Careers Night

February 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The sociology department held its first annual Careers Night on Tuesday. Or maybe semi-annual. Or every month. It depends on student response. Prof. Yasemin Besen organized the evening, which feature two recent MSU grads – Drew Jorgensen and Alis Drumgo. Drew went into the job market after getting her BA; Alis went to graduate school.

It was obvious that they both love what they’re doing. They also had a lot of good advice.

Drew spoke first. Here’s my summary: a BA in sociology doesn’t really prepare you for anything specific, but it’s a great start on many different kinds of jobs.
Sociology gives you two things that are particularly valuable:
  • Knowledge of basic research design and statistics. (It’s surprising how few people out there can do this sort of thing well)
  • A sociological framework for understanding work settings and institutions and the broader forces that shape what’s going on.
Drew works for new private school in New York’s financial district. She started as a kindergarten teacher, but now, she’s in their admissions department. She was able to move up thanks to sociology. The school needed research and data on the kids who were applying and their families. Drew stepped up because she had more experience than anyone there with getting data, organizing it, and analyzing it.

What else is important? Networking and enthusiasm. Employers are looking a person who is passionate about what she does. Tailor your resume to the job. Make it look as though what that employer does is what you are passionate about. Drew has at least two different resumes.

Alis is in graduate school. He’ll get his MA from the Urban and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School (part of Rutgers). He also works for Catholic Charities as a Housing Resource Coordinator, working on issues related to foreclosure, affordable home ownership, and rent control.

Here are some of his suggestions about grad school.
  • Apply to lots of schools, even ones you don’t think you can get into.
  • Take the GREs. If you don’t do well, take a Kaplan course, and take them again.
  • E-mail faculty at a school you are interested in. Explain to them how you are interested in their research and how your research ideas relate to theirs. This might help get you an advocate who can help you during the admissions process.
  • Take the papers you write seriously. You may well have to submit them in a graduate school application. If your professors gave yousuggestions on how to improve your papers, make those changes even if the course is over. A good piece of written work can really help your chances of getting into graduate school.
  • If you’re accepted, negotiate with the school over financial aid. If you’re accepted at more than one school, play them off against each other.
Drew and Alis spoke with students informally after their presentations, and they’ll be glad to answer further questions if you e-mail them.

The Association

February 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
researchers found that teenagers who preferred popular songs with degrading sexual references were more likely to engage in intercourse or in pre-coital activities.
That’s from the lead of an article passed around on a campus list here. America’s teens are having sex, and music is taking the rap.

I don’t know how far back in history this idea goes – blaming sex on music – maybe to the ancient Athenians. In the past century in the US, we’ve gone from ragtime to rap, each generation worried that the raunchiness of the music and lyrics their kids were listening to was leading those kids to sinful pleasures.

If each generation was right about the increase over the previous generation in a continually upward curve, kids today would have run out of hours in the day to have sex or “pre-coital activities” (just which base are they talking about anyway, and why didn’t we ever have an equivalent of shortstop?).

Now we have Research and Science to justify the fears about music. Note the clear cause-effect relation implied in that first sentence. Kids who listened to nasty music were more likely.

Here’s what the article* actually said
high exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex in popular music was independently associated with higher levels of sexual behavior. In fact, exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex was one of the strongest associations with sexual activity
The emphasis is my own addition because somebody here is missing a point that any intro sociology student should have learned: correlation is not cause.

Back in the 60s there was a rock group called The Association. (Anybody else remember “Along Comes Mary”?) I think they chose that name to distinguish themselves from another group, The Causation.

With Association, you don’t know what’s causing what. The message of that first sentence is that listening to those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad lyrics makes kids go out and have sex. But an equally plausible explanation is that kids who like sex in real life also like it in their music.

Even if there were a time factor with exposure to the nasty music coming first, you still couldn't conclude causation. All you could say is that kids who like to listen to dirty lyrics when they're young grow up to like doing dirty things when they get a little older.

