Capitalists and Cultural Capital

April 29, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

This month’s Atlantic has an important article by Simon Johnson about the financial crisis and the government’s response: “The Quiet Coup: How Bankers Seized America.” He argues that in the US, just as in emerging market nations, “the finance industry has effectively captured our government.”

Johnson alludes briefly to Bourdieu: “American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system.”

But now his fellow blogger at Baseline Scenario, James Kwak, makes the Bourdieu basis explicit.
In Distinction, Bourdieu’s best-known work, he described how economic class is reinforced by cultural capital . . . . Upper-class parents take their children to fine art museums and teach them how to talk about Rembrandt, Monet, and Picasso; later in college, job interviews, and cocktail parties, the ability to talk about Rembrandt, Monet, and Picasso is one of the markers that people use, consciously or unconsciously, to identify people as being from their own tribe.
Kwak’s ostensible starting point is a Sunday New York Times piece on Treasury secretary Tim Geithner. But Geithner is merely the most prominent example.
Geithner got the cultural education that rich people get, except instead of just going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, he was educated in the culture of Wall Street. Just like an education in art history is a marker of class distinction that is used to perpetuate class distinction, an education in modern finance is a marker of distinction that sets off those who understand the true importance of Wall Street for the American economy. As long the powerful people in Washington, including the regulators who oversee the financial industry, share that worldview, Wall Street’s power and ability to make money will be secure.

That is the importance of cultural capital.
The article and blog post should be required reading.

Freedom and War

April 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Reporters Without Borders publishes an annual index of press freedom. We Americans value freedom so highly that it has become the basis of our major operations (Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom). So you would expect the US would be right up there at the top.

But no, on the 2008 list, the US comes in ranked at #36, well behind most European countries, though not all (I’m looking at you, Italy). And there are some surprises in the Caribbean as well. Reporters in Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago are freer than their counterparts in the US.

Rank Country Note
  • 1 Iceland 1,50
  • - Luxembourg 1,50
  • - Norway 1,50
  • 4 Estonia 2,00
  • - Finland 2,00
  • - Ireland 2,00
  • 7 Belgium 3,00
  • - Latvia 3,00
  • - New Zealand 3,00
  • - Slovakia 3,00
  • - Sweden 3,00
  • - Switzerland 3,00
  • 13 Canada 3,33
  • 14 Austria 3,50
  • - Denmark 3,50
  • 16 Czech Republic 4,00
  • - Lithuania 4,00
  • - Netherlands 4,00
  • - Portugal 4,00
  • 20 Germany 4,50
  • 21 Jamaica 4,88
  • 22 Costa Rica 5,10
  • 23 Hungary 5,50
  • - Namibia 5,50
  • - United Kingdom 5,50
  • 26 Surinam 6,00
  • 27 Trinidad and Tobago 6,13
  • 28 Australia 6,25
  • 29 Japan 6,50
  • 30 Slovenia 7,33
  • 31 Cyprus 7,50
  • - Ghana 7,50
  • - Greece 7,50
  • - Mali 7,50
  • 35 France 7,67
  • 36 Bosnia and Herzegovina 8,00
  • - Cape Verde 8,00
  • - South Africa 8,00
  • - Spain 8,00
  • - Taiwan 8,00
  • - United States of America 8,00
  • 42 Macedonia 8,25
  • 43 Uruguay 8,33
  • 44 Italy 8,42
  • 45 Croatia 8,50
  • 46 Israel (Israeli territory) 8,83
(You can find the full list at the RWB Website. The Wikipedia entry is better visually.)

The index is based on things like censorship (including a measure of self-censorship), murders and threats against journalists, imprisonment of journalists, and other forms of harassment. It consists “not only of abuses attributable to the state, but also those by armed militias, clandestine organisations and pressure groups.”

RWB looks around the world and draws some conclusions about the social, political, and economic conditions that make for more or less press freedom
  1. Europe dominates the free end of the list
  2. Economic prosperity doesn’t have as large an effect as you might think. (Singapore is #144, Jamaica is #21)
  3. Democracy is good for press freedom
  4. Even in democracies, two things undermine press freedom: Corruption and War
The Iraq war, for instance. The US rank of 36 is an improvement over its 2007 rank of 48.
The release of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj after six years in the Guantanamo Bay military base contributed to this improvement.
Al Jazeera, Mr Al-Haj’s employer, is one of the three largest international news channels (BBC and CNN are the other two). But except in a couple of small media markets, it cannot be seen in the US. Maybe that’s why RWB includes measure of self-censorship, financial pressure, and the actions of non-government groups.

And if a businessman broadcasts Al Manar, the Hezbollah channel, he goes to prison for six years. Officially, this case is not about freedom of the press. The businessman’s crime was doing business with Hezbollah, a designated foreign terrorist group. I wonder how Reporters Without Borders will classify this case.

