another teachable moment slip away.

The general topic was inequality. The strategy – not original with me, but I have no idea who came up with it – is to use something students can grasp, something familiar in their experience, to convey the idea of inequality. Here’s the drill
  1. Ask students how much they would need per person to have a really nice evening out.

  2. When they come up with a number, multiply it by the number of students. Then divide the class into five groups, and say something like, “I could just give each group the same amount. But I’d like to reward the students who have done well and contributed to the class. I don’t think that they should get the same amount as the absolute slackers. So if we have five groups ranked from most deserving to least deserving, how much should each group get?”

  3. Show the distribution. If possible, use Excel and make a pie chart. It will almost certainly be more equal than the distribution of income in the US.

  4. Then show a pie chart of the distribution of income in the US. If the amount for nice evening was $100 apiece, it would mean that the couples in the top fifth would have $500 for the evening (as, “What could you do with $500 for the evening?”). The least deserving couples would share $34.

  5. Students will be appalled by the disparity.
Here’s what really happened. The students got into just about the liveliest discussion we’ve had all semester. But it wasn’t about the distribution of income. In fact, we got stuck on step #1 – what they would need for the evening out. What kind of restaurant, what movie or show or club. How much to spend on pre-gaming. One girl said that she’d have to get a new outfit – she always got a new outfit; it’s so much easier than deciding what to pull out of your closet. Someone else brought up the cost of parking in New York, which would raise the nut considerably.

Eventually, I had to call a halt. It’s just an analogy, I said loudly and moved on to steps 1-4. But surely there was some lesson here, some sociological point to be made about their concern and about the specific things they thought should or shouldn’t be included. After all, the general topic was stratification and inequality. Maybe the package of goods you deemed necessary for a nice evening – specific things themselves, not just the total cost– carried some message about social class.

Alas, I didn’t think of that at the time, and besides, I’m not sure what that message was.

You've Got a Friend. Ashley Has 1,376 Friends

December 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t really think Facebook did much to change the definition of community. But what has FB done to friend?

In a comment on the previous post, Aftersox suggests that we need a new definition of community, maybe something that encompasses online communities. My point was that the word has already been stretched to include all sorts of agglomerations of people. I doubt that many Facebook users thought that there was anything strange about the message the referred to a community of 350 million. That’s why, when we want to refer to a truly communal group, we go back to Tönnies’s German vocabulary – Gemeinschaft.

But what are we to do about friend? Surely a retronym is called for.

A retronym is a term that comes into use when technology makes the old term confusing. Acoustic guitar, for example. When electric guitars came along, we needed a special term for the instrument which for hundreds of years had just been a guitar. Manual typewriter, prop plane, desktop computer, land line, manual or standard transmission, broadcast television.

What term will we use to distinguish friends in the old sense of the word from Facebook friends?

Language Posts Revisited

December 4, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. Last month, I noted that although Gemeinschaft was usually translated as community, the English word has been stretched to include groups that were much larger that what old Tönnies had in mind.

How large can a group be and still be a community? Oh, I don’t know. How about 350 million?
If you logged in to your facebook page today, you saw this at the top of the page:
Facebook has just reached 350 million users and will soon be making some changes to serve our growing community.
2. Back in April, I suggested that phrasing something in the positive made it easier to understand. Negative constructions invite confusion, and the more negatives you use, the harder it becomes to figure out the meaning. An op-ed piece in the Washington Post last month centered on “this most basic culinary question: Is eating personal?”

Good question. Here’s how the author, James McWilliams answers it:
“So it’s hard to avoid concluding that eating cannot be personal.”
I still can’t figure out what he means.

Cool Tone?

December 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two and a Half Men is funnier because it dances at the border of acceptability. “Can they say that on network television?” Most of us, it seems, cheer for the naughty boys to sneak in the dirty word and get it past Standards and Practices.

A similar games goes on at the DMV. The Smoking Gun has a list of over 1500 requests for vanity plates that the New York DMV has rejected. New York prohibits any plate which “is, in the discretion of the commissioner, obscene, lewd, lascivious, derogatory to a particular ethnic or other group, or patently offensive.” That includes hostile messages like UPYOURS (also UPURS and other variants). I guess nobody at the DMV got very far in French class. I saw this one on Broadway last week.