And oh, don't bother Googling for The Causation or their greatest hits. I just made that part up.

* “Exposure to Sexual Lyrics and Sexual Experience Among Urban Adolescents,” by Brian A. Primack, MD, EdM, MS, Erika L. Douglas, MS, Michael J. Fine, MD, MSc, and Madeline A. Dalton, PhD. It appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 36, Issue 4 (April 2009).

Desperately Seeking Sought-After

February 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

What does he want in this relationship, and what does she want?

A week ago, Gwen at Sociological Images posted this photo of an ad for a dating service that she found in an in-flight magazine.

Click on the image to see it in readable size.

The ad doesn’t give any prices, nor does their Website, but presumably, this is an expensive service, at least for men (“Women join for free”). But it’s the male/female differences that have nothing to do with cost that are more interesting. For example, the ad thinks its important to tell women that the service’s male clients are
  • selective
  • eligible
  • highly educated
  • commitment-minded
“Eligible” and “commitment-minded” don’t appear on the men’s side of the ad. My guess is that these are code words to tell women that the guys are not married and not out just for sex. Apparently that’s a concern for women (but not men), perhaps a concern born out of experience.

The ad for men lists in parentheses the criteria the guys might use – her religion, her age, etc., and the one I find most puzzling as a variable, her level of emotional stability. (“I’m looking for someone who’s 26-32, really pretty, college grad, and mildly neurotic.”)

The ad assures men that the women on the service are
  • highly attractive
  • intelligent
  • sought-after
One of the commenters on Gwen’s post, someone with inside knowledge about the dating service industry, said that in fact the top criteria for nearly all men are simply a woman’s looks and weight, and for nearly all women, a man’s education and income.

Probably so. But what about “sought-after”? It’s one of only three things listed as making a woman desirable. But why? “Sought-after” implies that in deciding who they find attractive, men submit their feelings to a majority vote. For them, love is based not on the special chemistry between two particular people but on the consensus of what others think or on universalistic criteria. If lots of other guys want a woman, she must be the right woman for you. You choose a woman the same way you choose a car (“Car & Driver’s Top Rated” “America’s #1 Selling Luxury Model”).

In a similar vein, the Website for men equates finding love with career achievement. At the top of the men’s page is this headline

While You Drive Companies Forward, We Help You Succeed In Your Personal Life

It’s all about success. The women’s page has nothing like that. For women, the top headline is

Isn't It Time You Met The Real Love Of Your Life?

That love-of-your-life line appears on the men’s page as well, but at the bottom. As in the magazine ad, the Web page also tells women, but not men, that “you have nothing to lose and a wonderful man to gain.” I can see why men have something to lose – they’re the ones putting up money for this service – but why do only women have a wonderful someone to gain?

The Story in Pictures - But Which Story?

February 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

A couple of days after the election, back in November (how long ago that now seems), I posted a picture that I’d found on Ezra Klein’s blog at The American Prospect , and I urged readers to go there for the full sequence of photos that tell a wonderful story.

I was wrong about who took the photos. But more puzzling, I’m now not sure whether the story told by the photos is accurate.

I had thought that Klein himself had taken the photos. He hadn’t. He had gotten them from the blog of April Winchell who has a funny blog but earns a living mostly with her voice – radio, voice-overs (what else would you expect from the daughter of Paul Winchell*?). But Winchell didn’t take the photos either (she’s in LA, the rally was in Virginia), and apparently she didn’t know who did. But after the pictures had been sped around the Internet, appearing in places much more frequented than the Socioblog, she got an e-mail from the photographer, a 17-year-old girl named Nida Vidutis.

