The Fashion Report – Names Edition

June 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images)

In Sunday’s Times, David Leonhardt, who usually patrols the economics beat, looks at fashions in baby names (here). His primary focus is the rapid decline in old-fashioned names for girls. The “nostalgia wave” of Emma, Grace, Ella, and other late-nineteenth-century names, he argues, is over.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Well, yes and no. Sarah and Emma may be in decline, but the big gainer among girls’ names is Sophia, an equally nostalgic name that was last popular at the turn of the twentieth century. Isabella, too, (third largest gain) follows the same trend line. Besides, the nostalgia for old names was selective. Emma and Grace may have come back, but many other old-fashioned names never became trendy. One hundred years ago and continuing through the 1920s, one of the most popular girls’ names in the US was Mildred. (You can trace the popularity baby names at the Census website.)

“The lack of recent Jane Austen movies has probably played a role,” says Leonhardt, though he’s probably joking. Not only is Emma still in the top five, but I suspect that films of that persuasion appealed more to the prejudices and sensibilities of post-childbearing women. But the media do have an impact. In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner showed how fashions in names often trickle down. The Sophias and Isabellas become stylish first among the upscale and educated; it may be several years, even decades, before they became more widely popular. But the media/celebrity channel can bypass that slow trickle. As Leonhardt says, how else to explain the boom in Khloe?

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Similarly, Addison, the second biggest gainer, may have gotten a boost from the fictional doctor who rose from “Gray’s Anatomy” to her own “Private Practice.” In the first year of “Gray’s Anatomy, the name Addison zoomed from 106th place to 28th. The name is also just different enough from Madison, which had been in the top ten for nearly a decade. Its stylishness was fading fast among the fashion-conscious.

Madison herself owed her popularity to the media. She created a big “Splash” soon after the film came out. As Tom Hanks says in the scene below, “Madison’s not a name.” [The clip will start at the beginning of relevant part of the scene. For purposes of this post, it should stop at 3:23, after the punch line (“Good thing we weren’t at 149th street.”). But I couldn’t figure out the code to make it stop.](Update: Disney has forced YouTube to remove this clip. See the footnote* for a transcript.)

At the time, the Hanks character was correct. Before “Splash” (1984) Madison was never in the top 1000. The next year, she was at 600. Now she has been in the top ten for nearly fifteen years, and at number two or three for half those years. (There have not yet been any Madisons in my classes. I suspect that will change soon.)

Boys’ names seem governed by somewhat different rules, with less overall variation, though recent trends are towards names with a final “n” (four out of the five big gainers in the chart above) and Biblical names.

These recent changes in girls' names aren't about nostalgia. Name trends are like fashion trends, they come and go. And, like fashion, name trends can be media driven, especially now that media can short-circuit the slower class diffusion process.

* Transcript of the relevant segment of the Splash clip:

Hanks: I'm going to have to call you something in English, because I can't pronounce -
Hannah: What - what are English names ?
Hanks: There's millions of them, I guess. Jennifer, Joanne, Hillary. . . .: Names, names. Linda, Kim .Where are we? [Cut to close up of Madison Ave. street sign] Madison.
Elizabeth, Samantha --
Hannah: I like Madison.
Hanks: Madison's not a name. [ a beat] Well, all right. Madison it is. Good thing we weren't at 149th street.


June 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

A year ago, I wrote post a called “Lies My Online Dating Partner Told Me.” It was based entirely on a blog post at OK Cupid, the free online dating service – “The Big Lies People Tell in Online Dating” (here). I wondered how people feel when they find out that the person they are dealing with on screen may be hiding important truths.

Now I think I know. And my online dissembler is OK Cupid.
If the dating sites had a mixer, you might find OK Cupid by the bar, muttering factoids and jokes, and in the middle of the room, conspicuously dropping everyone’s first names into his sentences. (Nick Paumgarten in an article on dating sites in this week’s New Yorker.)
OK Cupid would also be surrounded by a gaggle of sociologists waiting for the blogger side of OK’s personality to emerge again. The no-pay site (they make their money from ads) was founded by four Harvard math majors. (“We do the math to get you the dates,” says their logo.) Christian Rudder was the one who did the blog, and every so often he would post wonderful graphics from the research he could do on the millions of messages that hopeful people sent through their Website. Often his charts and findings found their way into other blogs (including this one) as well as the mainstream media.

