Signs of Reason

October 31, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s Halloween, and I feel sadly deficient for my lack of knowledge of the zombie. I think I missed about 80% of the allusions in Gabriel’s post, just as I did last year. But then this picture from the Jon Stewart rally turned up in my inbox.

I wasn’t there, but what I’ve heard and seen does convince me that sanity is possible. The event was sort of a meta-rally – a rally about rallies – delightfully devoid of anger, hyperbole, paranoia, demonization, and self-righteousness.

I confess, I had to look twice at the Biblical citation.

Many more on display here.

Atheists in Foxholes on the Campus Battlefield

October 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We all know that conservatives on campus have it rough.
outnumbered by liberals by 3 to 1 even in fields known to be relatively conservative, such as economics, by more than 5 to 1 in moderate fields such as political science and by 20 to 1 or more in many fields, such as sociology and anthropology.
The numbers are cited by Richard Redding in a recent op-ed in LA Times and other newspapers (including yesterday’s Star-Ledger, which is where my colleague Arnie Korotkin found it and brought it my attention.)

If you’re a conservative like Redding, what do you see as the solution? Surely you would not be in favor of affirmative action, forcing schools to hire more conservatives to the faculty and admit more conservatives to the student body. That tramples on the sacred rights of the individual. If you oppose affirmative action based on demographic characteristics (race, sex), you would oppose it even more strongly when it’s based on ephemeral qualities like political orientation.

But no. Redding is all for affirmative action for conservatives, and he defends it on the same grounds that liberals defend affirmative action for minorities and women. It makes for greater “educational benefits.”

Campus conservatives like Redding (he’s a dean and professor at a law school) feel as though they’re in a foxhole (a FoxTVhole?), and they’re giving up their affirmative action atheism. Now they believe.

Conservatives also oppose campus speech codes. These are well-intended, they argue, but by trying to assure that feelings are not hurt, these codes trample on freedom of speech. From the conservative view, if the minorities and women on campus feel intimidated by other people’s free speech, that’s too bad. They’ll just have to man up.

But another part of Redding’s argument is very similar to the speech-code rationale. He cites a survey of students which found that “most did not think it entirely safe to hold unpopular opinions on campus . . . . conservative students feel alienated . . . conservative students lack academic role models.” Apparently, when the feelings of conservatives are involved, it’s time for action – affirmative action.

On the Money

October 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I suggested that Americans were much more likely to name streets after military heroes than after luminaries in other fields as the French do.* As Denis Colombi noted in his comment on that post, the French don’t ignore their military victories. But in looking for people to name things after, they cast a wider net.

Whose praises do we sing? Follow the money. If you’re an American, you know the greenback line-up: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant, Franklin.

How surprising to go to France and see a bill like this – something you would never have seen in the US. (You won’t see it in France any more either, now that the Euro reigns.)

An artist (Delacroix) and bare breasts.

Or this:

A female scientist, Marie Curie, and her husband Pierre.

Or this.

Voltaire, a writer remembered chiefly as a satirist. Why not a Mark Twain bill for the US?

Who else filled the bill? Eiffel, Cézanne, Saint-Exupéry, Hugo, Molière, Racine, Voltaire, Debussy . . . .

* We do sometimes confer these naming honors on artists. I myself attended a primary school named after the great composer Stephen Foster.

Sociologists in the Street

October 21, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

My wife was reading Comfort Me With Apples, a memoir by foodie Ruth Reichl. “When she got to Paris, she stayed in an apartment on the rue Auguste Comte. Do you know where that is?”

Not only did I not know where, but much to my embarrassment as a sociologist, I didn’t even know that such a street existed. I checked the map and discovered that it runs along the south edge of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

I have walked through the Jardin a few times, butI never noticed a street sign with the name of the man who coined the term sociology. Of that I’m positive.

Here’s a photo taken in 1870, barely a decade after Comte died.

For a more recent and elegant view, go to Flickr (here -- I’m honoring the photo copyright and not reprinting it). Or go to Paris . . . after this retirement-age thing is settled).