She wrote about what led up to the photos, and her account differs from Ezra Klein’s. Here’s what Ezra says:
here were two small children, both on their father's backs. At the beginning, they were about 10 feet from each other, staring anxiously at the stage. One was black, the other white. The little white kid had an Obama sign, the little black kid didn't. They took stock of each other. Soon, the little white kid leaned all the way over to try and give his sign to his new friend. The fathers, noticing, moved closer to each other. And the kids held the sign together. I had forgotten my camera, and was begging others to take pictures.
Here’s Nida’s account.
And there was this kid at the rally, I think he was about six years old. He was black, and sitting up on his dad’s shoulders. He had an Obama-Biden sign, and for what I swear was about 3 hours straight, he held the sign straight up, with the most determined look I had ever seen on a six-year-old’s face. And then this other kid appeared, a white kid, on his dad’s shoulders. And all of a sudden they were sharing the sign back and forth. And then, then they held it together. And…it was so simple, SO simple. Yet, at the same time, it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and the great part was that they had no idea what they were doing. Everyone looked at them, people took pictures, but they were just holding a sign. “Little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls…” It was so simple.
Klein’s story is more consistent with the photos (you can find the full sequence of six photos on Nida's page at Flickr). So who do we believe – the photos or the photographer?

*The voice of Jerry Mahoney or Tigger, depending on how old you are.

Marriage and the Family

February 21, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Last movie post before the Oscars on Sunday night).

In rituals, a group presents an idealized version of itself. Consequently, movies about weddings often contrast this ideal version with the less-than-ideal reality of the family. Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration (Denmark) is a particularly grim example. Rachel Getting Married does something similar in upscale Connecticut (it was shot in Fairfield). But Rachel Getting Married hardly seems like an American movie. It’s not just that nobody blows up a helicopter. There’s not much that we would call plot. Nobody’s trying to accomplish something or overcome some internal or external obstacle or solve some problem or find the right lover. There’s nobody to root for.

 Instead, Rachel Getting Married unfolds the relationships within a family – mostly two sisters and a father. Rachel is the good girl, sensible and stable. Kym (Anne Hathaway, nominated for an Oscar) is beautiful, narcissistic, destructive, and self-destructive. Kym gets furloughed from rehab to go to Rachel’s wedding. The family revisit old and current conflicts and emotions, especially those surrounding the death of their baby brother Ethan ten or so years earlier. (Kym, age 16 and high on Percocet, driving Ethan home, lost control of the car, drove into a lake, and Ethan drowned.) Rachel gets married (in a much too long wedding scene), and Kym goes back to rehab. That’s it, more or less – two sisters, a past, a wedding, and not much plot.

I kept worrying that the film would have Kym try to seduce Rachel’s fiancé, but mercifully it stayed away from such Hollywood cliches. In fact, the traditional plot elements, such as they are, weaken the film. For example, the movie flirts with the theme of the 800-pound family secret – the one that everyone spends a lot of energy pretending not to see until it becomes unavoidable. (A previous post on this theme is here.) Have they not talked about the death of Ethan many times before? It flirts also with the pop-psych idea that if the characters can just discover or admit what really happened on that fateful day, all will be resolved. In this case, it turns out that it’s all Mom’s fault. But the film would be better if it weren’t so heavy-handed about this and just let Mom’s character – cold, selfish – unfold without making it the Answer. 

Still, this is a movie well worth seeing.

Police Intelligence - One MO Time

February 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jenn Lena links to this BBC story about cops in Northern Ireland and the mysterious and ubiquitous driver, Prawo Jazdy, who was ticketed all over the country.

There are a couple of sociological aspects here. The economic expansion in the Republic of Ireland, which created lots of jobs, drew many Poles (with their prawo jazdys). Apparently that spilled over into Northern Ireland as well. Now that the Celtic Tiger isn’t roaring, many of these immigrants are returning to Poland.

The story is also a reflection on the parochialism of the police, so here’s my anecdote. When I was in college, I rode into Cambridge one day with a friend from St. Louis. He had a VW with Missouri plates. When we came back to the car, the parking meter had expired, and there was a ticket on the windshield. He handed it to me and said, “Throw it away.”

“But they’ll write to your state’s DMV and track you down.” (This was pre-Internet, pre 2-letter postal code.)

“Look,” he said, taking the ticket and pointing to the box marked “state” next to the box for the license number. The cop had written “MISS.” Any tracking inquiries would get sent to Mississippi.