TON CUL – literally, “Your ass.” But I think “Up yours” better captures the sense and spirit of the phrase. (Native French speakers, please correct me if I’m wrong here.)

This one probably wouldn’t have gotten off the press in California. “A California vanity plate request, for example, is thoroughly reviewed by several people with both foreign language and slang dictionaries.”

For hundreds of vanity plates, most of them from NY and most neither offensive nor amusing, just personal, go here. (I did recently see, but didn’t photograph, an older man getting out of car (Lexus?) with the license plate SONZADOC. I guess MY SON THE DOCTOR wouldn’t fit.)

Surely, there must be some sociological research on vanity plates. I just don’t know of it.

Best-selling Sociology

November 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was leafing through the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, and when I got to the best sellers page, I noticed that three of the top ten books on the nonfiction list are sociology. Well, maybe not exactly sociology in a narrow sense, but in the sense of social science that isn’t psychology.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
At number four is Superfreakonomics. The authors claim to be doing economics, but in the sequel as in the original, purely financial matters play a secondary role. Much of both Freak books looks a lot like sociology.

Numbers five (What the Dog Saw) and 10 (Outliers) are collections of Malcolm Gladwell essays, many of them based on research by sociologists. Gladwell is a journalist, but sociology is a large sector in his beat. He even spoke at the ASA a couple of years back.

Should I mention Mitch Albom in the #2 spot – a sports writer who wouldn’t be on the list at all were it not for his first best-seller about Tuesdays with a sociology professor? No I shouldn’t mention it.


November 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last year’s post-Thanksgiving post, was a response to a repost at The Situationist fretting about the conservative framing of Thanksgiving (The Situationist reposted it again this year.). The high priests of our society exhort the poor and downtrodden to give thanks for a system that is screwing them. Don’t question or rise against, is the message, but rather be thankful for the few crumbs it brings. The holiday is an exercise in false-consciousness.

From a Durkheimian perspective, I argued, this is the nature of all rituals not just Thanksgiving. “All rituals are inherently conservative. They idealize and uphold the society as a whole and promote the attachment of individuals to that whole.”

I added.
I just wonder whether godly conservatives, those who “recognize that everything we have is a gift from God” included the election of Obama as one of those gifts . . . and gave thanks for it last Thursday.
This Thanksgiving, I’m less sure that the spirit of Durkheim reigns in the land. My guess is that the thanks we hear from the right side of the table will come mixed with a generous portion of snark. The “Pray for Obama” campaign, hawked on everything from bumper stickers to teddy bears, is a recent example of the sort of thing we might get.

Psalm 109, verse 8 is: “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.” And in case it wasn’t clear what “days be few” means, the next verse spells it out: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”

Clever, isn’t it? Doesn’t it bring a smile to your face in this holiday season?

Conservatives know how to avoid false-consciousness. So expect more of this today. I hope someone else is reading the right wing blogs and watching Fox so I don’t have to.

Sour Grapes and Sweet Snickers

November 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Let a group of kids trade their candy bars – the “I’ll swap you three Krackles for a two Milky Ways” sort of thing – and you’ll wind up with an allocation that, on the whole, has greater value.

That’s the gist of a Marginal Revolution post by Alex Tabarrok. Now we know what Alex did with his leftover Halloween candy. . . only the “kids” were college students in his economics class, and the trading was not post-Halloween fun; it was a classroom exercise to demonstrate “gains from trade.”
Students open the bag and are then asked to write down how much they would be willing to pay for the bag's contents. But before snacking, students are allowed to trade. After a few minutes of trade, ask the students to write down their valuation again. Voila! Gains from trade. With a few numbers pulled at random from the students you can do a back of the envelope calculation for the total increase in value.
No doubt the economic explanation is valid, but when I read the post, the idea that sprang to mind was something that didn’t occur to Tabarrok or any of the people who commented on the post: cognitive dissonance, more specifically “postdecision dissonance.” People will value something more if they’ve chosen it rather than having no choice. 