The French name streets after sociologists (several other cities in France have rues Auguste Comte), philsophers, writers, composers, et. al. American tastes run to other areas. I grew up on MacArthur Drive, which came just after Eisenhower Drive and Wainwright Drive in our peaceful town.

I doubt that a US city will ever have a sociologist street. Just about every city in the US has a Park Street (or Park Place or, in the city where I live, Park Avenue), and I suppose we can take some secret pride in this, even though the link to sociology is coincidental.

Pleasant Surprises

October 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Technology gives us greater control over our lives. You can decide who you want to be with, ignoring the people in the same room with you and instead texting or IMing your friends. You can get the movies, shows, or music you want, untethered from the arbitrary schedules and playlists of media outlets. In Tyler Cowen’s title phrase, you can Create Your Own Economy.

The price we pay for control is surprise. You can’t tickle yourself. You can’t surprise yourself.*

Last Saturday in Central Park, I was watching the singer who sets up with his guitar at the western edge of the boating pond. His name is Dave Ippolito, and his repertoire is what you’d expect from a guy with only an acoustic guitar – James Taylor-Dylan-Elton Johnish stuff, plus his own songs – and people sit on the bench and the grassy slope to listen.

Nearby, on a spit of land that juts out into the pond, there’s a open area with a gazebo, and in the warm weather, wedding couples often take photos there. If the wedding party is small enough, they can have the ceremony there.

Last Saturday, a couple had just done their wedding at the gazebo, and to leave the park they came walking up the paved path, crossing in front of Dave. He stopped singing. “Wait a minute,” he said, “did you guys just get married?” They nodded. “Here. I’m going to play something just for you, and you can have your first dance right here. OK?” They looked at each other, then at the wedding party trailing behind them on the path, and they agreed. He segued into “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” and the couple danced.

Then Dave invited the others in the wedding party to dance, and soon the path on that side was filled with well-dressed couples.

At the end of the song, Dave said, “C’mon, anyone who wants to, you guys on the grass, everyone dance. He started another tune. And there we were, the wedding guests in their nice clothes, the rest of us in our jeans and sneakers.

Weddings are usually carefully planned – the guest list, the clothes, the flowers, the music, the food – and scheduled fairly tightly so that everything goes well. But I wonder what that couple and their guests will remember about their wedding day. Will it be all those elements they planned? Or will it be the ten minutes of surprise, when, on their way out of the park, they were dancing to music they’d never expected and with other couples they’d never met?**

*You can’t give yourself a surprise party. Usually, when people say that they surprised themselves, it means they tried something new and unpredictable – that is, they gave up control and predictability. And giving up that control allowed them to discover something new and positive about themselves.

** I also wonder whether this is an “only in New York” kind of surprise. Is there something about the city, where diverse sets of people intermingle in the same space, that makes for more of these spontaneous moments?


October 12, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
“No man but a blogger ever wrote, except for money.”
What Dr. Johnson actually said was “blockhead,” but what’s the difference?

Is money the only motivation to produce? Greg Mankiw seems to think so. Mankiw was a top economics adviser in the Cheney-Bush administration. He probably thought that tax cuts for the rich were a good idea ten years ago, and he still thinks they’re a good idea

In a column in the Business section of last Sunday’s New York Times, Mankiw uses himself as an example to illustrate the disastrous effects of allowing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to expire, raising that rate the three points from 36% to 39%, and resurrecting the tax on large sums of inherited money.
Suppose that some editor offered me $1,000 to write an article.
Then Mankiw does a little magic – like the magician who starts holding one ball in his fingers out soon winds up with many.
30 years from now, when I pass on, my children would inherit about $10,000.
But then come the taxes.
Without any taxes, accepting that editor’s assignment would have yielded my children an extra $10,000. With [the proposed Obama] taxes, it yields only $1,000
But ah, if we keep the Bush tax cuts for the rich . . .
Taking that writing assignment would yield my kids about $2,000. I would have twice the incentive to keep working.
Other bloggers (Brad DeLong and Kevin Drum, for example) have criticized Mankiw’s math and economics. What I’m curious about is the assumption that rich people do what they do only or mainly because of the money.
Maybe you are looking forward to a particular actor’s next movie or a particular novelist’s next book. Perhaps you wish that your favorite singer would have a concert near where you live. Or, someday, you may need treatment from a highly trained surgeon, or your child may need braces from the local orthodontist. Like me, these individuals respond to incentives. (Indeed, some studies report that high-income taxpayers are particularly responsive to taxes.) As they face higher tax rates, their services will be in shorter supply.
Should Mankiw really be using himself as an example? If Mankiw’s work output is merely or mostly a response to economic incentives, why is he writing this column at all? The Times paid him considerably less than $1000. I would guess about a third less, but whatever it was, it’s pocket change compared to what he makes from his books, and it’s probably much less than he could have made had he spent the same amount of time consulting.