Bureaucrats and Health Care

April 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

My health care plan will make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health care insurance. His plan will . . . force families into a government-run health care system where a bureaucrat...(AUDIENCE BOOS)... where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor.(AUDIENCE BOOS)
That was John McCain addressing the Republican convention last September. It’s the official party line on health care. Bobby Jindal said the same thing in the Republican response to the State of the Union speech.
Health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients, not by government bureaucrats.
Maybe these guys never have to deal with insurance companies – like George Bush Sr. not knowing about checkout-line scanners – or maybe their non-Weberian definition of bureaucrat includes only those who work for the government.

I’ve got news for them. Insurance companies are bureaucracies. And unlike the government, they are in business to make a profit. They make a profit by taking in as much as possible in premiums and paying out as little as possible in claims.

Does this goal affect the decisions of their employees (i.e., bureaucrats)? Here’s a chart from a NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health survey.*

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

One-fourth of the people had, within the last year, experienced exactly what the Republicans are talking about: a doctor’s decision was overridden by a bureaucrat. (The 46 million Americans who have no health insurance don’t have to worry about this.)

The survey also found that the cost of medical treatment mattered.

Even among those with high incomes ($80,000 a year or more), one in eight had postponed needed care or gone without a prescribed medication.

*A copy of the report is here.

Good Cheer

April 25, 2009 Posted by Jay Livingston< On Thursday, lisa posted this ad at Sociological Images, and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times since then.
Despite Lisa’s perfectly valid critique about men and family-work, I still love this ad, and I’m not sure why. Probably because the guy’s performance has absolutely no trace of irony or role-distance. Norms of age and gender be damned, he’s just into it, whole-heartedly and unself-consciously.
We’re a bit late on this one, we sociologists. If we watched The View, we’d have picked up on it when Whoopi aired it last September. (HT Megan, who was also touched by it, probably more deeply than I was).

Have You Stopped Killing Your Spouse?

April 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Something I read in another blog sent me digging into the statistics on homicide between husbands and wives or other “intimates.” I remembered from my days in the crim biz that the US was unique in that wives here killed their husbands almost as frequently as husbands killed wives. This statistic, the “spousal rate of killing” (SROK), was introduced in a now-classic1992 article by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly. In most countries, that rate is 25-30%. In the US, Wilson and Daly pointed out, it was about 75%.

But something has happened, over the last thirty years or so (data here). And as far as I can tell from a quick search on the Internet, nobody seems to have noticed.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Between 1976 and 2005, the number of women killed by their male partners decreased by about 25%, less than the decrease in all homicides nationwide. But the number of men killed by women dropped dramatically, from 1300 to 330, a 75% decrease (since the population increased in those three decades, the change in rates is probably even greater. The SROK fell from 82% to 28%.

My Internet search for explanations was cursory at best, but it turned up nothing. I have only two ideas:

1. Men Behaving Better. Men have stopped doing those things that made women want to kill them.

I offered this explanation to two women in the Justice Studies department here. They rejected it out of hand and without comment. (Maybe they didn’t like the blaming-the-victim assumption: if women kill men, it’s because of what men do. Or maybe they were using a convenience sample of anecdotal data on men’s behavior.) One of these women, Lisa Anne Zilney, offered a counter-explanation . . .

2. Women Having Options. Women’s shelters and other facilities have given women an alternative. Without these, the only way to escape an intolerable situation at home was to get rid of the cause. Providing abused and desperate women a safe place to go saves lives – and apparently not just the lives of women.

I’m not wild about either of these explanations for the steep decline in the SROK (and as I recall, Wilson and Daly weren’t wild about any of their explanations of why it was so high).

Any ideas?

Neutralization and Torture

April 22, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Techniques of Neutralization” (Sykes and Matza, 1957) is a classic article in the sociology of deviance. Neutralizations, according to Sykes and Matza, are ideas that delinquents use to neutralize the rules against some deviant act. Sykes and Matza argue that neutralizations enable the delinquency and come prior to the delinquent act.

I’m not so sure – a kid might well commit crimes even without these rationalizations – but these neutralizations certainly work as after-the-fact justifications. At the very least, the list of neutralizations gives students something to think about and memorize (and it gives teachers something to use in multiple-choice exam questions). In case you’ve forgotten them (or never heard of them), here they are:
  • denial of responsibility (I didn’t mean it; it wasn’t my fault)
  • denial of injury (no harm, no foul)
  • denial of victim (they deserved it; who cares about them)
  • condemnation of the condemners (cops are corrupt)
  • appeal to higher loyalties (I had to help my buddies)
I hadn’t thought about this article in a long time, but torture is in the news, and the rationales put forward by highly educated and sophisticated people defending the torture sound exactly like the ideas Sykes and Matza heard from criminal kids over 50 years ago. Today’s editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal hit four out of five.

Denial of Injury
Contrary to the claim that the memos detail “brutal” techniques . . .what they mainly show is the lengths to which the Justice Department went not to cross the line into torture. . . .
Denial of Victim
“Zubaydeh has become accustomed to a certain level of treatment and displays no signs of willingness to disclose further information” (quoting a memo from legal counsel Bybee).

