Searching for Consistency

November 30, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Our department secretary flew to California last week. She said that the security lines at JFK zipped right along. Neither she nor her husband nor any of the other travelers minded the new search procedure, nor did it cause any delays. Why then did the media give so much coverage to the TSA and its antagonists during Thanksgiving week?

Pure politics. All the fuss is coming from the right. But as Ross Douthat said in his New YorkTimes column on Monday, if George W. Bush had been in office when the scanner policy came down, the same people who are whining about Big Government violating the Constitution and trampling on Privacy and Freedom would be draping the scanning machines in Old Glory.

Here’s an example of reaction on the right.

(Click on the image for a slightly larger view.)

Had Bush been President,* Drudge would have been saying that only terrorists and their allies would want to resist the TSA. And the photo would show not a nun but Osama bin Laden or the Shoe Bomber.

Douthat also guesses that liberals would have opposed the new scan and grope procedures if Bush were President. Possibly, but they certainly wouldn’t have made as much noise about it. Even now, lefty bloggers are not extolling the TSA as the thin line keeping Al Qaeda bombs from our planes. And Obama and Napolitano sound conciliatory (“Sorry, folks, but we have to do this”) rather than patriotic, pugnacious, or protective in the GOP style (“Which is worse, being patted down or blown up? Take your pick.”)

The right and left also divide over who should be searched. Conservatives favor racial profiling; liberals oppose it. But racial profiling too raises the problem of political consistency – not all by itself, but when it sits down next to Affirmative Action. As Elvin Lim wrote in Faster Times (the day before Douthat’s column in the slower Times),
It seems, then, that one can either be for race-based profiling and affirmative action, or against both. What is problematic is if one is for one but not the other.
But doctrinaire liberals and conservatives split their preferences – for one and against the other.
My guess is that most liberals are for race-based affirmative action but against racial profiling, and most conservatives are against race-based affirmative action but for racial profiling.
Lim also thinks that the consistency problem is thornier for conservatives.
For the conservative who is against race-based affirmative action but for profiling, the problem is stickier. Almost every anti-affirmative action argument I have come across turns on the principle of formal equality: that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, no matter what the policy intentions may be. [Lim’s italics]
Greater equality and opportunity is a policy intention, so is air safety. If you’re a conservative and, like Steven Colbert, you don’t see color, if you’re for color-blind hiring and college admissions, then you should be for color-blind everything, including airport screening.

Another part of the conservative dilemma might be that conservatives have a lower tolerance for ambiguity. They prefer “moral clarity” – adherence to a simple principle. So while in practice they will hold tight to their inconsistent positions on racial profiling and affirmative action, they’ll have a harder time dealing with the cognitive dissonance.

* In fact, Bush
was President when the photo Drudge used was taken. Its from 2007. But it was of a nun being patted down, and I guess Drudge found it just too good to pass up. (See here.)

Cooler Than Other Majors

November 29, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

What can you do with a BA in sociology? Ask Mike Posner, whose album “Cooler Than Me” has been in the top 10 world wide and in the US.

(Click on the image for a larger, readable view.)

The money quote (the red underlining is my own addition): “According to Posner, his sociology study has helped with his music.”

The above is from Undercover, which also has a video interview. (and does not know how to spell Clive Davis’s name).

HT: Global Sociology via a Social Psych tweet.

Sunday Traffic

November 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s Thanksgiving, and that means football on television.

The NFL games are probably not something the Pilgrims had in mind, but they have become part of the tradition. I don’t know if turkeys have gotten bigger, but the NFL line-up has expanded from one game to two and now three. The games span eleven hours of TV time, with a short break between the afternoon and evening games (assuming no overtime). No matter when the meal is served, there’s a football game on. So I wonder whether the television is complementing the family-and-food part of the holiday or competing with it. In economists’ terms, are these goods complementary or supplementary?

I did come across some research on one good that does compete with the NFL. The data-heads at looked at the number of visits to their site from various NFL media markets, especially on bye weeks, the one week in the 17-week season that each team gets to rest. What do the fans do on Sunday if the home team isn’t playing? Or maybe I should ask, What don’t they do if the team is playing?