It’s the converse of “sour grapes” (if I can’t choose it, it wasn’t sweet). Ask people what each of two candy bars is worth or how much satisfaction each would bring. Then have them actually pay something for their preferred treat. Now ask them to evaluate the two choices again. The subjective value of the chosen candy will have risen relative to the unchosen one. The valuation of the candy will have increased, but there has been no trade, just choice.

Two and a Half Jokes

November 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I finally watched an episode of Two and Half Men. The show’s been around for five or six years, and it’s still in the top ten – even in a week when there’s a really good football game in prime time (Colts-Patriots). So it was on my to-do list. As Everett Hughes said, the worst sin for a sociologist is snobbery.

Ideally this post would analyze Two and a Half Men in its social context – its relation to aspects of US society and culture. Maybe another time. For the moment all I could think of was this:

Basically, it’s the “in bed” fortune cookie thing. You know, you read the fortune, pause, then add meaningfully, “in bed.” Funny, right? It’s been around for years (maybe since around the same time that 2.5 Men started), but it still works. I heard Jon Stewart do it just a few days ago on the Daily show.

Sex makes it funny. If something’s already funny, sex makes it funnier. And basically, that’s 2.5 Men. Why is sex funny? Probably because it’s still something we don’t talk about openly. Any laughter a joke might evoke gets the add-on of the tension that comes from touching on a taboo topic. So we hear the essentially the same joke again and again and again. . . . in bed.

The central plot of last night’s episode was that Chelsea wasn’t having an orgasm when she and Charlie had sex. Charlie’s self-centered insensitivity is, I gathered, a regular comic element of the show. But add sex, and it becomes even funnier. Same with Berta. She’s caustic and earthy; she can say sardonic things about her husband and her marriage. But if it’s about sex (like who got to be on top) it’s like adding “in bed” to the Chinese fortune.

Yes, there was a subplot only tangentially related to sex – Alan trying to get a date by using spray-on hair to cover his bald spot. (It took me a few moments to remember where I’d seen this before. Beau Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys twenty years ago.). Then Alan goes on J-date and pretends to be Jewish – also not exactly a new idea in comedy.

But mostly, if last night’s episode is typical, 2.5 Men makes its living by taking standard sitcom jokes and adding “in bed.” And it works.

OTOH, or is it really the same hand, there’s XKCD’s take.

Journalism Out to Lunch

November 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Interesting line-up on the Times op-ed page today. David Brooks’s column is on the left, Paul Krugman’s on the right. They’re both writing about Timothy Geithner. Krugman
key officials — most notably Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Fed in 2008 and is now Treasury secretary — have shied away from doing anything that might rattle Wall Street. And the bitter paradox is that this play-it-safe approach has ended up undermining prospects for economic recovery.
Well, the evidence of the past eight months suggests that Geithner was mostly right and his critics were mostly wrong. The financial sector is in much better shape than it was then. TARP money is being repaid, and the debate now is what to do with the billions that were never needed.
Brooks, the conservative is waving the flag for the Obama administration; Krugman, the liberal, is taking pot shots at it. Standing with Krugman are others that don’t usually line up alongside him in the same shooting gallery – The Wall Street Journal and other right-wing outlets.

The main difference seems to be the source of information about Geithner. The critics, right and left, are focusing on the Inspector General’s report on the AIG bailout, which says, essentially, that the Government gave away the store. It put much more money at risk than it had to. Rather than negotiating effectively, it protected bankers to the tune of 100 cents on the dollar.
David Brooks, on the other hand, had lunch with Geithner the day word of the report leaked.* Instead of mentioning the IG’s report, Brooks writes about Geithner’s “mentality,” his “ philosophy,” his “policy instincts.”

I was reminded of I.F. Stone and what you might call his sociology of journalism – how the interplay of networks, information, and relationships shapes what gets printed. Stone was one of the best Washington investigative journalists, often finding truths that revealed the lies the government was peddling. (All Governments Lie is the title of a biography of him; that title has to be a direct quote from Stone himself.) He had no inside sources – nobody in official Washington wanted to be seen talking to him. Instead, he relied on transcripts of Congressional hearings, other government documents, and, for foreign affairs, the international press.

Stone thought that his isolation from the people in power made it easier for him to be a better journalist.

“Once the Secretary of State invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you're sunk,” he said.