Condemnation of the Condemners
the ICRC [Red Cross] has become as much a political, as humanitarian, operation. . .
the liberal mob . . .Mr. Obama . . . may try to sate the mob by going after Bush officials who wrote the memos. . . . Mr. Obama seems more than willing to indulge the revenge fantasies of the left, as long as its potential victims served a different President.
Appeal to Higher Loyalties
to break a terrorist they believed had information that could potentially save American lives.
The fifth neutralization comes from former CIA director Michael Hayden, quoted in today’s New York Times)

Denial of Responsibility
I have said to all who will listen that the agency did none of this out of enthusiasm. It did it out of duty.

That’s just from two major newspapers in one day. I’m sure that if I’d reviewed O’Reilly, Hannity, Coulter, et al., I would have found many other examples that seem to come straight out of the delinquents’ script. However, delinquents seem reluctant to use the one justification for crime most favored by the supporters of torture: It works; it’s a great way to get what you want.*

As I said, I’m somewhat skeptical that these neutralizations always precede the juvenile delinquency and make it possible. The torture gang, however, provides a much better illustration of Sykes and Matza’s theory. For the most part, those involved in any way made sure that the neutralizations were in place (and in writing) before they started the “enhanced interrogations” (they also made sure the euphemisms were in place). That’s the difference between criminal gangs on the street and those in government and other formal organizations.

*The justification that torture works is, like the denial of injury, simply not factual. (See here, for example.) But as with all these neutralizations, what is important is not accuracy but rather plausibility, however slim. A plausible justification allows the neutralizers to fool themselves, at least partially, and perhaps to fool others, so that they can repeat their act again. And again. And again. (One victim was warterboarded 183 times. That's takes a lot of neutralizing, though presumably these neutralizing ideas become part of a taken-for-granted background reality.)

Where the Boys Are and Aren't

April 21, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jonathan Soma claims to have gotten a D+ in statistics in college. But he has created the coolest interactive statistical tools. The best known is his corrective to the usual map of where the singles are.* In February of 2007, National Geographic published this map.

(Click on the map for a larger view.)

Looks like things are pretty good for single guys, especially here in the Northeast – 195,000 more single women than single men in the New York metro area. On the West Coast, not so much.

Soma was skeptical, probably because he lives in Brooklyn and wonders where all those single girls are. So first, instead of using absolute numbers, he adjusted for population size to make a ratio.

If you go to his site, you can toggle back and forth between numbers and ratios. Better than that, he has a slider at the top that you can move so as to select the age range you’re interested in.

The original map included ages 18-64. But most single guys in their twenties probably don’t care much about the over-thirty women, and to a great extent that’s who’s represented in red circles.

If you slide the brackets to the left to select 18-29 crowd, the world resembles a Bud Light commercial – a lot of desperate single guys, not so many girls.

But for more mature men, things look better, just so long as they’re not trying to pick up 23-year-olds.

Go to Soma’s site, move the slider, and watch the bubbles change size and color.

* I found it via Sociological Images, but it’s been linked to by some of the blogosphere biggies – The Wall Street Journal, Gawker, Andrew Sullivan, etc.

Seeing and Believing

April 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Who you gonna believe – my write-up or your lyin’ eyes?

The film of the Milgram experiments shows that the subjects, who thought they were inflicting severe and possibly lethal shocks on another human being, were under considerable stress.*

Now The Situationst has published an appreciation of Milgram’s work written by no less than Philip Zimbardo, himself no stranger to stress-inducing experiments. The bold-faced emphasis is my own addition to justify my translation above (the first line of this post). Zimbardo writes:
I believe that it was seeing his movie, in which he includes scenes of distress and indecision among his participants, that fostered the initial impetus for concern about the ethics of his research. Reading his research articles or his book does not convey as vividly the stress of participants who continued to obey authority despite the apparent suffering they were causing their innocent victims. I raise this issue not to argue for or against the ethicality of this research, but rather to raise the issue that it is still critical to read the original presentations of his ideas, methods, results, and discussions to understand fully what he did. That is another virtue of this collection of Milgram’s obedience research.

*The Times today notes that some of the CIA torturers had a similar reaction.
. . .watching [Zubaydah’s] torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said.
Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, the official said, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”
I wonder if Bybee, Yoo, and the others who wrote the legal opinions saying that torture was not torture would have written them if they had actually seen what they were justifying rather than merely reading abstract descriptions. Actually, I don’t wonder. They would have done what Cheney told them to do, no matter what.

Stanley Milgram - Ghost Writer for the Bush-Cheney Lawyers

April 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I showed the Milgram film in class this week. So when I looked at the New York Times this morning, I still had the echoes of the “Experimenter” fresh in my mind.

EXPERIMENTER: Although the shocks may be painful, they’re not dangerous.
There’s another version of this line that was in the script the experimenter used, though it doesn’t appear in the film
EXPERIMENTER: Although they may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.
The Times published excerpts from the legal memos that justified the torture.