Yet he still wrote the article. And I bet he would have written it even if the Times hadn’t paid him a cent. I base my bet on past performances: on his blog, Mankiw averages about five posts per week, all of them unpaid. In the 1990s, the top tax rate was 40%, and in early 1980s 50%. Did Mankiw work less hard back then?  When the Bush tax cuts kicked in, did he rush to pick up more consulting gigs?

Is money the reason that rich people – movie stars, rock stars, fancy surgeons, rich economists – continue to work? And will that 3% increase in their marginal tax rates make them slack off? If the tax cuts expire, will the hedge fund guys leave the office at 4:30 in the afternoon because it’s just not worth it to trade a few more swaps and derivatives? They already have more money than they know what to do with, yet they work long hours to make more.

Last night, Brett Favre, age 41, threw the 500th touchdown pass of his career. If the Bush tax cuts on the rich had expired a year ago, would Favre have retired (I mean really retired) and not played this season?

Exchange Rates

October 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Viviana Zelizer has a new book coming out in a week: Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy (or what’s left of the economy). I got an e-mail about it from Amazon. They’ve got me pegged.

Will I spend $23.62 for the book? If I thought rationally about money, I would consider what else that $23.62 could buy. But nobody thinks about money with perfect rationality. Dollars are fungible, but not completely so. They have a different value in different sectors of life and do not always flow easily from one sector to another. Exchange rates between sectors are idiosyncratic and rarely specified.

I was reminded of this yet again by Jacob Avery’s recent paper on poker players. Is it rational to bet an amount greater than your weekly paycheck on the turn of a card or the outcome of a baseball game? It’s irrational only if money is perfectly fungible from the world of gambling to the world of everyday living. But it isn’t.

The gamblers I knew would frequently say that “gambling money” was “sacred.” In other words, there was such a thing as gambling money, and it was different from other moneys. It fell under a different set of rules and valuations.

Here’s a slightly different example though also from the world gambling. It’s from a “This American Life” show originally broadcast in November, 2003.* The reporter is Mary Beth Kirchner.

This 2:20 excerpt is from a story about a limo driver in Las Vegas. He is a good blackjack player. Yet he will leave the table, where he’s making a bundle, so as not to miss the peak hours for catching fares, even though these will net him less money than blackjack:

Here’s a transcript from the last part of the clip:

JOE: I was playing about like $2000 a hand. And I told the doorman, “If you get a good ride, like to the golf course, come and get me,” y’know, like $75. Anyway, he came up to the table and told me, “Hey, I got a ride” Seventy-five dollars. The people in the pit, they all think I’m nuts, y’know. I just stopped.. I left, I took my money, and I ran down to take the guy for $75, and there I am playing two grand a hand.

I try to separate the two. One has nothing to do with the other.

MARY BETH: I don’t understand that.

JOE: I know. Nobody does.

Do you understand it?

JOE: I don’t. I just. . . .Gambling to me is gambling, work is work.

Nobody understands it? Viviana Zelizer does. So do most people, at some level. They know that their treatment of dollars is not universalistic They just don’t write books about it.

*This is my first try at embedding an audio clip. If it doesn’t work, you can go to the full This American Life podcast (here): The story begins at about the 23 minute mark. The part I excerpted here begins at about 33:20.