Or the Secretary of the Treasury.

*To be scrupulously accurate, Brooks does not actually say that he lunched with the Secretary. He refers only to “an interview.


November 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Men Who Stare at Goats, now playing at a theater near you, is a military comedy. It’s not M*A*S*H. It’s a mash-up – two mentalities: military and hippie.

Comedies are about mismatches. In military comedies, one of the mismatched elements is bureaucracy, especially its rule-bound lack of imagination, impersonality, and inability to adapt to novel events. These qualities are usually embodied by an authority, a high-ranking officer. Sometimes the authorities are benevolent, as in the fish-out-of water scenario. Here, the mismatch is that someone who was never meant to wear the uniform winds up in the Army. The authorities, with patience and firmness, manage to mold him or her (Pvt. Benjamin) into a soldier.

More typically, the mismatch is between the bureaucratic mentality of authorities and the human, fun-loving good guys, who are forever figuring out ways to get around the rules. The heroes are like little boys impishly scheming to have fun by fooling gruff old dad. But in the American version, the boys who ignore the regulations and the brass not only gain illicit pleasures (alcohol, sex, money); they also always turn out to be the ones who can actually accomplish important goals. They did it every week on M*A*S*H.

In The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Army creates a special program for soldiers to develop psychic superpowers. The program is sold to them largely by a former soldier (Jeff Bridges) who has done the hippie trip and now returns to train a select group of soldiers, the dippy dozen. The brass in their spotless uniforms give him great latitude, since they are looking for anything that can help win the Cold War. The soldiers let their hair grow long, do yoga, and try to develop supernatural abilities, like the ability to kill or at least stun animals by staring at them. Or to walk through walls.

Neither mentality comes off very well. The New Age ideas seem ridiculous, especially as military applications, and the military looks foolish too for being so desperate to beat the Soviets that they’ll believe this stuff. In an emblematic moment early in the film, we see an officer in full uniform psych himself up and try to walk through a wall at full speed. The result is inevitable.
That’s the gag that gets repeated throughout the movie – every time someone (usually George Clooney) tries to use these psychic powers, reality thwarts them, but they still continue to believe.

The message, one that is repeated not just on every episode of M*A*S*H but in many American movies, is this: acting on the basis of ideology is bad, whether that ideology is New Age or Cold War; acting on the basis of personal feelings for others is good. In Goats, what makes us like George Clooney is that despite his nutty ideas that never work, he doesn’t let the ideas get in the way of his more human impulses.

Mad Men and Me

November 14, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Mad Men” closed out its season.  (Spoiler alert). The agency is about to be sold to a huge firm, so the key players slip off to regroup as a new, independent firm, taking as many accounts as they can with them. The final scenes contrast the spacious and elegant offices, now deserted, with their new venue – a suite in the Hotel Pierre. Instead of an office, each person gets an area of the living room. The media guy goes over his files on the bed in the bedroom.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Is it realistic, this social organization of ad agencies? Yes, and here’s my anecdotal evidence.

Way back, decades ago when I was a young academic, I did a consulting project in the private sector. The company had also called in the legendary ad man Julian Koenig. Koenig had been a copy writer at Doyle Dane Bernbach, where he was the brains behind the Volkswagen “Think Small” campaign, the Timex takes-a-licking campaign, and others. He left DDB, and, with Fred Papert and George Lois, formed their own agency, one that had much success. Then he quit.

Eventually, he decided to get back in the business, and that’s how our paths crossed. The same guy that had hired me for a sociological angle had hired Koenig for an ad man’s perspective. I met Koenig briefly out in the field. When I got back to New York, I wrote up my report and sent it to the company. Weeks later, I got a call from Koenig’s office inviting me to have lunch so we could compare notes.

Koenig had returned to advertising in a small way – a four person agency– and their office was a suite in the Delmonico Hotel. Koenig had set up his office in one of the two bedrooms, sharing it with their media expert; the secretary/receptionist/bookkeeper (she was also Koenig’s girlfriend) had a desk in the other bedroom; and the accounts man seemed to have the living room, where he welcomed guests (like me).