The torturers deprived detainees of sleep for as long as eleven days.
It is clear that depriving someone of sleep does not involve severe physical pain . . . so long as sleep deprivation (as you have informed us is your intent) is used for limited periods, before hallucinations or other profound disruptions of the senses would occur.
Waterboarding has long been recognized as torture, even by the US when other countries used it. [Christopher Hitchens, a journalist who supported the Bush Iraq policies, had himself waterboarded (he's in the right-hand picture), and immediately concluded that it was obviously torture.] Nevertheless, the Bush lawyers wrote,
The waterboard does not inflict physical pain. . . . . .In the absence of prolonged mental harm, no severe mental pain or suffering would have been inflicted, and the use of these procedures would not constitute torture within the meaning of the statute.
Detainees were doused with water as cold as 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

Given that there is no expectation that the technique will cause severe physical pain or suffering . . .
“Stress” positions.
Any pain associated with muscle fatigue is not of the intensity sufficient to amount to ‘severe physical pain or suffering’ under the statute, nor, despite its discomfort, can it be said to be difficult to endure.
What a charade. The people who ordered the torture surely let it be known to their hand-picked lawyers which legal opinion they wanted the lawyers to come back with. And just to make it easier for the lawyers to justify the unjustifiable, they minimized and lied about the suffering they would inflict. The lawyers wrote the desired opinions, and now everyone can use these opinions to avoid being held accountable.

For eight years, the Bushies and the conservatives spoke with great self-righteousness about individual responsibility. All the while, they rigged the system to make sure nobody would be held responsible. They weren’t even as honorable as Milgram’s Nazi-in-a-labcoat.
TEACHER: But he’s hollering. He can’t stand it. What’s going to happen to him? . . . .
Who’s going to take the responsibility if anything happens to that gentleman?
EXPERIMENTER I'm responsible for anything that happens to him. Continue please.
TEACHER: All right. (Consults list of words.) The next one’s “Slow” – walk, truck, dance, music. Answer, please.

Guns and Crime - Elsewhere

April 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was asked to be a guest blogger at Everyday Sociology Blog, a site run by Norton Publishing and intended for undergrads. I dug up some material on guns and crime. Here's the link.

Bloody Fantastic

April 15, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Susan Boyle had scarcely put down the mike and walked offstage before the video was up on the Internet. Within a few days, her performance of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miz on Britain’s Got Talent was one of the most watched items on YouTube (currently 8 million views, and counting).

Why was everyone surprised? And why was everyone so pleased?

The standard answer to the first question is “attractiveness bias.” Physical attractiveness comes with a halo effect; we tend to see attractive people as smarter and nicer, as better workers, lovers, parents, etc. (see Lisa’s post at Sociological Images). If attractive is good, then unattractive must be bad. So we expect a very plain-looking woman like Ms. Boyle not to have talent.

There’s some truth in that. But we all know counter-examples – the good-looking singer  with a “relaxed-fit” relation to pitch. And even people who don’t follow opera may know the stereotype “Wagnerian” soprano – a woman who looks as though she’d be more at home in the Vikings’ offensive line but who has a wonderful voice. So we shouldn’t have been all that surprised.

Maybe what fooled us was not that Ms. Boyle wasn’t pretty but that she didn’t look like a performer. Her hair, her make-up, her dress, her walk – they all carried the message that this is someone who does not get up and sing in front of audiences. If she really wanted to be a singing star, she’d dress the part. So when she says she wants to be like Elaine Paige (who starred in all those Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in London), the judges and the audience chuckle condescendingly. As she starts to sing, they are stunned – this is clearly someone who can sing – and by the second line of the song, they are all cheering wildly for her.

But why? It wasn’t just because she has talent.* My guess is that it was because she provided a new story-line for the show, one that might have been especially pleasing to British audiences, who may still retain some sense of class consciousness.

I’ve never seen Britain’s Got Talent, but I assume it’s the same as American Idol. The usual narrative is the Cinderella story – talent and hard work leading to success. We identify with the contestant and think: I, with just a bit of a break, could become one of them – the glamorous celebrities.

But success creates a conflict. It means I have to leave my world, my friends. (Leaving them behind is not a problem for Cinderella; all she has is some nasty step-relatives.) The American solution is to pretend that you can have it both ways. You can become the glamorous celebrity, and you can keep your unglamorous, ordinary friends. In fact, you can bring them along with you as your Entourage.

The Susan Boyle story* is different. It’s more one of class solidarity. She doesn’t become one of “them.” Instead, she remains one of us. She doesn’t leave her class, she represents it. So her triumph is a triumph for the group. Watching her force Simon Cowell and the others to eat their original snark is satisfying in a way that’s different from watching the usual schnook-to-celebrity scenario. And at the end, when her Scotland friends backstage ask her how she feels, and she says, “Bloody fantastic,” she speaks for all of us.

* I Dreamed a Dream is not an easy song. It changes key a couple of times, and its range of an octave and a half is a few notes wider than that of most pop tunes.