The Tube8 statisticians looked at the numbers of visits they got from NFL cities on three types of Sundays:
  • The average Sunday
  • Sundays during football season
  • Sundays during football season but when the home team had a bye
Here are the results for five cities. (There are 32 NFL teams. I couldn’t put them all on a graph that fit on one screen.)

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

As the graphs shows, football takes a bite out of Tube8's traffic. What kind of traffic is that, you ask. I should have mentioned that Tube8 is a porn site – so NSFW that I’m not even hyperlinking it. (I check these things out so that you don’t have to.)

On average, an NFL game reduced Tube8's traffic by about 18%. When the home team had a bye, traffic was down, but only by 10%. Some guys will take pigskin over skin no matter who’s playing.*

All NFL cities showed this same pattern. For some teams (New York, Green Bay), the Sunday-to-Sunday differences were barely noticeable. In others (Kansas City, Seattle, San Diego), they were twice the average. (Deadspin has the numbers for all 32 franchises.)

In any case, whatever pleasures you’re indulging in today, Happy Thanksgiving.

*I wouldn’t make too much out the raw numbers on visits or say that one city is more porn-minded than another since I don’t know the size of the area that Tube8 (or their source, Google Analytics) defines as “Seattle” or “Pittsburgh” or wherever.

HT: Victor Matheson at The Sports Economist.

Whole Lot of Cheatin' Going On

November 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some of Jenn Lena’s students plagiarized. She says she feels “angry, disappointed, and sad.” I’ve felt the same way.

She also posts a video of a management teacher at UCF who discovered widespread cheating on an exam. Two hundred students out of 600 used advanced copies of the exam questions, probably from a publisher’s test bank.

The students were dishonest, of course. But when so many students cheat, cheating begins to look less like a personal defect and more like a rational response to a situation. The elements of that situation are all too familiar: large anonymous classes, multiple-choice tests, pre-packaged test banks from the publisher, and other things you can probably think of. What these create is a tacit agreement all around that the map (a score on a test) is more important than the territory (what the student actually knows or can do).*

My grad school’s language requirement is a good example. To pass it, I had to take a standardized test (ETS, I think). I could have cheated – gotten someone else to take the test for me, copied from another test-taker, sneaked notes or books into the exam – and as long as I didn’t get caught, I would pass the test even if I couldn’t understand a word of French. I didn’t cheat. I filled in the little scantron ovals, and even though I could speak, read, and write French at only the simplest level, I filled in enough of the right ones to pass. To conclude that I knew French was a travesty. But the school looked only at the map, not the territory. Their message was hard to miss: “We don’t care whether you really know French; just pass the damn test.” As long as the map looks o.k., we’ll ignore the territory.

At Brandeis the language exam was different. I was an undergraduate there, and a sociology grad student told me about it. “You go to Everett Hughes’s office. He gives you a piece of paper with a reference for an article in some French journal and says, ‘Go read this article. Come back, and we’ll talk about it.’” No map, all territory. And impossible to cheat on.

Now it’s Thanksgiving, and final exams are almost upon us. What is it that I really want my students to able to do? Choose the right answers on multiple-choice items that they have no advance knowledge of? Does that resemble anything that they might encounter outside of a college course? In real life, if the answer to a question is at all important, we want people to have that question in advance. We want to find out what they think and how they think and how they can use what they know.

UPDATE, Nov. 24: Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted had a much more thorough and wide-ranging reaction to the UCF cheating incident. The true function of management courses and programs, he says, is not so much education as it is “a pre-screening device that saves employers the effort of having to consider an almost infinitely large pool of possible candidates for managerial or professional jobs. . . . . In that context, it’s hardly surprising that students would cheat.”