It looked very much like the suite in “Mad Men” but with less furniture – the same light filtering through the curtains, the same dull-colored, worn carpeting. I think Koenig had even managed to get the Timex account back in his portfolio. Watching Draper, Roger, and the others in that hotel took me back. The three of us (Koenig, Accounts Guy, me) had a nice lunch at a French restaurant, Koenig said he’d liked my report – my ideas tallied with his own – and that was that. But seeing this Mad Men hotel suite got me to wondering: what if I too had somehow been able to jump ship and throw in my lot with the ad men?

Spreading the Lack of Wealth Around

November 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Suppose a company in these hard times has to cut its payroll by 10%. It has two choices:
  • fire 10% of the workers
  • fire nobody, but reduce everyone’s hours and pay by 10%
Asked about this, Larry Summers, a top economic advisor to Obama, said,
It may be desirable to have a given amount of work shared among more people. But that’s not as desirable as expanding the total amount of work.
This is a policy non-sequitur – how the work is divided is a separate issue from how much work there is. And as Paul Krugman points out today after quoting this line, we are not in fact making much headway on expanding the total amount of work. The question of distributing the work remains, and Summers was dodging it.

But in answering it, we should consider not just the effect on individuals. After all, if you look at it as an economist might, the overall impact of the two policies is exactly the same. But there's a more sociological view that also considers the effect not just on the sum of the individuals but on the institution as a whole.

The Summers quote and this problem reminded me of a talk given recently by the president of a private university. Like all such schools, its endowment had taken a big hit. Here’s what he said (I’m paraphrasing*):
Other schools put in a hiring freeze. That’s fine with the faculty who are there. The only ones who suffer are people they don’t know – the people who didn’t get hired. But we put in a pay freeze. That may have hurt each faculty member somewhat. But it allowed us to hire new faculty, and boy was this a good time to be hiring. With those other schools taking themselves out of the market with their hiring freezes, we were able to hire twenty absolutely top rate people that we might not have gotten otherwise.
Spreading the lack of wealth around benefited the students and the university as a whole. And in a non-financial way, it also benefited the faculty whose pay had been frozen.

And about those new faculty, he was right, at least according to my informant, a sophomore at the university. Last weekend, he went to a panel discussion that included one of them, and he was so impressed that he decided on the spot to try to take courses with her.

*I wish I could quote the lines verbatim. This president is just an excellent speaker – part scholar, part stand-up.

Comments Galore

November 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post brought an unusually high number of comments for this blog, most of them not highly complimentary. But for the most part, the commenters and I agreed on the basic idea that was at issue. I phrased it offensively: using a gun to stop someone else from doing something you don’t like. There’s another way to phrase it. As I said in the original post, “Gun advocates put this in terms of self-defense.” Oh boy, did they. Check out the comments.

I also said that distrust of the government was a common theme. The comments also bear this out. At a minimum, commenters did not trust the government to protect anyone from criminals. They seem to distrust government in other ways as well.

So we agreed on what guns do. The smidgen of disagreement arises over whether guns galore is a good idea. The commenters seem to be united in their certainty. I am less so. I just have these gnawing thoughts that allowing anyone and everyone to buy this kind of weaponry might not be an unmitigated good. I don’t know the Texas law and how it works in practice, but my guess is that Hasan could have made his purchases even if he had not been in the military. If any disturbed, angry, jihad-minded nut could have walked into Guns Galore and come out armed to the teeth, that gives me cause for concern.

The problem is not that gun owners are “psychotic killers on power trips,” as one commenter interpreted my post. The problem is that psychotic killers on power trips have no trouble becoming gun owners. Their massacres, not to mention the individual shootings, are a very high price to pay.

Another commenter made a comparison with the UK. Here’s the most recent info I could find (here)
The murder rate in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years, with 648 homicides recorded in 2008/09 – 136 fewer than the year before. Home Office statisticians said the drop was "not a blip".

Annual crime figures published yesterday show the number of murders and manslaughters and infanticides fell to a level not seen since 1989.
There was a significant further fall in gun crime with the number of incidents involving a firearm down by 17% to 8,184. The number of fatal shootings fell from 53 to 38.
That works out to a rate of 1.4 - 1.5 murders per 100,000 population. The rate in the US last year was more than triple that – 5.4 per 100,000.