“They always do it,” he said, crumpling the ticket and tossing it into the trash can.

Innocents Abroad

February 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

And speaking of stereotypes in movies, Penelope Cruz is nominated for an Oscar for her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She’s a wild artist – hot-tempered, passionate, impulsive, sexy, sensual, dangerous – oh those Spaniards, those Latin types.

The movie is based on the stereotypical contrast between Americans and Europeans, and when it comes to love, it’s like soccer – the Americans don’t really know what they are doing, while the Europeans are on very familiar turf.

Two American girls in Spain – Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is sensible and careful, engaged to a good prospect; Cristina (Scarlett Johanssen) is more daring. But neither seems capable of any depth in a relationship. Sex yes (at least for Cristina) but no passion. They don’t know what they want. They don’t even know what they can want.

The other Americans, the older couple the girls are staying with, have a marriage that is emotionally empty. The woman is disappointed, unfulfilled, stuck with a husband who seems to care only about business and golf. (It’s pretty clear that he represents what Vicky’s fiancé will become.)

Then the girls meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), and they both eventually wind up sleeping with him – first Cristina, who moves in with him, then Vicky, who now understands genuine passionate involvement, even if it is fleeting.

Penelope Cruz is Juan Antonio’s ex-wife. She enters the picture about halfway through, and their tempestuous relationship becomes the center of the film. She’s crazy – she has tried to kill Juan Antonio and she has tried to kill herself – and Cruz’s performance is appropriately and hilariously over the top (do they give Oscars for this sort of thing?). But the point is that even though the Spaniards are crazy in their passions, they are still aware of their own feelings in a way that the Americans are not.

I said that the basis of the movie was the contrast between Americans and Europeans. The other basis for the movie is Truffaut, especially “Jules and Jim– friends who love the same person yet remain friends. The parallels to Truffaut are obvious if sometimes annoying – the extensive use of a narrator, the impulsive, dangerous woman who looks good in men’s hats, and probably others I missed.  (The bicycle rides on dirt roads are from an early Truffaut short, “Les Mistons.”)

A Book by Its Cover, A Movie by Its Poster

February 14, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Whose Heart Is in the Right Place?

You know this movie without even seeing it, don’t you? And that may be the problem. The message in the poster is already raising hackles. The movie’s not scheduled for release until July, but Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, knows that it’s a bad film.
Katherine Heigel[’s] . . . talents are being wasted on this shit. . . .

But obviously, this poster just about beats all. It’s the classic modern attempt to mollify women about vicious gender stereotyping
Marcotte already knows who the characters are – their motivations and the assumptions that drive the plot. She even knows how the film ends. (Duh – it’s a romantic comedy.)

Marcotte agrees with the movie’s title that the stereotype is ugly. It’s the truth part where they disagree. Of course, even if the idea in the poster were generally true, Marcotte would still object to its “vicious gender stereotyping.” Other stereotyping is O.K. It’s only this particular stereotype that outrages her. She herself has no problem stereotyping the people who go to movies like this. (“The audience for those has been whittled down to women who buy into this sexist crap, probably because they live in communities where they really don’t get much respect.”)

Lisa at Sociological Images also blogs this poster in terms of stereotypes. The trouble with stereotypes is that even when they may be generally accurate, they do not apply to all people. This poster tells us to think in terms of stereotypes. It doesn’t give us people. It gives us those universal figures that are designed explicitly not to look like real people. They’re intended to be recognizable the world over for a single characteristic – gender – so that we don’t go into the wrong rest room at the airport.