* Students of semantics will recognize this formulation as a variant (if not a distortion) of Korzybski’s dictum, “The map is not the territory”

Onward Christian Soldiers

November 20, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bryan Fischer is policy director for the American Family Association – “family” meaning “right wing Christian” – and he’s upset about the trend in Medal of Honor winners. They’ve all heroically saved their fellow soldiers – nothing wrong with that. But why no medals for soldiers who kill a lot of people?
We have become squeamish at the thought of the valor that is expressed in killing enemy soldiers through acts of bravery. We know instinctively that we should honor courage, but shy away from honoring courage if it results in the taking of life rather than in just the saving of life. . . . When are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night? [Full article is here.]
It’s easy to make fun of this mentality. People of a certain age might be reminded, especially around Thanksgiving time, of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

(Go ahead, click and listen for ten seconds.)

But Fischer’s perception is probably accurate. We are indeed reluctant to glorify slaughter, even when it’s our enemies that we are slaughtering. But why? I have a few guesses.
  • Make defense, not war. After World War II, the Department of War rebranded itself as the Department of Defense. Since then, we have sent our troops to make war on lots of countries around the world, and have in fact killed a lot of people, but we always claim to be acting in self-defense. Slaughtering the other side is offensive. We now prefer defense, and saving your fellow soldiers is defensive.
  • No big deal. Using the tools of modern warfare is not so obviously an act of heroism. Killing lots of the enemy is too easy, what with modern bombs and missiles and other weaponry. Besides, these weapons also often kill an embarrassing number of civilians. But saving people who are under fire is much more difficult, hence more heroic.
  • Goal attainment? Killing lots of people doesn’t win wars – at least not the kinds of wars we’ve found ourselves in these past 50 years. We killed a million Vietnamese, and we still didn’t win. By contrast, the payoff of saving your fellow soldiers is self-evident.
A bit too rational I know. Fischer’s explanation is more cultural: our squeamishness, he says, is part of the “feminization” of American culture. He doesn’t elaborate, so maybe his explanation for the trend in medalling is really just sticking a label on it. (Lisa Wade, at Sociological Images, has already blogged about the gender assumptions involved in this idea.) But I have a broader speculation. What Fischer sees as feminization might be part of a slow evolution out of our agricultural past.

The virtues Fischer likes – among them, honor and bravery and the willingness to kill several members of your own species – are (I’m guessing here) part of a package of sentiments that developed along with agricultural/pastoral civilizations beginning maybe 15,000 years ago. Before that, in our several hundred thousand years as hunter-gatherers, we humans probably had little use for these qualities.

These manly virtues become important in large, unequal societies – especially patriarchal ones – that the agricultural revolution engendered. Even in the US, those manly and military virtues were much more a part of the agricultural South than the commercial, industrial North. They still are, as Richard Nisbett’s research shows. A disproportionate number of our troops are from rural and Southern regions.

If Fischer wants an example of his ideal, he might look to the pre-industrial sentiments of the jihadists, who are not at all squeamish about killing.* Thoroughly unfeminized, they broadcast videos of themselves beheading people, they have no qualms about slaughtering civilians to achieve their goals, and they go in for public executions in large stadiums. When honor requires it, they readily slit the throats of their daughters and sisters.

We in the West are further along in the transition out of agricultural society and into industrial or even post-industrial society. But it’s only been a couple of hundred years, and these mentalities are slow to change, especially when the costs and benefits are not starkly clear. I wonder how many centuries or millenia of early agricultural civilization it took to instill the mentality of manly virtues. And even then, as now, many people still didn’t get it, preferring a less heroic and less rewarded life, removed from the manly glories of honor and conquest, bravery and bloodshed.


*To support his call for the return of manly killing, Fischer seeks support in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. It’s the old “Kill a Commie for Christ” idea. I’m not much of a Biblical scholar, but it seems to be he’s looking for blood in all the wrong places. The Hebrews of the Old Testament should be much more to his liking. But he’s stuck with his Christianity, so he squeezes Jesus for any drop of righteous conquest that might be there.

