Rich Sentiments

December 29, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been wealthy, and believe me, wealthy is better.”

It’s not exactly what Sophie Tucker said. But it does seem to me that although rich is better than poor, the word carries overtones of greed and selfishness — the unapologetic 19th century plutocrat blowing his cigar smoke in your face. Forbes still lays it on the line – “The 400 Richest People in America” – possibly because Wealthiest is too cumbersome for a magazine cover. But rich has been steadily going out of fashion. Here is the nGram for rich and wealthy since 1850.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

A few months ago I had a post called “Blockheads” about the effects of raising income taxes on the rich. In a Times article, Greg Mankiw claimed that the increase from 36% to 39% would deter rich people from their productive work. I disagreed, and I used Mankiw himself – “a rich economist” – and his unpaid blogging (and underpaid Times writing) as an example. Rich was the word I used. I was trying to be blunt about the amounts of money rich people had and got; I wanted to avoid euphemism. After all, in “Fiddler” Tevye does not sing, “If I were a wealthy individual, Ya da deedle deedle. . .”

Had I been too negative, too snarky? Not long after, I got a message from alerting me to their “Sentiment Analysis.” I clicked and discovered that the overall mood of the post was “Very Good!” mostly because I’d used the word rich.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Use poor a few times in a post, and Liquida will rate the mood as “Very Bad.” Needless to say, my post on the quarterback sneak had a “Very Bad” sentiment, but surprisingly, the recent post on Death Panels rated a “Good” sentiment. Some text analysis programs are better than others.

In any case, one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to uplift the overall mood of this blog, to reduce the level of snark and to be and nicer even when offering criticism. But I don’t think I’m going to rely on Liquida to help me.

A Public (Television) Affair

December 24, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The sociologists of media/culture will tell us what’s going on here. But me, in my naivete, I did a double take when I saw the TV listings for WNET, the local PBS outlet for us liberal elitists.

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

Yes, PBS is showing “Jessica Simpson: Happy Christmas.”   Jessica Simpson in the PBS line-up.  As they say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others.

I even checked the WNET website to make sure someone hadn’t pranked the Times. But there it is (“. . . guests Willie Nelson, pop sensation (and sister) Ashlee Simpson, and more. New tracks from Simpson's upcoming album . . .”) With Charlie Rose and Gwen Ifill joining Jessica to sing “The Little Drummer Boy.”

The Law of Ungraspably Large Numbers

December 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Been here long?

Gallup regularly asks this question:
Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings --
  1. Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,
  2. Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process
  3. God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?
Here are the results:

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

For better or worse, Godless evolutionism has been rising steadily if slowly for the past decade – 16%, and counting. And “only” 40% of us Americans, down from 47%, believe that humans are johnnies-come-lately. Scientific fact is making some headway. But a lot of people still believe in something that’s just not true.

Andrew Gelman explains it in psycho-economic terms. The “belief in young-earth creationism . . . is costless.” What you hear from religion contradicts what you hear from science class in school. The cost (“discomfort” in Andrew’s terms) of rejecting one belief outweighs the cost of rejecting the other. That’s probably true, and it helps explain the popularity of the have-it-both-ways choice – evolution guided by God.

I think there’s something else – the law of ungraspably large numbers. For example, I know how far it is to California (3000 miles), and I even think I know how far it is to the moon (240,000 miles – and I’m not looking this up on the Internet; if I’m wrong, I’ll let my ignorance stand since that’s partly the point I’m trying to make). But once you get past that – how far is it to the sun or to Jupiter or to Betelgeuse? – you could tell me any number up in the millions or more – a number so wrong as to make any astronomer chuckle – and I’d think it sounded reasonable.

Those big numbers and the differences between them are meaningful only to people who are familiar with them. They are so large that they lie outside the realm of everyday human experience. The same holds for distances in time. Ten thousand years – that seems like a long, long time ago, long enough for any species to have been around. But “millions of years” is like those millions or hundreds of millions of miles – ungraspably large.

Since the number is outside the realm of human experience, it doesn’t make sense that humans or anything resembling them or even this familiar planet could have existed that long ago.

I suspect that it’s this same law of ungraspably large numbers that allows politicians to posture as doing something about “the huge deficit” by attacking a wasteful government program that costs $3 million. If I spend a few thousand dollars for something, that’s a big ticket item, so three million sounds like a lot. Millions and billions both translate to the same thing: “a lot of money” just as distances in millions of miles and billions of miles are both “a long way away.” The difference between them is hard to grasp.*

*How many such programs would the government have to cancel to cover the revenue losses we just signed on for by extending the tax cuts on incomes over $250,000? And if you think those tax cuts for the rich will pay for themselves or increase revenue, there’s a lovely piece of 1883 pontine architecture I’d like to show you for possible purchase.