For all I know, “The Ugly Truth” may turn out to be as bad as Marcotte says. But maybe not. It might wind up giving the characters a more realistic and complicated relationship to this conflict between lust and love. (Interestingly, two recent films that used simple, monochromatic, comic-book-like drawings – “Persepolis” and “Waltzing with Bashir” – were intellectually complex and challenging.) With any luck, the characters in the movie will seem more like people than like stick figures. And we’ll get a different poster.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Getting Tough on Juvenile Crime

February 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The conservative view on courts and corrections advocates several ideas, among them
  • courts should hand out harsher punishments
  • private, for-profit jails are preferable to state-run facilities
  • defendants have too many procedural rights (in the case of juveniles, these unececessary and deleterious rights include the right to counsel)
These three ideas, put into practice, came together nicely in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Judges Plead Guilty in Scheme to Jail Youths for Profit
By Ian Urbina and Sean D. Hamill

At worst, Hillary Transue thought she might get a stern lecture when she appeared before a judge for building a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She was a stellar student who had never been in trouble, and the page stated clearly at the bottom that it was just a joke.

Instead, the judge sentenced her to three months at a juvenile detention center on a charge of harassment.

She was handcuffed and taken away as her stunned parents stood by.

“I felt like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare,” said Hillary, 17, who was sentenced in 2007. “All I wanted to know was how this could be fair and why the judge would do such a thing.”

The answers became a bit clearer on Thursday as the judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and a colleague, Michael T. Conahan, appeared in federal court in Scranton, Pa., to plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care.

Full story here.

Stops - In the Name of the Law

February 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

On TV and in the movies, street cops rarely make a mistake. They have a sixth sense that they develop from years of experience on the streets. It tells them who’s dangerous and who’s not, who’s a criminal and who’s not, who’s holding (drugs, weapons) and who’s not.

On the real streets, things don’t always turn out that way. A few months ago, I posted some data from a study of the LAPD showing that the blue sixth sense was especially faulty when white cops suspected non-whites.

Now we have data on street stops by the NYPD. It’s not exactly the stuff of television.

(I know there’s a Pac-Man joke lurking here, but I just can’t come up with it.)

Of the roughly 530,000 stops, 465,000 led to no further official action. Only 12% led to an arrest or a summons.

No wonder the NYPD wanted to keep the numbers secret, as they had up until seven years ago. Now the law requires them to publish the information – a law passed in the wake of a celebrated case of New York police killing an innocent man (four cops fired 41 bullets at him).

Elkhart Economics - A View from the Sax Section

February 10, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

President Obama spoke in Elkhart, Indiana yesterday trying to rally support for his stimulus package. He chose Elkhart because unemployment there has risen rapidly of late. Especially hard hit is the town’s main industry – RVs.

I don’t keep up to date on Indiana economics. When I heard the name Elkhart, I thought of my saxophone.

When I was a in fifth or sixth grade, I started on sax. I used a school-owned instrument. The school system also employed a man who went from school to school giving lessons (Hi, Mr. Prestia, wherever you are). He advised my parents to buy me a good horn, and they did – a Selmer Balanced Action, one of the last ones made. (Selmer was about to come out with an improved model, the Mark VI). Every so often I would look at the fancy engraving on the bell of the horn – the flowery patterns, the name Selmer, and Elkhart, Indiana.

In junior high, I played in the band, and somewhere along the line I noticed that a lot of the other horns – trumpets and saxophones, flutes, baritone horns, clarinets – were also made in Elkhart, even those that were other brands – Buescher, Armstrong, Conn,* and others. It seemed strange to me at the time that all these companies would choose to set up shop in the same small Indiana town that nobody ever heard of.

Economists have a word for this – agglomeration. Usually, it refers to the clustering of industries in a city. I know that in New York if you want to shop for musical instruments, you go to 48th Street. That’s where all the music stores are. Jewelers are on W. 47th and on Canal St. Even wholesalers cluster together too – clothing and accessories in the garment district, cardboard boxes in the west twenties, and so on. But it holds for cities too – Akron was tires, Detroit is (was?) cars. And Elkhart was band instruments.

What happened to Selmer and Conn and the rest in the decades since I got my alto parallels the curve of other industries. Some of the horn makers were bought up and absorbed into larger companies. These companies eventually sent the manufacturing out of the US to countries where labor was cheaper (the Elkhart workers were highly skilled, and they were unionized) – Mexico and Asia. At the same time, the Japanese developed their own high quality horns. Some pros have put down their Selmers and are playing horns made by Yamaha, which along with Yanagisawa also makes solid mid-range instruments. And now even the Japanese saxes may be manufactured in China.