Received Wisdom

November 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Athletes can be refreshingly honest – refreshing if you’re used to listening to interviews with politicans, celebrities, or other types who worry about their popularity. I remember Charlie Rose asking Reggie Miller some tough questions (this was a few years ago when Miller was still playing for the Pacers). They were the kinds of questions I expected would get either evasive, vague answers or the usual received-wisdom cliches. But Miller was informative, and he said what he thought.

Derrick Mason is a wide receiver, and a good one, for the Baltimore Ravens. Before that he was with the Titans. Last week, in an interview for the Baltimore Sun, he refused to shovel the usual feel-good drivel.

The question was about sports journalists who “write stories about how the success of a professional sports franchise can uplift a city, and inspire its residents in difficult times.”

Here, in part, is Mason’s answer:
I don't think there is any truth to it. When you're winning, honestly, people are excited. But it's not going to do any good for jobs. It's not going to bring General Motors, Chrysler and Ford back. . . .Even in New Orleans. People said when the Saints won the Super Bowl it would regenerate the economy down there in the city. For a time being, it did help the city. But New Orleans is still in the same situation . . . That uplifting is gone.
If Mason is as sharp on the field this Sunday as he was in the Sun last week, I’d take the Ravens and lay the ten points, broken pinky and all. (Besides, the Panthers have covered at home only once this season; they haven’t covered much on the road either.)

He also has some nice things to say about Nashville. Full interview is here.

HT: Dennis Coates.

UPDATE Saturday morning: The betting public seems to have drawn similar conclusions from this interview. Eighty percent of the action in this game is on the Ravens, and the bookies have moved the line up to 11 or 11 ½. Given my contrarian tendencies (see earlier post and links here), I should stay away from this one or even fade the Ravens.
UPDATE II. The Ravens won 37-13, covering the spread thanks to two late defensive TDs. Mason caught three passes for 42 yards.

Politics as a Nasty Vocation

November 17, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Politics, as Weber said, inevitably involves a tension: “the attainment of ‘good’ ends” comes at the price of “using morally dubious means.”

Earlier in this blog (here), I put it in terms of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is really the close cousin of Hypocrisy — changing your perceptions to make them square with your larger ideas. Cognitive Dissonance went to grad school; Hypocrisy chose religion and politics.
Secret recording is morally dubious, to say the least, as we have seen recently here in New Jersey. When a Rutgers student committed suicide after two other students streamed video of him in a romantic encounter with another male, Gov. Christie was quick to say that the secret taping was a violation of conscience. “I don't know how those two folks are going to sleep at night, knowing that they contributed to driving that young man to that alternative.” (Was it a violation of the law? Christie, whose previous job was US Attorney, said that he would leave it up to his attorney general.)

Now another secret taping has emerged. According to Bob Braun, who’s been covering education for the Star-Ledger since anyone can remember, a young man followed a special ed teacher, Alissa Ploshnick, into a bar,
bought drinks for Ploshnick and began asking about tenure. Ploshnick talked about how difficult it was to fire a tenured teacher. She said some things she shouldn’t have said. She quoted someone else as having used a racial obscenity, the so-called “n-word..”
All the while, he was secretly videotaping, and Ploshnick’s comments are part of an anti-union web video, “Teachers Gone Wild.”

Gov. Christie’s goals include the weakening of the union. But what about the morally dubious means? Did the governor deem this secret taping a violation of conscience?
Christie recently praised O’Keefe’s secret taping of Ploshnick and others and said: “If you need an example of what I’ve been talking about for the last nine months — about how the teachers union leadership is out of touch with the people and out of control — go watch this video.”
The dissonance goes further. The person whose privacy or confidentiality you violate should be someone who deserves it. But Ploshnick doesn’t seem like such a bad person or teacher. In 1997,
Alissa Ploshnick risked her life to save the lives of a dozen Passaic schoolchildren. She threw herself in front of a careening van to protect her students and landed in the hospital with broken ribs, a fractured wrist, a badly bruised pelvis and glass cuts in her eyes. She could have died. . . . She says she spent $9,000 of her own money on school supplies for her students, made sure a child in her class made his dental appointments by bringing him there and was just asked to be a godparent to the child of another student.