Babel Phone

December 21, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It gets harder and harder to separate reality from fiction – like those stories panelists on “Wait Wait” make up for the “Bluff the Listener” segment. Or the facts and fictional products or happenings that Kurt Andersen mixed together in Turn of the Century, and readers often didn’t know which was factual and which made up. That was twelve years ago. By now, reality has caught up, and some of those fictions are now fact. But maybe we’re at a point where sci-fi sometimes has to catch up with reality.

Thirty years ago, Douglas Adams imagined the Babel fish – instant translation available to all. Now there’s this, and you don’t have to stick it in your ear.

It’s like a magic trick,* or something out of Harry Potter – if Gryffindor had ever vacationed on the Costa del Sol. But it’s real – an app for your iPhone. Five bucks. (I’m not sure how many knuts that is.)

UPDATE, Dec. 30. Even David Pogue – David F***ing Pogue! – puts Word Lens on his ten-best-ideas list and says it is “software magic.”

*I know it isn’t really all that amazing. Translation programs have been around for a while (and how sophisticated does it have to be to read simple signs?), so has character recognition. But, at least in this ad, it still looks like magic to me.

Death Panels

December 20, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

She was crying – a student in my ten o’clock class, sitting on a couch in the broad stairwell near the classroom. Her face was red, her body shook slightly. Another girl in the class was sitting next to her trying to comfort her. I stopped and sat down across from them.

The girl’s father was dying. He had been diagnosed many months ago, and the doctor had recommended a treatment available at only one hospital. But the hospital was not “in network,” and the insurance company had refused to cover the costs. The family was not at all wealthy – the girl was paying tuition with what she could scrape together from her job and loans – so that was that. Now the cancer had spread. It was inoperable, and his in-network hospital had sent him home with some liquid morphine and Dilaudid.

I told her not to worry about taking the final exam. We’d make some arrangement.

* * * *
I see Sara Palin is still using the “death panel” line (see her recent WSJ piece). Back when she introduced it, Politifact gave it their most flagrant false rating (“Pants on Fire”) on their Truthometer. But when you’ve come up with a catchy phrase that your base responds to, why not keep using it?

At the time, I wondered why Obamacare proponents didn’t point out that we already had death panels – not the fantasy ones in the imagination of Palin and her peeps, but real ones staffed by the insurance companies. “Recission,” the insurers called it – rescinding a policy on whatever pretext they could come up with when the patient’s bills threatened to run to real money. “Recission” sounds so much nicer than “death panels”; it has a precise, almost surgical ring to it.

The Democrats, even when they exposed the policy, continued to use the industry’s term. Insurance executives testifying to Congressional committees all said that recission is a minor matter, a distraction, since it affects only half of one percent of policy holders. Several bloggers later pointed out what was wrong with this math (my earlier post with links is here). But even at face value, it’s daunting. Half of one percent is five per thousand. If one-third of the population has health insurance, that’s 100 million. Five per 1000 is 5,000 per million, times 100 is half a million people.

I assume that this recission rate is lifetime, not annual. It’s not a huge number, especially if you translate it into that small-sounding percentage. So you really don’t have to think about it – not until you’re on your way to class, and you see a girl weeping for her dying father, and you still can’t get that image out of your head.

Word Count

December 17, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Google’s new tool is too cool. It tracks the word count of any word or phrase in “lots of books” going back as far as 1800 if you like. And it’s fast. An instant reading of the Zeitgeist.

The rise and fall of sociology tracks with the discourse of social class.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Want to confirm your impression about the rise of soccer?

In some cases, it’s hard to figure out the relation between what’s in “lots of books” and what’s happening in the real world. The decline in “robbery” in books starts 15 years ahead of the decrease in robbery in the real world. And as robbery in the streets starts to decline, its representation on the page starts to rise. Go figure.

Warning: this is a real time-suck, at least it was for me today when I first discovered it.

The Sneakiest Sneak

December 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
You’ve probably seen this variant of the quarterback sneak – it’s gotten millions of hits on YouTube, and it’s been reported on broadcast TV. If not, take 30 seconds and watch it.

It isn’t really sneaky. In fact, it’s brazen. And it brings us tonight’s word: Definition of the Situation.

It’s Intro Sociology, W. I. Thomas. When you are in a situation, you need to know what’s going on.
You need to know what that situation is - a date or just coffee between friends, a formal class or a relaxed discussion, etc. The definition tells you who you are; it tells you who the others in that situation are (lover, student, friend, etc.). It tells you what you should do. The definition of the situation is all about roles and rules.