The New Yorker article has a long section on OK Cupid. It includes the factoid that around Valentine’s Day this year, Cupid was bought for $50 million by

You won’t see that information on the website. Nowhere does it say, “OK Cupid is a wholly owned subsidiary of” You also won’t find Rudder’s blog post less than a year before that deal, “Why You Should Never Pay For Online Dating.”* It begins
Today I'd like to show why the practice of paying for dates on sites like and eHarmony is fundamentally broken, and broken in ways that most people don't realize. . . I intend to show, just by doing some simple calculations, that pay dating is a bad idea; actually, I won't be showing this so much as the pay sites themselves, because most of the data I'll use is from Match and eHarmony's own public statements. [emphasis in the original post]
It’s an excellent critique and caveat. But OK Cupid voluntarily removed it as courtesy to their new masters. I feel as though the hip, carefree spirit I’d been chatting with turned out to be a life insurance salesman.

* OK could remove this post from their site, but they could not expunge it completely from the Internet. You can find an archived copy here. It’s still worth reading.

Oh, and if you're not sure of the definition of the word that is the title of this post, you ought to look it up, especially if you're going to be taking the SATs..

Cocktail Umbrellas and Invisible Pens

June 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

How many gas stations are there in Mexico City?

At an ASA long, long ago, I went to a session on jobs outside of academia. One speaker – I can’t remember his name – spoke about getting a job as a consultant. The job interview, he said, was not going to be like what we expected. “You’re not going to be asked much about your vita or your research. Instead, they might throw a question at you like: How many gas stations are there in Mexico City?” And unlike students that aren’t paying attention in class, you probably shouldn’t say, “Could you repeat the question?”

No, they didn’t have a client who was going to be motoring around Mexico City and was worried about running on empty. Instead, they wanted to see both your general knowledge and your strategies for getting an answer. Maybe you have some idea of the population of Mexico City. Then you have to estimate how many of those people have cars. But what is a reasonable ratio of gas stations to cars? Or is there another strategy?

In any case, some companies are still at it.
  • Argus Information: How many traffic lights in Manhattan?
  • Gryphon Scientific: How many cocktail umbrellas are there in a given time in the United States?
  • Towers Watson: Estimate how many planes are there in the sky.
  • Google: How many basketballs can you fit in this room?
These were reported by based on information passed along by job seekers. These questions, and others, have been reported at HuffPo , Shine (Yahoo) , and elsewhere.

Some of the questions are looking not for imaginative calculation but imaginative problem-solving
  • Goldman Sachs: If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?
  • Procter & Gamble: Sell me an invisible pen.
  • Diageo North America: If you walk into a liquor store to count the unsold bottles, but the clerk is screaming at you to leave, what do you do?
  • VWR International: How would you market a telescope in 1750 when no one knows about orbits, moons etc.?
Some are just math or logic puzzles with only one correct answer.
  • Jane Street Capital: What is the smallest number divisible by 225 that consists of all 1’s and 0’s?
  • Goldman Sachs: Suppose you had eight identical balls. One of them is slightly heavier and you are given a balance scale. What’s the fewest number of times you have to use the scale to find the heavier ball?
  • Google: You are climbing a staircase. Each time you can either take one step or two. The staircase has n steps. In how many distinct ways can you climb the staircase?
And some are personal, even (from an academic perspective) to the point of being nosy.
  • Pottery Barn: If I was a genie and could give you your dream job, what and where would it be?
  • Merrill Lynch: Tell me about your life from kindergarten onwards.
  • Kiewit Corp.: What did you play with as a child?
(The Pottery Barn question stands out as different from all the others. It seems much nicer. If I were choosing a place to work based on these questions, I'd have to go with Pottery Barn, unless it’s a trick question. Besides, I have a good idea of what the company actually sells.)

Which eminent (or even not-so-eminent) sociologists would have done well in an interview like this? Which would have had a hard time?

Sports as Life

June 25, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I questioned whether sports teams are a useful analogy for broader spheres of life, at least when it comes to affirmative action.

After I posted it, I tried a different thought experiment: suppose that sports really were life. Imagine a world in which the most important factor determining where you stand is your achievement in sports. If you’re a good athlete, on the starting team, the world is yours. If you’re on the bench but getting some playing time, you’re still OK. But if you’re not good enough to make the team, your chances in life are pretty bleak.

Let’s call this world High School.