**I have no idea what will really happen or what Ms. Boyle will become. Maybe she’ll dye her hair blonde and wear black evening dresses like Elaine Paige. The story I’m talking about is the one that was played out in that seven minutes of television a few days ago.

After They've Seen Paree

April 14, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember “freedom fries”? The phrase was part of the spirit of France-bashing that the Bush administration and its friends in the media whipped up six years ago. France and other European countries were saying that invading Iraq might not be such a nifty idea. They even voted against it in the U.N.

The Bushies sure showed them who was right.

The Republicans still use France and Europe as synonyms for various forms of political wickedness. We Americans, they say, don’t want a “European-style” health care system (i.e., one that delivers health care at a lower price to all its people).

But the Americans-don’t-like-France idea is largely a figment of the right-wing imagination. These Republicans are speaking for a smaller and smaller portion of the US population. The Daily Kos poll recently asked the “favorable/unfavorable” question, and it turns out it’s not just us liberal, urban, coastal elitists who have a soft spot in our hearts for France.

QUESTION: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable
opinion of the country of France?


France is well-liked everywhere . . . except the South. The pattern was nearly identical when the places in question were not France but, respectively, Europe, New York, and San Francisco.

It looks as though what Sarah Palin referred to as “the real America” is merely one region of America. And if recent voting patterns in Virginia, North Carolina, and Missouri are any indication, that region is shrinking. Tant pis.

Here We Go Lucy Liu

April 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s been a big flap, especially on the left side of the blogosphere, about Betty Brown, the Texas legislator who suggested that Asians adopt Anglo names for purposes of registering to vote. Those Chinese names are just too hard for Texans to deal with.
Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?
So said Ms. Brown to Ramey Ko of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

Sure, we could get all cultural relativist on this one and say that if Chinese is so difficult, how is it that over a billion people manage to speak it every day. We could also accuse her of racism, but nothing in the news reports suggests that she’s mean-spirited or even that she wants to keep Chinese people off the voting rolls. In fact, in the excerpt from the hearing that appears on YouTube, she asks Ko to come up with a proposal for solving the problem.

But she is behind the times when it comes to name changing. (Ms. Brown is not even really saying that Asians should change their names. She just suggested that they adopt a nom-de-ballot so that the poll supervisors don't make mistakes.) I’m not sure whether it’s because of PC-mandated tolerance for ethnic differences or just fashion, but we just don’t do the name-change thing so much any more. Even among media stars, names no longer have to sound American; they don’t have to sound “good.”

Annie Mae Bullock (born in 1939) performed under her married name, Tina Turner (she later dropped the husband but not the name.) Turner good, Bullock not so much. But for Sandra, born a quarter-century later, Bullock was a keeper.

Actors now keep names that they (or the studios) in earlier times would have changed as too ethnic or just ungraceful. When the studios ran things, names like Dunst or Hudgens would never gotten cast. But now we have, to name but a few
  • Renee Zellweger
  • Calista Flockhart
  • Seth Rogen
  • Jeff Goldblum
  • Ben Affleck
  • Amanda Righetti
  • Antonio Banderas
  • Liev Schreiber
  • Leonardo DiCaprio
  • Shia LeBeouf
  • Gwyneth Paltrow
  • Kate Beckinsale
  • Milla Jovovich
  • Charlize Theron
  • Jake Gyllenhaal
  • Zac Efron
Compare them with these names from an earlier era.
  • Betty Joan Perske
  • Frances Gumm
  • Bernard Schwartz
  • Edythe Marrenner
  • Constance Ockleman
  • Laszlo Lowenstein
  • Natalia Zakharenko
  • Issur Demsky
  • Margarita Cansino
  • Marion Morrison
  • Lucille LeSueur
  • Fred Austerlitz
  • Archie Leach
  • Julius Garfinkle
If you don’t recognize any of them, it’s because they were all changed. John Wayne, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, et al.

Yes, some young hopefuls do change their names – Winona Horowitz, Jennifer Anastassakis, and others. But my impression is that it happens far less nowadays. Michael Shalhoub (b. 1932) became Omar Sharif. Tony Shalhoub (b. 1953) became Monk.

(Personal note. I saw Betty Joan Perske in the street the other day – old, bent over, walking slowly with her dog – so much different from the person in the movies that although she looked vaguely familiar, I couldn’t place her. I waited till she went inside, then asked the doorman of her building. He paused for a minute as if trying to decide whether this was a violation of a tenant’s privacy. “That,” he said, “was Miss Lauren Bacall.”)

Sunday in the Park

April 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Walking from the subway exit to your place,” said my brother once when he came to visit, “in that one block, I saw a greater diversity of people than I see at home in a year.” He lives in a small town near Princeton.

He should have been in Central Park last Sunday. The first beautiful spring weekend day – it was as though the weather had sent a text message to everyone in the New York metro area telling them to come to the Park. It was Sunday in the Park with Georges and Marisol and Byong-suh and Dmitri and Shlomo and just about everyone.