Author, Author

November 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

 “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Apparently, many students are taking Dr. Johnson’s words to heart.

“Ed Dante” writes only for money. And unlike Dr. Johnson, he doesn’t even get his name on his work, just the cash. He works for a “research” company, writing papers for students and sometimes admissions essays for applicants. His article in the Chronicle is quickly making the rounds. It’s a sort of update of a similar article (pdf here) that appeared in Harper’s fifteen years ago: “This Pen for Hire,” by the similarly pseudonymous “Abigail Witherspoon” who worked for a similar company.
Some things haven’t changed much. The clients still include those who have insufficient English or more than sufficient cash, or both. Clients seek papers in all fields except perhaps the hard sciences – literature, history, hospitality, sociology, etc. The future teachers of America are still well represented. Seminarians didn’t appear in the 1995 article; now Dante gets lots of them:
I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow.
Rates have gone up. In 1995, students were paying $20 a page. Dante’s clients pay per project – $2,000 for a 20-40 page paper, which works out to $50-100 a page. The writer-company split is still the same – 50-50.

Some other things have changed. Witherspoon, writing in 1995, was ghosting pre-Internet. She had to go to libraries, and students often showed up in person to get “their” papers. Each page of the paper was stamped with the company name, so the student had to retype the essay, or pay someone to retype it – not a problem in the digital era.

Witherspoon also took more liberties, substituting her own leftish opinions for the conservative ones clients wanted. A request to “Show why immigrants are dead weight on the economy and take jobs away from us” became an essay on the INS’s unequal criteria for refugee status. Nobody complained, probably because, despite the required retyping, nobody noticed.
Both writers take a certain pride in their uncredited work, and both view academia with skepticism that spills over into contempt. Dante sees his services as a critique of university teaching. (“These students truly are desperate. . . .They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren’t getting it.”) Witherspoon’s resentment is mostly class-based, directed at those who are lazy, wealthy, and anti-intellectual:
When I’m alone in my room, in front of the computer and between the headphones, it’s hard not to write something good for myself and maybe even for the imaginary absentee professor or appreciative T.A., something that will last. But when I’m standing in the crowded Tailormade office, next to someone elegant and young and in eight hundred bucks’ worth of calfskin leather, someone who not only has never heard of John Stuart Mill and never read Othello but doesn’t even know he hasn’t, doesn’t even mind that he hasn’t, and doesn’t even care that he hasn’t, the urge to make something that will last somehow vanishes.

Find Friends, Lose Friends

November 13, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Random thoughts on “The Social Network,” which I saw last night:

1. The central irony (which nobody could possibly miss): Facebook is hugely popular because it lets people create and maintain friendships of all sorts. Yet the person who created it, when it comes to personal relationships, is utterly inept. Compounding the irony is that the missing piece is “relationship status.” That isthe element  that, when Zuckerberg thinks of it and adds it to the template, finally allows him to put Facebook online.

2. Boys. The source of energy for most of what happens in the film is the adolescent boy mentality. What eventually becomes Facebook starts when Zuckerberg creates a tournament variant of Hot or Not but with pictures of Harvard female students.

Women are objects for boys to rate rather than people they might interact with as human beings. It’s what we might expect from stereotypical computer nerds, but they are not the only ones who prefer this version of male-female relationships. The hits so numerous that they crash the system come mostly from Harvard boys.  We see the same mentality at the Porcellian, the exclusive Harvard final club Zuckerberg can’t get into, where the upper-class boys bring in girls by the busload. No doubt, some of these rich boys were graduates of prep schools where a similar mentality reigned.  (See this earlier post on the Landon School.)

3. Sorkin. Nobody comes close to Aaron Sorkin in writing dialogue for really smart characters. He did it on the West Wing, and he does it here. In several places in the film, I had the feeling I was watching a chess match where one player was thinking three moves ahead of me, the other five moves ahead. As consolation, I prefer to imagine that each of those ten or twenty seconds of dialogue took Sorkin half a day to write.