Suppose you’re a white parent, and your kids are in a high school where whites are in the minority, maybe a quarter of the population. Suppose that your kids are not athletic enough to get on any of the teams. The high school is especially sports minded Sports determine how kids are treated, whether they are accepted and respected or looked down or ignored – and not just by the other kids but by the teachers, the administrators, everybody. Kids’ chances for success in other areas, their ability to have the good things in life, maybe even their physical and emotional health – all these depend on making the team.

Your kids try, but they can’t quite get there. Maybe it’s because they didn’t play all that much when they were in grade school and just never developed the skills. For whatever reason, your kids and most of the other white kids fall on the low end of the sports distribution. Always low in the status hierarchy, your kids are miserable – unhappy, discouraged, possibly resentful.

If this were really high school, you could tell them, “It’s only a few years.” But remember, our imaginary high school is not just school; it’s a world. It’s the world. It’s not just four years; it goes on and on. It’s life.

Would you go to the coach and ask him to cut your kids a break? I mean, they might not be quite as good as the others, but given the chance, they can do a credible job. Would you try to organize the other white parents to get the school to change its policies on how the varsity is selected? Remember, your kids and most white kids are excluded from the good things in the school; to the extent that the non-whites notice them at all, the white kids are looked down on. Nobody wants anything to do with them.

Might you suggest that the attitudes and ideas of the majority non-whites might be improved by having more white kids on the teams with them? Might you also argue that playing with the better players might even improve the white kids’ game? Would you want the school to put some more white kids on the team even if it meant that a slightly more skilled non-white was kept off?

Or would you say that the only thing that counts is the ability to bring the ball up the floor, drive the lane, and stuff the ball through the hoop? If the other kids can do it better than your kids, even if it’s only slightly better, then it’s only right that your kids continue to live their second-class existence.

Hypocrisy or “Tacit Knowledge”?

June 23, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images)

Is a university admissions office the same as the basketball team? Should selecting an entire student body for the college be like selecting players for the varsity?

Remember that kid at UC Merced, the one who argued that the graduated income tax was like redistributing GPA points? He found students who supported a graduated income tax and programs for the poor but who wouldn’t sign his petition to redistribute GPA points from the A students to those with lower GPAs. None of the students could articulate, on the spot, their reasons for not signing the GPA petition (assuming that he didn’t edit out any who did offer a reasonable explanation). (My earlier post on it is here.)

He’s baaaack. This time he’s asking students to sign a petition for affirmative action in sports – specifically to give preference to whites trying out for the team. Get it? If you support affirmative action in college admissions but not in sports, you’re a hypocrite. As before, students support one use of race preference but not the other, and as before none can give a convincing reason. The students all say, “It’s different,” but they can’t explain why.*

(To save time, I’ve set the video to start near the end – most students say the same thing. To see the whole thing, just drag the slider back to 0:00.)

Nyahh, nyahh – you’re for preferences for blacks where they’re a minority but against racial preferences for whites where they are the minority. You’re a hypocrite.** Either that, or your thinking has been muddled by liberal ideas, which is pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

The video concludes with the dictum that college admissions and sports should be the same. “Race-based preferences are wrong.” Ah, moral clarity.

Is college really the same as a sports team? They are certainly different in their consequences. If you’re a student now, in the coming years when you apply for a job, will HR ask you if you played varsity? Maybe. But unless the job you’re applying for is power forward, your answer won’t matter very much. But HR will absolutely want to know if you have a college degree. And your answer will matter. A lot.

Sports and school are different in another important way. Schools seek out minorities more for the sake of campus diversity than for the benefit of individuals. Yale probably gives preference to applicants from Montana or Mauritania over those form Manhattan. (Yale also might give preference to a power forward if the team this year is short of guys who can work the low post.) The purpose of this admissions policy is not to benefit Montanans (or power forwards) but to provide other students with the experience of living with a diversity of people (and to provide the basketball team with the right diversity of skills).

That same goal of demographic diversity does not apply to the competitive teams or the glee club or orchestra for that matter because those groups have a much more narrowly defined task. It’s that difference in purpose, rather than the difference in which race gets helped, that underlies the responses in the video. Take those same liberal students who support admissions policies that bring more blacks to campus; ask then if they would also support race-based preferences to get more blacks into crew, the glee club, or the chess team. I’m sure they would say no. As in the actual video, they would probably be unable to explain why giving preference to African Americans is acceptable in admissions but not acceptable in activities.

They’ll say that the two are different, even though they can’t immediately explain why. Does that make them hypocrites, natural or un-?