The CDC report mentioned by another commenter does say that there is not enough evidence to show that gun laws are effective in reducing violence. That may mean merely that the gun laws we have don’t really reduce the flow of guns, especially to those who are most likely to misuse them. Or, as the CDC says in a Rumsfeld-like utterance, absence of evidence for violence reduction is not evidence of the absence of violence reduction. The effect may be there, but the difficulties of doing this kind of research make it very hard to find.

Finally, one commenter wrote of guns as a means of “punishment to defectors.”
Guns are the means to--if necessary--to punish defectors (criminals) within a population of cooperators (law-abiding citizens) as a means of maintaining the trust required for other-wise costly altruism.

It's also a probably factor in out of control crime-rates in cities. Not so much the loss of altruism at the individual level, but the inability for local populations to maintain an ability to promote social norms regarding trust and altruism.
That’s an interesting point, and I have a vague memory of seeing some lab-experiment studies on it. I don’t know of any real-world data. (It may well exist, but I’m just not up on this literature.) Usually, it’s the government that punishes defectors. Where the government cannot fulfill that function, altruism and trust break down. But I don’t see how individual gun ownership – self-defense – replaces governmental control. The more likely solution to the government’s failure would be vigilantism – private, but collective, punishment of defectors.

Thanks for all the comments, guys. I hadn’t known about LiveJournal – what it is or how it works. I’ll have to check it out.

The Philosophy of the Gun

November 10, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Guns Galore. The name might be emblematic of the US as a whole, but it’s merely the name of the store where Maj. Hasan plunked down his $1,100 and walked out with his brand new
Hekstra FN Herstal 5.7mm and several 20-round magazines.

At first, I thought that gun control was irrelevant in this case because Maj. Hasan was member of the US Army, and no law could deny a gun to a member of that category. But I was wrong. The murder weapon was not an Army firearm. It was privately acquired. Maj. Hasan was able to get his gun because he was a member of another category for whom getting guns is rarely a problem: people in Texas (also a few dozen other states.)

Maj. Hasan may have been a Muslim first and an American second, he may have practiced an extreme form of a foreign religion, he may have been psychologically unstable. But in at least one way, he was as normal and American as Charlton Heston: he believed in the philosophy of the gun.

The philosophy of the gun is simple: if someone does something you don’t like, shoot them. If you can’t shoot that person, shoot someone like them.

If you don’t like abortions, shoot an abortion doctor . If you don’t like an anti-abortion protester , shoot him. If you feel wronged by people at work, go postal. If a woman has rejected you, shoot her. If you can’t find a woman who actually rejected you, shoot several women. Don’t like the kids in your school? Shoot them. Feel you’ve been dissed by someone from another gang, shoot them.

Gun advocates put this in terms of self-defense. If you have gun, you can defend yourself, your property, and your loved ones from people who are doing something you don’t like. Which is just another way of saying that if you don’t like what the person is doing, shoot them. The only difference is that such shootings might be legal.

The question is this: whose decision is it? Who gets to decide whether shooting the bad person is OK? Most societies restrict this decision to law enforcement, to agents of the state. If someone is doing something you think they shouldn’t be doing, something that should be stopped right now, you call the cops.* That’s true to a great extent in the US as well.

But distrust of the government is a theme that runs through US political culture. So we make it easy for any person to take that power literally into his (or her) own hands. The law might punish you afterwards, if you are still alive. But until then, you are the law, and the decision over the use of deadly force is yours. Gun manufacturers might just as well advertise: “We provide, you decide.”

Fortunately, most gun owners never shoot their guns at other people. The vast majority don’t use guns to express their anger or their religious and political beliefs. But for the small minority who do want to use guns in that way, wide open lies the door of Guns Galore.

* Police scholars will recognize this as Egon Bittner’s definition of the police.The title of his article “The Capacity to Use Force as the Core of the Police Role” states it formally. More colloquially, Bittner says that the police are who we call when “something ought not to be happening about which something ought to be done right NOW!”