Here is the Imagine circle in Strawberry Fields, just inside the West 72d St. entrance. If you want diversity, stop here for a minute (take a close look at the people in the picture). Listen to the conversations, and you’ll hear a half-dozen different languages. You’ll also hear Beatles music. Yesterday, it was these four men of a certain age. Here they’re doing “Eight Days a Week.”

Click on the picture for a larger view.

Later they were joined by three other guys – same certain age – who asked to sit in and then sang a perfect cover of country harmony on “What Goes On?”

The Park had much other music to offer. One group was singing something that sounded like medieval church music, with the tunnel giving an echo effect like that of a cathedral. Not far away, these girls were playing a classical tango.

They were at Bethesda Fountain. But the big attraction there are the AfroBats. They do some impressive flips, but it’s their comedy that entertains the crowd, who fill the steps and the plaza above and stand five or six deep at ground level.

Click on the picture for a larger view.
To make themselves heard, the AfroBats deliver their lines in unison – three guys speaking in perfect unison and with great comic timing.

I love street entertainers. This kid was trying to pick up some spare money with his juggling.

People use the park for all kinds of purposes. Koreans do wedding photography there. This guy, in addition to the usual posed shots, was having the bridal couple run up a low hill while he followed with his videocamera. (The bride has shed her shoes, which are out of their picture, but not mine.)

The roadways are filled with bicycles, the casual pedalers and the serious cyclists in their bright spandex. Certain venues have become the turf of roller skaters and roller-bladers doing their graceful dances while their boom boxes boom.

The cherry trees were not quite in bloom. But there should be full of pink and white blossoms for Easter, today.

Private Schools or Private Students

April 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Washington DC voucher program gave kids from poor families up to $7500 to cover the costs of attending private schools. The program, OSP (for Opportunity Scholarship Program) was started in the recent Bush administration, and it’s based on an idea much cherished by conservatives: private is good, public is bad. Programs run by the government (like public schools) are not as good as similar programs run by private entities (like private schools).

The results three years out have now been published (here). In reading, the voucher kids were 3.7 months ahead of their public school counterparts. In math, there was no difference.

Click on the table to see a larger version.

The Washington Post story ran with the headline

Study Supports School Vouchers
In District, Pupils Outperform Peers On Reading Tests

But does this mean that private schools do a better job of educating poor kids? If so, they should do a better job at teaching math as well. But they don’t.

I don’t really know what’s going on, but I have a guess. Reading is not just about decoding strings of letters. It is part of a general verbal ability. Kids learn verbal skills in school from teachers, but they also learn them from everyone they hear. For most of our time on this planet, we humans did not read or write or go to school, yet we learned to speak the language of our respective cultures. We learned from those around us. We still do.

If you send a kid to a school with children whose parents are willing and able to spend $6600 a year or more (sometimes much more*), that kid will be talking with kids whose verbal skills – vocabulary, grammar, syntax – are more sophisticated than what kids might hear in the public schools of Washington DC. That affects reading scores because among schoolchildren, at least when the teacher isn’t insisting they be quiet, verbal interaction is constant. Mathematical interaction, not so much.

So, at least when it comes to verbal skills, it’s not the kind of school that you go to that makes a difference. It’s the kind of kids who attend that school.

* The tuition at Sasha and Malia’s school, Sidwell Friends, is $28,000. Most of the OSP students went to much less costly schools. Over half the OSP kids (59%) went to Catholic schools, another fifth (22%) went to other faith-based schools (a category that may include Sidwell Friends, a Quaker school). The average income was about $22,7000, slightly above the poverty line; virtually all the kids were black or Hispanic.

Famous but Anonymous

April 7, 2009

Posted by Jay Livingston
Bud Shank, whose obit is in today’s New York Times, was a working musician for sixty years. His principle instrument was the alto sax, and he was best known for his work in the 1950s in the West Coast jazz scene, particularly as a member of the combo in the 1958 film I Want to Live. This clip, from the opening scene, shows Shank briefly. The solos you hear are by Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, and Shelly Manne.

As a comment on the Amazon page for the album put it, “Any Jazz lover who is over about 45 yrs of age probably ‘cut his/her teeth’ on listening to the soundtracks of I Want to Live and to The Hustler.” I’m over 45.

But Shank’s most widely known musical moment was not in jazz, and it didn’t have his name attached to it. It was his flute solo on California Dreamin’, the hit by the Mamas and the Papas. They got the royalties, of course. Bud Shank picked up his studio fee and went home.

Phil Woods has a similar story. Woods, also an alto player, is still going strong at age 77 and has been helping to keep bebop alive for about sixty years. He’s been the leader on dozens of albums, and he’s won several Downbeat polls over the years. Yet his best known work is, to most people, anonymous – the alto solo on Billy Joel’s huge hit and Grammy winner Just the Way You Are.