*In the 1950s, Conn ads featured a picture of Robert Preston, who played Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man (on Broadway and in the movie) in his bandmaster’s uniform with the caption, “The Music Man is a Conn man.” Nice pun. But I always wondered why that shows song Gary, Indiana” wasn't Elkhart, Indiana.”

Obama - President of the World

February 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I heard that phrase – “Obama, president of the world”– on some newscast the day after the inauguration. The speaker was some ordinary person in some foreign country. Was it Nigeria, Thailand, Moldova? It could have been anywhere.

A few days later, I got an e-mail from a friend
Greetings from Borobudur. Here in Indonesia, it is once again nice to be a white face. Given our limited Bahasa Indonesian, the conversation is:
Indo: American?
Us: Yes
Indo: OBAMA!! (Big smile and a thumbs up.)
And in France – France!– Parisians demonstrating at the huge general strike last week, were carrying signs like this.

How much the image of the US has changed in such a short time. George W. Bush was probably the most disliked person in the world, Obama the most beloved. Yet both embody important aspects of American culture. Bush represented American independence and individualism, qualities that, for better or worse, also imply a disdain for external restraints like the UN or the World Court. Obama represents American openness, diversity, and mobility – the idea that the child of an immigrant can rise to the top levels of the society.

Use It and/or Lose It

February 7, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nearly $4 million dollars – $3.8 million to be precise. That’s the current bid for the virginity of a 22-year-old who goes by the nom de vierge Natalie Dylan. She was also recently offered a live tiger in exchange for the obviously precious commodity. (It’s a tough choice, I know, but I bet she’ll go with the cash.)

She refers to her auction as “a sociological experiment” (with experiments like this, who needs grants?), and one thing it’s already shown is the different ways it can be construed. Dylan herself styles it as feminist:
the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with men. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism.
Brooke Harrington at Economic Sociology is skeptical. Putting your hymen on e-bay doesn’t subvert or even challenge the patriarchal system, but merely exploits it.

But why is it worth so much?

The evolutionary psychology people have an answer, and it’s exactly what you’d expect. Men value female virginity for the same reason they value female chastity and marital fidelity: without those, a man can’t be sure whether it’s really his genes that are being passed on to the next generation.

“Virginity and chastity in pre-menopausal women is fiercely guarded and socially hallowed the world over. Why? To minimise wasted paternal investment.” (Source here.)

The trouble with this idea is that “world over” part isn’t exactly correct. Hunter-gatherers – and that’s what we’ve been for most of the time that our psyches have been evolving on this planet – aren’t much concerned with virginity. That concern is something that arises (and turns into something of an obsession) with the transition to agricultural and pastoral societies. The pastoralist Biblical Hebrews provide an excellent example.
But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die, (Deut. 22: 20-21)
And we thought wedding nights in our society could be problematic.*

The high valuation on virginity seems to be part of a cluster of customs found where we also find high levels of inequality, especially inequality between sexes. Those hunter-gatherers besides not worrying much about virginity are also famously egalitarian. And the industrial societies today that are least concerned with virginity are the more egalitarian ones. Like Finland.

From an article by evolutionary psychologist David Buss.

* I wonder how all those Evangelicals and born-agains – the people who quote Deuteronomy to justify discrimination against homosexuals – I wonder how they react to the lack of virginity of brides in their communities. I haven't heard too may calls for stoning (See my earlier post on Bristol Palin.)

From the blogs I glanced at, Christians seem predictably torn about Natalie Dylan's marketing her virginity. On the one hand, she provides confirmation that virginity still has great value. But they really don’t like a girl actually cashing in that value rather than giving it away.

Keynes from My Father

February 4, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Did the War Effort – massive government spending for World War II – bring about the end of the Depression?