Size Matters

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The New York Walk

October 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We had our semi-annual (or is it annual?) Sociology New York Walk on Saturday. We started at the flea market on W. 39th St., where one of the vendors had a box of typesetters sorts and slugs. I should have taken a picture since in class the previous week I had mentioned the Gutenberg revolution, and many of the students had no idea what movable type was. The Gutenberg era was a nice five and a half centuries while it lasted, but it’s over. Gutenberg is now a large source of e-books, fee of charge and free of metal. Those movable-type letters are quaint relics that you find in a flea market not far from the old Lucky Strikes placard.

We walked over to Grand Central Station. The Whispering Gallery is always a crowd-pleaser. After lunch at the food court (so much better than the typical mall food court), we took the subway to Astor Place and wandered the Lower East Side – gentrification happening as you watch. A community garden on Avenue B was having a harvest festival, with barbecue and salads (pay what you like) and a trio playing Indian-style music, and it was like walking back into the sixties.

It was a beautiful day, and there was much more to see and eat and drink. Join us next time.

Here we are. The picture on the left is just outside the Library at 42nd and Fifth. The one on the right is down on the Lower East Side.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Leave the Name, Take the Accent

October 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a post a while ago, I said that it seemed to me that far fewer actors are changing their names. Not like the old days, when Margarita Carmen Cansino became Rita Hayworth. I was reminded of this again reading the obits for Tony Curtis, born and raised in the Bronx as Bernie Schwartz.
If a kid named Bernie Schwartz today wanted to be an actor, would he change his name? It’s a ridiculous question, of course. Nobody these days names their son Bernie. Bernard is barely in the top 1000 names for boys. When Curtis, er I mean Schwartz, was born, it was #46.

He may have changed his name, but he never lost his accent, as the obits were quick to point out, quoting famous lines like, “"Yondah lies the castle of my fad-dah,” which Snopes says is for real, from “The Black Shield of Falworth.” The obit and has a version from a different film, “ Son of Ali Baba”: “Dis is duh palace ah my fadda, an’ yonda lies duh Valley ah duh Sun.”

You wouldn’t hear that today. My impression is that although actors now retain their ethnic names, they lose any ethnic or regional accent they might have, at least they do if they want to play big roles. With comedy roles and character parts, a regional accent adds “color” even if it’s the wrong color. (Cab drivers in movies often have a working-class New York accent, even if they are driving their cab in Chicago or Atlanta.) But if you want to be a star, it’s best to be able to sound like a generic, unplaceable American.

Maybe that has always been true; maybe even fifty or seventy years ago, Curtis would have been a glaring exception. Can you think of stars from whatever era who, like Curtis, spoke with an identifiable ethnic or regional accent yet played roles outside of those boundaries?

Rock the Casbah? - The Clash of Civilizations

October 1, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Henry at The Monkey Cage linked to this article (his ironic subject line: "this will change a lot of people’s minds"). It’s behind a paywall, but if anyone wants to ante up and then report on the method and sample, we impecunious (or just cheapskate) bloggers would be mucho grateful.

Here’s the abstract. I wonder if Rodney Stark was one of the peer reviewers. Probably not.

Islam and Large-Scale Political Violence: Is There a Connection?

M. Steven Fish
Francesca R. Jensenius
Katherine E. Michel

Are Muslims especially prone to large-scale political violence? From Montesquieu to Samuel Huntington, prominent modern analysts of politics have regarded Muslims as unusually inclined to strife. Many other observers have portrayed Islam as a peace-loving faith and Muslims as largely pacific. Yet scholars still lack much hard evidence on whether a relationship between Islam and political violence really exists. Precious few studies adduce empirical evidence on whether Islamic societies are actually more or less violent. This article assesses whether Muslims are more prone to large-scale political violence than non-Muslims. The authors focus neither on terrorism nor on interstate war. Instead, they investigate large-scale intrastate violence. The article makes three contributions. First, it offers useful data on Islam and political strife. Second,it investigates whether Muslims are especially violence prone. Relying on cross-national analysis, the authors find no evidence of a correlation between the proportion of a country’s population that is made up of Muslims and deaths in episodes of large-scale political violence in the postwar period. Third, the authors investigate whether Islamism (the ideology), as opposed to Muslims (the people), is responsible for an inordinate share of the world’s large-scale political violence. They find that Islamism is implicated in an appreciable but not disproportionate amount of political violence.