AKD 2009

April 5, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thursday evening, we (the Montclair Sociology Department) had our annual Alpha Kappa Delta induction ceremony. Sixteen students joined the sociology honor society.
  • Daniel Ahearn
  • Matt Barraro
  • Mari Chela Bien-Aime
  • Ashley Blount
  • Kristin Bobenko
  • Marissa Caruso
  • Shaylene Connors
  • Tehresa Fallon
  • Matt Grogaard
  • Megan Hatem
  • Helen Kane
  • Burcu Korkut
  • Joed Lopez
  • Claire McEwan
  • Lou Pacifico
  • Jessica Pescatore
  • Katherine Spargo
  • Lee Tedeschi
A few were no-shows – such good students that they wouldn’t cut an evening class in favor of AKD. And unfortunately, many of them left immediately after our speaker, David Grazian, finished, so I managed to get photos of only four of the honorees.
Lee, Joed, Shaylene, Matt B.

David Grazian talked about his research on Philadelphia night life.* He takes a dramaturgical approach, looking at the restaurants and clubs as stages where the staff and the customers are performing. Which is the way they look at it too. Restaurants put much thought, time, and money into creating their look – the decor, the lighting, the music – using the same strategies and often the same superficial materials used in movie sets. Cuba Libre, for example, is basically a movie set for a film set in pre-Castro Havana. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Managers also instruct the staff how to perform, and just before opening for the evening they have something like the cast meeting for a play, where the managers give the waitstaff “notes” on the previous evening’s performances.
The customers too are performers. They spend hours on their costume – men as well as women trying on several different pairs of jeans before deciding – and planning their roles with fellow cast members (wingmen, girlfriends, et. al.)

But what is it all for? The restaurants and bars are in it for the money. They count the receipts at the end of the night. But what about all those men and women? According to Grazian, guys want to get laid, of course, but rarely do. So they turn instead to a sort of contest to see who can get the most phone numbers.** The women mostly just want to be with their friends, look good, and get men to buy them drinks. The ostensible goal is fun, to have a good time, but it all sounds a bit grim. Everyone is on the same set, but they’re in two different movies. The guys are in a Judd Apatow film while the women are in Sex and the City.

* During the Q&A, someone asked why not New York or Los Angeles. To his credit David did not say, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

** The masculine competition can turn ugly. Grazian says that the rule of thumb for bars is that when the male-female ratio reaches 2-1, it’s almost certain that a fight will break out.

Guns, Killing, and Nonsense . . . Again

April 4, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The response of the pro-gun people to the massacre in Binghamton was predictable. The problem isn’t that the killer had guns. The problem is that other people did not. Fox’s commentator on the issue, John Lott (a researcher whose integrity has been much questioned) claims that more guns would deter these shooters.
Every multiple-victim public shooting that I have studied, where more than three people have been killed, has taken place where guns are banned.
Is McDonald’s a gun-free zone? Or Luby’s cafeteria in Kileen, Texas ? A private home in Seattle? It’s possible that the lab in Sunnyvale and the office building in San Francisco and the mall in Omaha had gun-free rules, but I doubt it. There are several other civilian workplace and home massacres I have not bothered to check.*

The other favorite NRA fantasy is that if only people had been carrying guns, someone would have taken out the shooter as soon as he opened fire. (I suspect that the gun-lovers picture themselves in the key savior role.)

On the other side, we have Charles Blow at the New York Times. In his column today, Blow warns that the far right is arming itself. The gun-lovers have put out the word that Obama is going to repeal the Second Amendment and take their guns away. Revolution has become a favorite word on the right. When the left talks about revolution, they usually mean an economic transformation. But the right wingers are talking about guns.
Guns are, for lack of a better word, good. Guns are right.
Guns work. Guns clarify, cut through, and capture the essence of the revolutionary spirit.
Guns in all their forms have marked the upward surge of mankind.
And guns -- you mark my words -- will save the USA.**
And they’re not just talking, they’re buying. Blow cites FBI data showing that since Obama was elected, there has been a large increase in requests for background checks for gun ownership.

Talk of revolution followed by more people wanting guns.
Coincidence? Maybe. Just posturing? Hopefully. But it all gives me a really bad feeling.
Blow wrote these words just before the killings in Pittsburgh occurred. But these shootings help to answer his questions.

The Associated Press: Gunman 'lying in wait' kills 3 Pittsburgh officers via kwout

I wonder where he got such ideas. Of course, ideas don’t kill. But AK-47s and the .357 Magnums and other handguns and the ammunition in Poplawski’s arsenal do, and they are nearly as easy to come by.

And according to the John Lotts of the world, that’s a good thing.

The Pittsburgh slayings also illustrate the weakness of the “gun-free zones are killing zones” idea. The killer’s house was anything but a gun-free zone, and he selected as his victims people who he knew would be carrying guns – police officers.

*Lott seems to be fairly obsessive about finding references to himself no matter how insiginificant and unnoticed the venue, so if I’m wrong about any of these, he will probably post a comment.

** O.K., nobody really said this, not in these exact words. But close. In case you didn
’t recognize it, it’s a riff on Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” speech in Wall Street.

Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative

April 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Be Positive. That’s one of the rules I try to follow in writing (in life, it’s even harder). Phrase things in the affirmative rather than in the negative. It’s especially important in constructing true-false and multiple-choice items for exams. I don’t want to force students into the knotty logic of double negatives.

In prose as well, those multiple negatives get confusing. And negatives take many forms besides variations on no, not, and never. Think of those Supreme Court summaries in the newspaper. “The court failed to overturn a lower-court ruling that denied a request to reverse . . .”

And now this just in from the world of football and guns.

”Plaxico’s contribution to our championship season in 2007 can never be underestimated or undervalued,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “He displayed tremendous determination throughout that season.”

Get it? His contribution can never be undervalued. That means that no matter how little a value you place on Plaxico’s contribution, that value can never be so low that it’s beneath its true value. So that true value must be very low indeed.

The literal meaning of the coach’s remark is just the opposite of what he means and what most people will hear. (And this wasn’t just some off-the-cuff comment. It was a written statement for the team’s official Website.) But the logic of the double negative – never and undervalue – is too difficult to unravel.

I realize that only a handful of tight-assed writers or logicians will be concerned with this technical error. Most people, they could care less.

Update. I e-mailed the Coughlin quote to Mark Liberman at The Language Log, and he has now posted about it. (Apparently, Prof. Liberman either has no hat to tip or is a habitual reader of Giants press releases.) Coach Coughlin, Liberman points out, is not alone. “Cannot be underestimated” to mean the opposite of its literal meaning is fairly common. Googling the phrase gets returns in six figures. I tried a Lexis-Nexis search for the last two years, and it offered its maximum of 1000 hits, including at least one headline. Liberman’s post, with links to earlier Language Log posts is here.

Just a Sample

April 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Obama has nominated a sociologist to head the census bureau, Robert Groves (summa at Dartmouth, degrees in statistics and sociology from Michigan, where he is now a professor). According to the New York Times, the choice of Groves, “instantly made Republicans nervous.”

The problem is scientific sampling, also known as the possibility that we might actually get an accurate count of the kinds of people the census usually undercounts.
Republicans expressed alarm because of one of Mr. Groves’s specialties, statistical sampling — roughly speaking, the process of extrapolating from the numbers of people actually counted to arrive at estimates of those uncounted and, presumably, arriving at a realistic total.
The Republicans favor a census that tries to count each person individually, an obvious impossibility with a systematic bias in favor of people who are in places that make them easy to count.

I remember an anecdote from a book on sampling – I wish I could remember the author and title – about a social scientist who had done some research on soldiers and was presenting his finding to a general in the Pentagon. The officer questioned the idea of sampling. How could you know about the hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the military by talking to a couple of thousand. How many should we talk to, asked the sociologist. “You gotta do ’em all,” said the general.

“General,” said the sociologist. “When you go to the doctor, he takes a little tube of blood to find out how much cholesterol and other things are in your blood. That’s a sample. Do you tell him that if he really wants to know the true amount, he has to take it all?”

Joseph and Pharaoh Are Now Friends -- Small Worlds and Networks

April 1, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I checked my Facebook page – something I do regularly once a month or so – and discovered that Anomie* had posted a link to The Facebook Haggadah by Carl Elkin. The Passover story written as a series of Facebook messages (“Pharaoh has taken the Which god are you? quiz” “25 things you didn't know about me by God. 1. Guilty pleasure: Smiting people. . . .”) And so on.

I sent the link to a few people, including my niece. She e-mailed me back:
Not only is that hilariously funny, I KNOW the guy who did it! Carl Elkin lived in my room in my old apartment before I did. Now he's married to a girl I knew from Amherst. Small world. . .
My first thought was that it wasn’t really so surprising. How many degrees of separation should I expect between me and the author of the Haggadah? He’s considerably younger, but we live in the same geographic area (Northeast urban corridor) and in the same social-cultural world. If there isn’t someone we know in common, then I probably know someone who knows someone who knows him. Two degrees of separation.

That’s the way it usually works. It’s not that the world is small but that it’s organized in a way that makes for shorter paths connecting people.
The connections run through a few people who are connected to a lot of people. I may not be connected to very many people, but at least one of my connections will be one of these “nodal” people (the brightly colored dots on the central line running through the diagram**). Think of it in Facebook terms: I have only 18 Facebook friends. But I can be easily connected to someone else because at least one of my friends is one of those nodal people with 850 friends (what my son calls “a Facebook whore.”)

But my niece was right. This connection was a surprise because it didn’t followthe usual network pattern of going up to a well-connected person. Instead, it was more like what we mean when we use the phrase “small world.” The world of East Coast academia and related areas just isn’t all that big, with a relatively small number of student apartments to move in and out of and a relatively small number of possible marriage partners (especially if you limit your choices by religion and that religion is Judaism – even in the Northeast Academic Corridor).

*Anomie credits Eszter, who posted the link at Crooked Timber.

** The diagram is from Wikipedia