Gemeinschaft and Ge-Sellout

November 7, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gemeinschaft is usually translated as community. But, I tell my students, we use community in many ways that would have old Tönnies spinning (spönning?) in his grave. Sometimes it refers to the political boundaries of a town. It sounds better to talk about “the Hohokus community” than merely “people who live in Hohokus.” (Or does it? Maybe there’s nothing you can do with a name like Hohokus.)

We also use community to mean people who share some demographic characteristic. “The African American community.” Forty million people spread over the entire country hardly gets at the kind of Gemeinschaft Tönnies had in mind – a group based on mutual trust, on permanence, intimacy, personal involvement.

But what about this, taken from Friday’s New York Times story about an insider trading scheme? Traders used advance information on mergers and acquisitions to make millions of dollars. Some of the schemers were caught, pled guilty, and in turn sold out their former partners or employers. The arrests and charges are rolling in.
The charges, against 14 money managers, lawyers and other investors, followed the arrest last month of a hedge fund billionaire, Raj Rajaratnam, on charges that he had profited from inside information.
But here’s what caught my attention.
The complaints represent a significant expansion of a case that has gripped the hedge fund community.
What kind of community is this, I wondered, this hedge fund community?

Maybe it really is a Gemeinschaft-like world where everyone knows everyone else, like a family, like “Cheers.” What one person can say to another is determined by the individuals in the immediate situation, not by abstract, bureaucratic rules  – like the rules that prohibit insider tip-offs. Can we blame it on Gemeinschaft? I doubt it, but I haven’t searched the literature.

Are there any ethnographies of Hedgefundland?


November 7, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog has a small but select readership. I have data to back that up – at least the part about small. I use Google Analytics to track the number of visits. On Monday, the counter seemed to go haywire. When I checked it late in the afternoon, the number of visits was about 600,.

The mystery was soon solved since Google Analytics also shows where people had linked in from*. In this case it was Boing Boing. It had listed my post with the four charts on healthcare costs, and the hits just kept on coming. By day’s end, the total was nearly 2600. That’s what being Boinged will do.

The effect wears off quickly, though not as quickly as the euphoria.

*Google Analytics is not entirely trustworthy on this. It showed a dozens of referrals from a site for forums devoted exclusively to discussions of the Mazda Miata. Also several from a site which has items only about the making of wooden boats.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Meltdown

November 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The financial system nearly collapsed,” he said, “because smart guys had started working on Wall Street.”
Calvin Trillin in an op-ed in the Times a couple of weeks ago, supposedly quoting some guy he meets in a bar. But Trillin was writing as a humorist, not a reporter (he does both very well), and I strongly suspect that his informant in the midtown bar was just something he made up for laughs, from the 1950s Brooks Brothers clothes to the theory about the financial debacle.

The theory goes like this: Wall Street used to be run by guys who got into decent schools because of family; they finished in the lower third of the class. Nice guys, not especially bright, and, by current standards, not especially greedy. (A certain ex-president comes to mind.) But when Wall Street started offering insanely high payoffs, the really smart guys got in – the math majors from MIT, physics Ph.D.s from CalTech.
“Did you ever hear the word ‘derivatives’?” he said. “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”
And how did that lead to calamity?
“Why do I get the feeling that there’s one more step in this scenario?” I said.

“Because there is,” he said. “When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was. All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich, and they had gotten to like that. All of that easy money had eaten away at their sense of enoughness.”
Funny, right? It interrelates some stylized facts that aren’t really related – math geniuses replacing pleasant college grads; the spread of greed; Wall Street collapsing. That’s what humor writing often does – stretches the plausible till it becomes unrealistic. And besides, the theory fits only one instance – the current one.

Generally speaking, you don’t turn to NBER* papers for a good chuckle or for confirmation of humorous speculation. I doubt that Calvin Trillin has a stack of these papers on his nightstand. I certainly don’t. But via a link at Brad DeLong’s blog) I found this abstract of one published last December:
We use detailed information about wages, education and occupations to shed light on the evolution of the U.S. financial sector over the past century. We uncover a set of new, interrelated stylized facts: financial jobs were relatively skill intensive, complex, and highly paid until the 1930s and after the 1980s, but not in the interim period. We investigate the determinants of this evolution and find that financial deregulation and corporate activities linked to IPOs and credit risk increase the demand for skills in financial jobs. Computers and information technology play a more limited role. Our analysis also shows that wages in finance were excessively high around 1930 and from the mid 1990s until 2006. [emphasis added] --Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef, “Wages and Human Capital

The same thing was going on in the 1920s too. Wall Street jobs were skill intensive, complex, and highly paid. And look what happened in 1929.  ’Taint funny McGee.