That’s not just an academic question for economic historians. The answer lies at the basis of ideas about what to do now in the current economic crisis. Keynesians answer the question with a resounding “yes” and advocate massive government spending. Other economists aren’t so sure. Here’s Tyler Cowen on a recent segment of This American Life devoted to Keynes and his legacy. (The segment on Keynes begins about 36 minutes into the podcast. The quote from Tyler comes about nine minutes after that.)
World War II was a time of economic misery. There was low consumption, there was rationing. Times were tough. It was a continuation of the Great Depression. The numbers for GDP were high because we were making tanks. But it didn’t make people better off. . . . The war made the Depression worse in terms of real standard of living.
I’m not an economist, and I’m not a historian, but I can make one small contribution to this discussion – my own bit of economic history. My father’s really.

“How did you make so much money in the steel business,” I asked him once. He had worked for a small steel company in Chicago, and in 1942 they sent him to head their office in Pittsburgh. Actually, I think he was the Pittsburgh office. It was a small company. They were steel brokers, middle men* between the mills (still in Pittsburgh in those days) and the fabricators.

“Well,” he explained, “a lot of the people in the steel business in those days weren’t very smart.” I asked him what he meant. “OK, here’s an example. You know that steel was rationed. But towards the end of the war, the mills were making more steel than they could sell to the government. Still, because of rationing, they weren’t allowed to sell it all. But the rule was that if a civilian fabricator placed an order, you could fill one-third of it immediately; then you had to wait for approval before you could fill the other two-thirds.

“So I asked some of the salesman, what if we tell the fabricators to place an order for three times as much as they need. We fill the one-third right away, and then later they cancel the rest of the order.

“They thought that was probably illegal, so I said, ‘I’ll go ask the government office in charge of rationing.’ The other salesmen all said, “Oh God no, don’t go to them. Stay away from those guys.’

My father didn’t understand the reason for their fears, he did go to the rationing bureaucrats, and they had no objections to his idea. He wound up selling a lot of steel.

I leave it to the economists to put this in terms of government stimulus, productive capacity, rationing, and consumption. And in the end, Tyler Cowen may be right in general. All I know is that at least in the Livingston family, the last years of the war were decidedly not a continuation of the Depression. Maybe that’s why my father remained a Keynesian to the end of his life – a life which ended before the combination of high spending, high unemployment, and inflation of the late 1970s that caused mainstream economics to shoo Keynes hurriedly into the closet of failed ideas. Now, Obama and $800 billion of stimulus have opened that closet door.

* They were all men. My mother, learning the business by necessity and on the job after my father’s death, was one of the first and one of the few women in the steel business.

A Book by Its Cover

February 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have absolutely no faith in my own visual sense, and I have great admiration for people who can present ideas in purely visual form. So I was curious to see the results of The Book Design Review poll for favorite book cover of 2008.

My own favorite got runner-up. (You can find all the entries here. )

I haven’t read the book. I’d never even heard of it. (I assume it’s a Kafka version of Alain de Botton’s 1997 How Proust Can Change Your Life). But I like the visual joke.

Long ago, Harper’s agreed to publish my book on compulsive gamblers as part of a series of academic books they hoped might have crossover potential. The editor called one day to tell me that the book had already gone to the art department so it was really too late, but did I have any ideas for the cover. No, I said, as long as it’s not some socialist realist thing with cards and dice and horses floating around on it.

She called back a day or two later to say that the art department had come through with exactly what I had feared. She sent it back, and they tried again. I wasn’t delighted with the results, but
I wasn’t in a position to be picky, and I didn’t have any better ideas.

It seems to me that book covers have gotten better over the decades. In bookstores, I often find myself drawn to books just because of the title and the cover design. I want to buy half the books on the display table.

People in the business are far more critical than I am. The guy at Book Design Review posts nine different covers for recent releases of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (it’s in the public domain, and several publishers are trying to cash in on the success of the movie). Most of them, he concludes, are “pretty horrible,” and the commenters agree.