4. Lonely at the top – something of a cliche in American films. At the end of “Godfather I,” Michael Corleone has defeated his enemies, he has climbed to the top. A door closes, with Michael on one side, his wife on the other. He is estranged from his family (those who are still alive). He has no friends, only courtiers bowing to him. He does not look happy.

At the end of “The Social Network,” Mark Zuckerberg has settled accounts with his enemies. On the soundtrack, the Beatles sing, “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.” Zuckerberg is at the top. But, like Michael Corleone, to get there he has made a pact with the devil (Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, shown in the inferno scene below), and he has screwed the person who had been his only friend. When Facebook logs its millionth subscriber, everyone else is celebrating, but Zuckerberg barely smiles.

5. Floor lamps? For your $45,000 a year at Harvard, you don’t get very good lighting in your room.

6. Capitalism. In the Wall Street Journal last June, Alex Tabarrok was muttering that “when it comes to the movies capitalism never seems to get a fair shake.” True, Hollywood does not turn out many pictures that show entrepreneurs creating, sustaining, and expanding a business.* And in most of these films, capitalists face moral dilemmas – if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be much of a story – and, like Zuckerberg in this film, they frequently make morally questionable choices in pursuit of business success.

As I noted at the time (here), I didn’t see why Tabarrok was puzzled, even dismayed, by this scenario.  Surely Tabarrok, an economist, would understand supply and demand.  Hollywood is supplying what the public is demanding. In seven weeks, “The Social Network” has grossed a very respectable $85 million – nowhere near “Jackass 3-D” of course, but several lengths ahead of “Secretariat.”

*For my money, the best movie about business is still “Save the Tiger” (1973), which presents the moral and financial dilemmas of capitalism on a much smaller but probably more realistic scale.

Ashes and Allegories

November 11, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Firemen’s Ball,” (1967) was the last film Milos Forman made in his native Czechoslovakia. Many critics see the film as satire, a critique of communist society.  They credit Forman for his genius in being able to make the film at all, given the stodgy communist censorship that prevailed in the Soviet bloc at the time.

If the movie is allegory, it’s about the mistrust, dishonesty, cruelty, and above all incompetence built into the state bureaucratic system. The firemen, with their committees and bickering and attention to silly aspects of the ball, can’t seem to do anything right. At one point, there’s an actual fire at an old man’s farmhouse, but the fire engine gets stuck in the snow, and there’s no water pressure, and the house burns down. The only help the firemen can offer the old man is to suggest he keep warm by moving his chair closer to the fire. Then they thoughtfully turn the chair around so he doesn’t have to watch his house burn down.

I hadn’t thought about “Firemen’s Ball” in a long time, but my son e-mailed to ask if he should go see it when it was shown at his university’s film series.

Could there be a similar allegory about American capitalism? Socialist collectivism can lead to bad outcomes. But what about individualized and privatized systems? Could the rules of such a system result in a man’s house burning down while firefighters on the scene did nothing?

This incident happened over a month ago, and it got much coverage in the media and the blogosphere. But as far as I know, nobody saw a parallel with “Fireman’s Ball,” perhaps because Forman’s film was so different in one important respect. It was fictional.

If you see “Fireman’s Ball,” be sure to get the version with Forman’s own spoken introduction in English. When the movie was released in Czechoslovakia, he says, 40,000 firemen resigned in protest. So he explained to them that the movie was not really about firemen and that “the firemen in the film are merely symbols of the whole society.” This, he says, made the firemen “peaceful and happy.” Then Forman adds for the movie audience, “But the film is about firemen.”

Forman says this almost with a wink, so in the end you don’t really know if he intended the movie to be a simple story, poignant and funny, or whether he was going for  larger meanings.  Maybe it is, as he says, just a story about firemen. But as with the Tennessee fire, the intent of those who created the story has little to do with whether that story can serve as a more general commentary on the society.

Negative Thinking

November 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Supreme Court round-up:
Refused to overturn a lower court decision that failed to deny that government does not have the right to refrain from excluding unstated principles that do not have . . . .