Faced with an unfamiliar situation, you look around for a definition, and the usual strategy is to take your cues from others, especially those who seem to know what’s going on – people with competence or authority in that situation. That dependence on the definitions of strangers has been the basis of many Candid Camera stunts and social psychology experiments, where the strangers are acting not with kindness but with deception and manipulation.

In this middle-school football play, the quarterback and center do something unusual for someone in those roles. They don’t violate the official rulebook, but their behavior is outside the norms of the game everyone knows. What’s going on? Has the play begun? The defense looks around to the others for their cue as to what to do. They see the offensive line motionless in their stances, seemingly waiting for the play to start. They see their own teammates too looking uncertain rather than trying to make a tackle. So nobody defines the play as having started. But it has. Only when the quarterback, having walked past eight definitionless* players, starts running do they arrive at an accurate definition, and by then, it’s too late. Touchdown.

UPDATE: Although W.I. Thomas coined the term definition of the situation, what the video dramatizes is really closer to Goffman’s use of the term

it will be in his interests to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatment of him. This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan.
from the opening section of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
* Someone does offer a definition – the coach of the team on offense This play immediately followed a 5-yard offsides penalty on the defense. Now the coach of the team in white yells at his quarterback that it should have been a 10-yard penalty and he should walk off another five yards. The quarterback starts to do so, and none of the defense remembers at first that only referees, not quarterbacks, can respot the ball for a penalty.

Welfare (and Wal-Mart) at the Eleventh Hour

December 14, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Do poor people make unwise decisions – decisions that may have caused their poverty, decisions that aggravate that hardship? In the thread of comments on the previous post, there was some speculation that many of the poor, perhaps even a majority, were making these kinds of bad choices, perhaps because they were ignorant or, more likely, because they lacked the proper virtues and because government welfare allowed them to do so. In any case, the argument continues, the Heritage Foundation has told us that the poor in America are well-housed, well-clothed, and well-fed.

Maybe it’s time to go back to Wal-Mart. Three months ago Bill Simon, the Wal-Mart CEO spoke at a Goldman-Sachs Retail Conference, and some of what he said got picked up in the popular press – NPR’s “Planet Money,” Salon, and elsewhere. He talked about
an ever-increasing amount of transactions being paid for with government assistance.

And you need not go further than one of our stores on midnight at the end of the month. And it's real interesting to watch, about 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs, and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when electronic -- government electronic benefits cards get activated and then the checkout starts and occurs. And our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher.

And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they've been waiting for it. Otherwise, we are open 24 hours -- come at 5 a.m., come at 7 a.m., come at 10 a.m.

But if you are there at midnight, you are there for a reason.
This snapshot of Wal-Mart at midnight doesn’t quite fit with the widespread and tenacious the image of the poor as drug addicted, lazy, heedless spawners of children that they won’t even feed a bowl of cereal to in the morning, all supported by a cushy welfare system that subsidizes their profligate, unwise, and unvirtuous ways.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Shortage of jobs was also two to four times more likely than these other causes to be voted as “not a cause of poverty.”

The survey was done in 2001. Perhaps the current high rates of unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, have changed perceptions about the poor and the causes of poverty (though probably not at the Heritage Foundation).

Feed the Poor? - Maybe Not

December 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the US, conservatives (and others) often see social problems as matters of morality, often individual morality. (See my partly facetious 2007 post about urinals and splashing as a moral issue.)

A video clip of Kate O’Beirne of the National Review has been circulating through the leftward regions of the blogosphere. Speaking at the conservative Hudson Institute, O’Beirne complained about the sacred-cow status of breakfast and lunch programs in the public schools.
what poor excuse for a parent can’t rustle up a bowl of cereal and a banana? I just don’t get why millions of school children qualify for school breakfasts unless we have a major wide spread problem with child neglect. . . .You know, I mean if that’s how many parents are incapable of pulling together a bowl of cereal and a banana, then we have problems that are way bigger than… that problem can’t be solved with a school breakfast, because we have parents who are just criminally… ah… criminally negligent with respect to raising children.
(View the brief clip here.)

Many comments on the left have deplored O’Beirne not just for her cold lack of sympathy with the poor* but for her ignorance of the pressures poor people face. However, from the moralistic viewpoint, she may be right: a parent should feed a kid at least a banana and a bowl of cereal. But what if many parents don’t give their kids even a minimum breakfast. What should the government do?

For conservatives, even ostensibly reasonable ones like David Brooks, the big problem is this: how can we instill virtue in the lower social orders? The conservative solution usually takes the form of punishing the poor for their unvirtuous behavior, an approach whose success over the past few centuries, has often been hard to discern. O’Beirne, for example, hints at criminalizing the breakfast-less household. Although this would be morally comforting to those of us who pour out the Wheaties every morning for our kids, I wouldn’t put much faith in it as cost-effective policy.