The next time someone shoves a microphone in your face and asks for a justification for some distinction you make, smile at the camera and say, “As Michael Polanyi wrote in The Tacit Dimension, ‘we know more than we can tell,’ an insight that Richard Nisbett later developed with much social science evidence in his book Knowing More than We Can Tell.” See if you make it into the YouTube clip, or into Robin Hanson’s blog.**

*I had assumed that the petitioner and his camera people were students at Merced. But in this new video, he’s at UCR.

** As with the previous video, Robin Hanson, on whose blog Overcoming Bias I found both, files the students’ attitudes in the folder marked “natural hypocrisy.”

Fooled Again

June 21, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a 40-year-old married American man living in Edinburgh.

Six weeks ago, I posted something about values as legitimations. The post was an analysis of an incident recounted by “Amina Arraf” who blogged as A Gay Girl in Damascus. Thuggish government agents come to arrest her. Her father intervenes and persuades them to leave.

A week ago Gay Girl was exposed as a hoax.* The blog was the creation of one Tom MacMaster, who quite possibly has never set foot inside Syria and who was blogging from Scotland. (Gawker’s report of the story is here.)

I take some comfort in knowing that many others were taken in. And sociologists much wiser and more distinguished than I have analyzed scenes from fiction and used them to illustrate sociological ideas. Of course, they knew that their source material was fiction.

I should get on my knees and pray that I don’t get fooled again. But I probably will.

*I missed the exposing of the hoax and would have remained ignorant of the truth were it not for Dan Ryan’s post in his blog Sociology of Information.


June 21, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again, this time in a report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee quoted today without linguistic comment by David Brooks:
The unintended consequences of pumping large amounts of money into a war zone cannot be underestimated. [emphasis added]
Usually I know what the writer means, but this time I had to go back and reread Brooks’s column up to that sentence. Yes, the committee meant the opposite of what it was literally saying. Literally, the sentence means that even if you think that there are zero unintended consequences, that’s still not an underestimate. No matter how low the estimate, you still cannot underestimate.

When I first mentioned this logical error (here), I hadn’t realized how prevalent it was. Today, Googling “cannot be underestimated” returns 2,070,000 pages, and I would guess that at least 2 million of them are like the one Brooks quotes.

A couple of those pages, though, are from Language Loggers, who have two explanations.* One is that the speaker means to say “should not be underestimated” rather than “cannot be underestimated.” Nice try, but it seems unlikely that people are thinking “should not” but saying “cannot.” Is there any other linguistic context in which people frequently confuse those two phrases? Offhand, I cannot think of any (or do I mean, I should not think of any?).

More likely is our inability to grasp multiple negatives. Putting things in the positive makes them much easier to understand. A simple single negative is also clear. But, beyond that, as I remember from algebra and multiplying polynomials, keeping track of those minus signs gets tricky. Sentences, especially in a government report, should not be written so that nobody can fail to misunderstand them.

That still leaves unanswered the question as to why we so often prefer to phrase things in the negative. As I said in that earlier post, I especially try to avoid negative phrasing when I’m writing True-False and multiple-choice test items. It’s unfair to students to require them to answer False when that means negating a negative

Brooks’s column, as you might guess, was about the contrary effects of all the money the US is now spending in Afghanistan. Did Brooks also, in the Bush-Cheney years, write about the unintended consequences of the billions spent in Iraq? The number of his columns on that topic cannot be underestimated.

* Ben Zimmer summarized these earlier this year in his New York Times Magazine language column (here).

Corporate Altruism?

June 20, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I do not have a very sophisticated theory of the firm. I have never taken a business course, and, I must confess, I have never read Ronald Coase.* But I wonder how sophisticated a theory of the firm we need to be skeptical when corporations lobby for huge tax breaks saying that these will allow them to create jobs. Which is what they are doing. Corporations are asking us to buy a theory of corporate altruism.

US-based companies have bales of cash profits overseas, and they are now asking for huge tax breaks to “repatriate” all that glorious black ink. They will use it, they say, to create jobs here in the US.
Corporations and their lobbyists say the tax break could resuscitate the gasping recovery by inducing multinational corporations to inject $1 trillion or more into the economy, and they promoted the proposal as "the next stimulus" at a conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

"This is about creating jobs, expanding U.S. businesses and strengthening American companies," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who introduced such a measure this spring.
Really? How about this theory: Corporations are not in business to create jobs. They are in business to make money – money for the people who own the shares and money for the executives who run the show (and often own a hefty sackful of those shares or options). If they have to create jobs to do that, fine. But if they can do that without spending money creating jobs, even better.