OK, I’m exaggerating. But multiple negatives are confusing, as I’ve noted before (here). How else to explain Glenn Beck’s saying that Nouriel Roubini agrees with him about inflation (transcript excerpts and video here)? Despite a low rate of inflation, Beck insists that Weimar is just around the corner, especially with the Fed’s recent “quantitative easing” (QE2).
Prices are going through the roof. Basic cost of living, food, clothing, energy, is all going up. And there will be a QE3 and QE4. . . . Leading economist Nouriel Roubini, he tweeted this: . . . : “QE2 will be followed by QE3 and QE4 as QE2 will fail to revive the real economy and to prevent deflationary pressures.” There you go.
Beck seems to think that Roubini is saying that QE2 will lead to inflation. In fact, Roubini is saying just the opposite, but he phrases that idea with a double negative: will fail to prevent deflation. It’s possible that the negative connotation of deflation also added to Beck’s apparent confusion.

As for evidence about inflation, forget official indices, Beck says, and forget the experts (except those that Beck thinks agree with him). “When will we start listening to our own guts, and to common sense?”

I couldn’t fail to disagree with him less.

Boom Box Illusion

November 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Three-dimensional illusions can be public art and can even have practical uses.

This one – audio tape to boom-box tape player – is art, artifice, for art’s sake. No sociological content, but it’s just so cool.

A video with more detail on how it was done is here.

(HT: Richard Wiseman)

Who Are the Felons in Your Neighborhood?

November 8, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Do most of us know the crime statistics for our neighborhood?

In a comment on the previous post, Bob S. asked, “If people knew how many index crimes were in their neighborhoods, do you think there would be more involvement in handling the issues before governmental interference?”

The point of my post had been that our estimates of crime are impressionistic, and those impressions are much more affected by the appearance of a neighborhood than by numbers on the police books. The “signs of crime” – abandoned cars and buildings, tough-looking groups of kids, garbage strewn on the sidewalk, etc. – are visible, and you can see them every day. When I was in the crim biz and the newspaper would publish crime statistics once or twice a year, I’d note the numbers for my precinct, and I’d clip the article and file it. A week later I wouldn’t remember whether robberies or other crimes in my neighborhood were up or down from the previous year.

That was before the Internet. Now, some cities make their crime data easily accessible. Here, for example are the crimes known to the police for the last six months in the area of Boston where my niece lives.

(Click on the image for a larger view. Or go here .)

A is for Assault, B for Breaking and Entering, R for Robbery, T for Theft, and so on. You can select the time period, and you can click on an incident for more detail.

Houston too has a user-friendly site. You choose the area of the city you want. The map shows and describes the boundaries, and it lists the zip codes in that “beat.” Another click takes you to a list of all crimes in any month you choose – type of crime and address.

At the NYPD Website, you can get data by precinct for the seven Index crimes for the most recent week. If there’s an option for other time periods and details about location, I couldn’t find it.

If you're interested, try your own city. Googling the city name and “police department” will get you there. Then see what kind of information you can get about your neighborhood.

Then there’s Bob’s question about knowledge of crime and ideas about the role of government. I don’t have good data at hand, but my guess is that most people still see crime as a matter for government, especially when crime rates are high. Individuals and businesses may adopt preventive measures, but when crime becomes a public issue, most people look to the government and its agencies – the police and courts. When people are afraid – of crime, terrorism, communism, drugs, illegal immigration, etc. – they look to the government for protection. When people think that crime rates are rising, they’re willing to grant more power to the state. It’s only when they perceive the government as incapable of protecting them that they turn to vigilantism and other non-state protection schemes. Even then, they see their activity as supplementing government action, not replacing it.

Taking Less Serious Crime Seriously

November 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

City Keeping Minor Crimes Under Radar

That was the headline on a front-page, above-the-fold story Tuesday’s Times. It reported that since 2002, the city and police department have stopped providing the data to the state, or presumably to just about anyone else. The NYPD readily publishes its data on “serious crime” or what the FBI calls Part I crimes.* These are also known as the “Index” offenses because they supposedly serve as an index or indicator of general levels of crime. But in addition to these seven or eight crimes (depending on whether you count arson), cities also keep statistics on Part II crimes. Here’s a page from the Phoenix Police Department report.