*National Bureau of Economic Research

Top of the Charts

November 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In case you wondered about what we in the US pay for health care compared with those unfree unfortunates who suffer under various forms of socialized medicine, here are some graphs showing the advantages of what Republicans here tell us is “the best health care system in the world.”

The graphs are from the International Federation of Health Plans. I’ve selected only four – to show the relative costs* of
  • an office visit
  • a day in the hospital
  • a common procedure (childbirth without complications)
  • a widely used drug (Lipitor)
(Click on a chart to see a larger version.)

You can download all the charts here, but be warned: it gets boring. We’re number one in every chart, at least in this one category of how much we shell out.

Since we have the best health care in the world, this must mean that you get what you pay for. Our Lipitor must be four to ten times as good as the Lipitor that Canadians take.

*Udate: As Phenompbg says in his comment below, these amounts are what providers are paid by governments or other insurers, not what the patient pays, which in many Eurpean countries is essentially nothing. See the footnotes for the tables in the original document. Or look at the comments on this at Boing Boing, a discussion which is remarkably civil (do they monitor comments?).

Hat tip: Ezra Klein.

It’s Your Funeral

November 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Current funeral fashions . . . illustrate the sad truth that, as a society, Americans are no longer sure what to do with our dead.” So says theologian Thomas Long in an All Souls’ Day op-ed in the Times.

He mentions some of these fashions:
coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; “virtual cemeteries” with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded.
If you don’t believe him, take a look on line, here for example.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

But the source of this diverse emporium of funeral stuff isn’t our uncertainty over what to do with our dead. Instead, it rises at the intersection of two cherished American ideals: capitalism and individualism.

The American tendency to turn ceremonial occasions into commerce is certainly not news. As Robert Klein said of Washington’s Birthday (back when there still was a Washington’s Birthday and not the generic Presidents’ Day), “I’m sure the father of our country would be pleased to know that his birthday is being honored with a mattress sale.”

Even our most solemn moments, funerals, are opportunities to cash in, as was noted long ago by two Brits – Evelyn Waugh in a comic novel (The Loved One, 1948), and Jessica Mitford in a book of serious reporting (The American Way of Death, 1963).

The combination of capitalism with our value on individualism and freedom of choice gives us in funerals what it gives us in everything from automobiles to breakfast cereal: a wide variety of products.

The loser here is tradition. But tradition has never held much power in the US. “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t win many arguments here, especially not when it goes up against rational utilitarianism (“but it would be cheaper and quicker to do it this way”). Tradition is also losing out to self-fulfillment and self-expression. Tradition emphasizes the community – past, present, and future – over the individual. It links the individual with past generations and future generations. In most societies, funerals emphasize the primacy of the group and celebrate the deceased as a member of that group, whatever his particular individual quirks might have been.

The new look in funerals celebrates the individual for precisely those things that made him an individual – his particular interests – even though these have nothing to do with the traditions of the community.
One family asked for a memorial service on the 18th green of their father’s favorite golf course, “because that’s where dad was instead of church on Sunday mornings, so why are we going to church,” Mr. Duffey said. “Line up his buddies, and hit balls.” Another wanted his friends to ride Harleys down his favorite road, scattering his ashes. [From an article in the Times four years ago.]
The same trend has transformed other religious events like confirmations (“Select a confirmation party theme that celebrates the guest of honors hobbies or passions”) and of course, bar mitzvahs.
a beach themed party will put everyone in a tropical mood. Decorate with orange, pink and green lighting and maybe even some tiki torches! String tiny lanterns across the ceiling and use brightly colored flowers in vases for the centerpieces. Everyone will enjoy a limbo contest especially when its played along with some Hawaiian music.
(And I was worried that the previous post’s picture of a Weimaraner wearing a tallith and yarmulke might have been seen as sacrilegious. What was I thinking?)