We’ve been here before, so I guess you could classify this under “Fool me once . . . .” A front page article in the Times today (here), gives the details. In 2005, as part of the “American Job Creation Act,” the Bushies gave US corporations a similar “repatriation holiday” (yes, that’s what it’s called). And oh what a holiday celebration there was.
While the tax break lured 800 companies into bringing $312 billion back to the United States, 92 percent of that was used for dividends and stock buybacks, according to the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research. The study concluded the program "did not increase domestic investment, employment or research and development."

The law forbade the use of repatriated funds directly for executive compensation or stock buybacks, but companies found plenty of ways around it. "Fungibility is one of my favorite words," [said Jay Schwartz, who in 2005 was head of Merck's international tax department].
Shareholders and executives made out very well, thank you. But none of those ex-pat dollars went to employee wages or to hiring. Some companies actually cut jobs.

A few years later, something similar happened in the bank bailout. The government gave the banks a ton of money with few strings attached. The bankers, rather than sending that money into the economy, used it first to shore up their own balance sheets and bonuses. (“Fool me once again. . . .”) Senators held hearings to register their shock and dismay at the bankers’ priorities and low level of altruism. And now, three years later, some of our lawmakers like Rep. Brady (quoted above) are still pushing that good old theory of corporate altruism.

* I’m not even sure how to pronounce his name.

Repo Men

June 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“We will take America back.”

Rick Perry was here in New York Wednesday, and that was the rousing line he used to close his speech. It’s a frequent meme in Perry’s presidential campaign and on the right generally.

To talk about taking America back raises the question: whose country is this anyway? Since the late 19th century, the right wing has often put forth the idea that the US is their country and that it is being threatened if not actually destroyed by these other groups – more recently arrived, urban, ethnic, darker. In Sarah Palin’s famous phrase, these others are not “the real America.” (An earlier post on this is here.)

When Republicans are out of power – outvoted by these less real Americans – their rallying cry is, “Take back our country.” Our country, not theirs.

A comment on a recent post pointed out that “take back America” has also been used by the left, for example in the summer 2007 Take Back America Conference. I hadn’t remembered this conference, and I just didn’t recall the left as crying “take back” as regularly as does the right. Was I a victim of selective perception and confirmation bias?

Fortunately, Lexis-Nexis is less prone to these cognitive biases. To compare, I searched for the following phrases:*
Take back our country
Take our country back
Take back America
I used two time periods starting nearly two years before an election and ending on Nov. 6 after the election:
  • Republicans in power (leading up to the Democratic victory of 2008)
  • Democrats in power (leading up to the Republican victory of 2010)
Here’s the final tally
  • Republicans (2009-2010) 2645
  • Democrats (2007-2008) 1647
I also calculated the daily averages for calendar quarters.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Up until about six months before the election, there’s no difference. But at the top of the stretch turn (or when it’s gun lap time, depending on your preference in sports), when the election comes into view, the Republicans swing into full take-back mode. In 2008, the Democrats had endured seven years of GOP/Bush rule, and by mid-2008, it was clear that things in the US were not going well under Bush. We might have expected the Democrats to pound the take-back theme. But they didn’t.**

But in 2010, with Obama in office for little more than a year, the Republicans were clamoring for their supporters to take America back, presumably from the Democratic usurpers.


*I left out “Take America back” (sorry, Gov. Perry) because the citations were a mixed bag. Too many of them were “take America back to the 1930s” or similar phrases that had nothing to do with who the country rightly belonged to. These references occurred far less frequently than the other three phrases, but I wasn’t going to read through the several hundred of them in order to pick out the relevant ones – not for just one lousy blog post.

** True, the Democrats had won the Congressional election of 2006, but the “take-back” theme was not part of that election either. The comparable numbers for the last two periods on the graph are 1.4 and 0.9.

The Big Time

June 16, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m now officially on the masthead at Sociological Images, which has a less select readership than does this blog. (By “less select,” I mean that they get 25,000 - 50,000 hits a day.) Most of my posts there will also be cross-posted here, but not all. My post there today was an updated recycling of a SocioBlog post of 3-4 years ago, so I didn’t bother to repost it here. It’s about urinals. If you’re interested, you can find it here.