But if you frame this as a practical problem – kids not getting nutrition – you don’t have to be a genius to figure out the solution: go to a place with a lot of those kids (i.e., school) and feed them.

*An impression that is strengthened by listening to her in the video rather than just reading the transcript.

Around the House — Going the Extra Mile?

December 7, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s this week’s Car Talk puzzler.
A woman and her husband frequently go walking together. On one particular day, however, they walked side by side, one never getting ahead of the other. They walked for an hour. At the end of the hour, the woman says, "That felt good. I think I walked four miles. The husband responds, “Oh, I walked much farther than that. I’m sure I walked five or six.”

How could that be?
I think I know the answer Tom and Ray are looking for. But the social survey answer is this: Husbands and wives often differ in their perceptions of how much the husband does. Men think they go further in some areas than their wives think the guys go.

The GSS asks husbands and wives how much of the housework they do and how much their spouse does. Here are some tables based on the 1972-2006 GSS.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

I realize this is just a quick-and-dirty bit of research. But I’ll clean it up. Honest

Social Psych

December 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Social psychology, in graduate school, turned out to be much different from what my undergrad teachers had led me to believe. I was expecting Goffman, Erik Erikson, the Meads (George and Margaret). Instead, grad school took me to the world of the social psych experiment.

At the time, I thought it was all trivial and manipulative. I said as much at the time. The intellectual forebears of experimental social psychology, it seemed, were “Beat the Clock” and “Candid Camera.” (Those too young to remember the former can find clips on YouTube. Here are some screen grabs.)

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
I was joking, of course, and I made this observation only to a few fellow students, not faculty. But now, I have just come upon a paragraph by Phil Zimbardo,* reflecting on his own famous experiment and that of Stanley Milgram:
Only after Stanley died did I become aware of our mutual admiration for Allen Funt, creator of Candid Camera. I consider Funt to be one of the most creative, intuitive social psychologists on the planet. For 50 years he has been contriving experimental scenarios in which ordinary people face a challenge to their usual perceptions or functioning. He manipulates situations to reveal truths about compliance,conformity, the power of signs and symbols, and various forms of mindless obedience.**
Bud Collyer, eat your heart out.

*From Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm, Thomas Blass, ed., 2009.

** For another view on “mindless obedience” in experiments, see this earlier post.

A Real Death Panel

December 3, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The death panel is not Obama’s. It’s in a state dominated byRepublicans – the governorship and a 2-1 majority in both houses.
Effective at the beginning of October, Arizona stopped financing certain transplant operations under the state’s version of Medicaid. Many doctors say the decision amounts to a death sentence for some low-income patients . . . .

Francisco Felix, 32, a father of four who has hepatitis C and is in need of a liver, received news a few weeks ago that a family friend was dying and wanted to donate her liver to him. But the budget cuts meant he no longer qualified for a state-financed transplant.

He was prepared anyway at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center as his relatives scrambled to raise the needed $200,000. When the money did not come through, the liver went to someone else on the transplant list.
Full story on page one of today’s New York Times (online here).


December 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

They didn’t have performativity back when I went to school, so I don’t really know what it is. Is this an example?

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Full article here.

Via Brad DeLong, and all over the blogosphere today, even though it’s originally from 1974.

Citizen Kanye

December 1, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I wish I knew more about the economics of the music business.

At first glance, it looks like Kanye West’s decision to sell his new album for $3.99* at Amazon is putting pride ahead of profit. Zach Baron at the Village Voice says that Kanye did it only because of the swift sales success of another album, “Speak Now,” by, oh, what was her name? You know, that one at the VMA.

There’s money, and there’s competitive, striving megalomania. (I can’t believe I am the first person to come up with the pun in the subject line of this post. But if someone else did put it out there, Google’s algorithm places it far down on the list.) In some areas, striving and ego go together like a horse and carriage. At the financial houses (Goldman Sachs, et. al.), they say that those multi-million dollar bonuses are not about the money and what it buys. The dollars are just a way of keeping score. You want a $20 million bonus because the guy at the next desk got $18 million.

But apparently, in the music business, at least for the top stars, what you keep score with is not dollars but sales, regardless of the economics.
the rush toward ever lower pricing . . . pushes the consumer cost of an album ever closer to that terrifying price point: free. Nobody in the industry wants that, let alone a guy poised to sell something in the neighborhood of a million records over the next week.
It’s like the old joke about the businessman who has cut his price so low that he’s losing $2 on every item he sells. When asked how he can do that, he says, “We’ll make it up in volume.”

I guess Kanye’s beautiful, dark, twisted response would be, “We’ll make it up in ego.”


* Now, after the first week surge, the download price has gone up to $4.99.

HT: Tyler Cowen for the link to the Voice.