(Click on the image for a larger view. Or go here for the original.)

The Times couldn’t find anyone at the NYPD to justify the policy. The story does quote a City Council member who was trying to force the issue. “They basically said the public can’t handle this information.” (Apparently Jack Nicholson was on duty when she asked.)

I myself don’t know what to make of Part II numbers. Some of these less serious crimes are important, not for any direct harm that they cause but for their impact on people’s general sense of fear or safety. That feeling is not much related to rates of serious crime (murder, robbery, car theft, etc.). These crimes usually occur where few people can see them. Our sense of safety is far more affected by visible but less serious crime and even things that are not crimes. Abandoned cars, run-down buildings, street prostitutes, drug dealers, and gangs – we read these as signs of crime. These are the true index offenses – they are our indicator of how safe a neighborhood is.

The trouble is that statistics on these offenses are much more driven by what the police do than by what the offenders do. An increase in drug offenses on the books probably means that the police have decided to crack down on that crime. Look at the Phoenix data. Has there been virtually no illegal gambling in Phoenix in the last decade? Did DUIs really double from 2006 to 2008?

Cracking down on these signs of crime is the whole idea behind the “broken windows” approach. In its original version, the idea was that if the police got tough on “disorder” and “quality of life” offenses, more serious crimes would also decrease. I haven’t kept up with the research on this, but my guess is that “broken windows” enforcement has at best a modest impact on crime, but it goes a long way towards making people feel safer.

* Recently, some researchers have raised doubts about the accuracy of the NYPD’s statistics. See previous posts here and here.

Ignoring Good News

November 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m writing this before the polls close, but like everyone else, I expect this to be an anti-Obama election. And like most people, I think the reason is the economy. But . . .

  • Obama has lowered taxes for almost all Americans.
  • Most of the TARP money for Wall Street has been recovered, and the country will make about $16 billion in profits from it.
  • The economy has grown by 3% in the past year, the Dow and S&P are up for the year.
In thread on a previous post, there was some discussion about ignorance – what people know, and what they think they know but are wrong about. A Bloomberg poll today showed that most people
  • believe taxes have increased
  • think the TARP money has disappeared down the drain (or into the bankers’ pockets)
  • think the economy has been shrinking
The ignorance on these items is, of course, greater among Republicans. But many Independents and Democrats also share the erroneous perceptions.

Why? The head of the company that did the poll blames the Democrats for their failure to communicate the good news. My guess is that it’s more like a halo effect, or what Bruce Oppenheimer (political science, Vanderbilt), quoted in the article, calls “a dark cloud.”

The halo or cloud is the overall global impression that people form. From that general perception they deduce the specifics. If your overall impression is that the economy sucks, then you'll guess that anything that has to do with the economy is going the wrong way – taxes going up, the economy shrinking, the big bad bankers getting away with robbery, etc.

Oppenheimer thinks that the dark cloud is unemployment. True, no doubt. I suspect that real estate – home values and sales – also plays a part. It’s not just that people pay more attention to bad news than good. But the information on TARP, growth, and even taxes is more remote. Taxes you pay only once a year. Does anyone make close comparisons of the deductions in their check stubs from last year? TARP – would anyone have first-hand knowledge of that?

But if you own a home, you might know about its value. And you can see empty, unsold houses with the naked eye, “For Sale” signs lining the streets like Burma-Shave signs. Unemployment isn’t just a number like 9.5%. If you’re out of work, or if you know people who can’t find a job, it’s right there in the room with you, and you just might not care all that much about GDP numbers or the stock market.

Update: I heard about this survey only today. Turns out it was released three days ago and covered in a few places including WaPo and NPR. That same day, David Dayen at FireDogLake had the same reaction that I did today. Or as he put it, the survey showed “that Americans don’t pay attention to CBO or NBER reports or watch C-Span very often.”