Health and Voting

June 16, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maps showing county-level data:
  • Change in life expectancy 1987-2007
  • Change in the Presidential vote – 2004 - 2008 (blue indicates a shift to the Dems, brown a shift to the GOP)

I haven’t gotten the data and computed a measure of association, but the maps look very similar to my eye. Counties that swung right in 2008 are much more likely to have experienced a smaller increase (and in some cases a decrease) in life expectancy.

What’s going on here? Health care was a big issue in the 2008 election. It looks as though counties that had experienced the worst health outcomes in the previous two decades were voting to keep the medical status quo. Counties where life expectancy had increased were voting for a change.

The voting map is here. The life expectancy map is here, and the original study with interactive maps is here. Click on a county and find its life expectancy by race and sex, also short comparison lists of countries where LE is longer and where LE is shorter. The results are not encouraging. The title of the study is, “Falling behind: life expectancy in US counties from 2000 to 2007 in an international context.”

HT: Mark Kleiman

Uncertain About Uncertainty

June 15, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Listen to the Republicans, and you're certain to hear about uncertainty. What’s keeping unemployment high and stalling economic recovery? Uncertainty. Specifically, uncertainty about government regulation.

Now, here’s the evidence for it – Stephen L. Carter’s recent article “Economic Stagnation Explained, at 30,000 Feet”
The man in the aisle seat is trying to tell me why he refuses to hire anybody. His business is successful, he says, as the 737 cruises smoothly eastward. Demand for his product is up. But he still won’t hire.
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t know how much it will cost,” he explains. “How can I hire new workers today, when I don’t know how much they will cost me tomorrow?”
He’s referring not to wages, but to regulation: He has no way of telling what new rules will go into effect when. His business, although it covers several states, operates on low margins. He can’t afford to take the chance of losing what little profit there is to the next round of regulatory changes. And so he’s hiring nobody until he has some certainty about cost.
It’s anecdotal evidence, useful as an illustration. But we don’t know if it describes what’s going on with most other businesses. In fact, Carter’s seatmate might not even be accurate about his own firm. As Will Wilkinson and Ezra Klein suggest, the guy might be repeating the Republican line just because he’s a Republican.

A lot of people who do the hiring (or decide not to hire) are Republicans.

If companies aren’t hiring, the real problem, I suspect, is not lack of certainty but lack of customers. A NFIB report last fall, “Small Business Economic Trends,” asked small businesses what their “single most important problem” was. Unfortunately, “uncertainty about regulation” was not one of the choices, but the survey did offer “regulation”
(Click on the image for larger view.)

The big winner is lack of demand. Three years ago, fewer than 10% rated it as the most important problem. In the current recession, that has risen to over 30%.

The NYT had a very pretty graph of the longitudinal data.*

The Poor Sales section (white in the graph) suggests that when demand is high (good sales), as it was in the 90s, business have the luxury of worrying about regulation (orange). In good times, when employment is high, businesses may have trouble finding enough qualified workers (blue). But the problem today is not too much regulation or too few workers. It’s lack of demand.

I am not in business, but if demand is really up, as Carter’s seatmate claims, and if you don’t hire more workers, there are only two options:
  • Get more out of your current workers – better technology or more hours.
  • Ignore the demand.
The Times reported recently (here) that while businesses have been slow to hire more workers, they have been buying more machines and software. The Times story does not say how much of this investment in technology was coming from small businesses and how much from large firms that may be sitting on large amounts of cash and may as well invest it now.

But there are limits what newly-bought technology can do to increase production in the short run, and there are limits to how much employees can or will work.

As for option two – ignoring the demand – if the guy on the plane is letting orders go unfilled because he doesn’t want to hire workers, he is leaving money on the table. As I say, I’m not an MBA, but I suspect that not many “business models” (as we say today) call for turning away customers.

The point is that neither of these responses has anything to do with uncertainty about regulation. If businesses are not hiring, it’s probably because they are uncertain of how much of their product they can sell.

* The trouble with this data is that each year the percents must add up to 100% no matter how numerous or few the problems are.

America - the Default Setting

June 12, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

From the loop, I took the CTA Red Line up to Lawrence, 4800 North. (I’m in Chicago for a wedding.) Late Friday afternoon. My fellow passengers were the same multi-ethnic, multi-racial mix I’m used to in New York - the U.N. on casual Friday.

I don’t think Gov. Perry of Texas spends much time on the subway. Earlier this week, he proclaimed August 6 as a Day of Prayer and Fasting
As a nation, we must come together, call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles . . . The humility of the truly great men of history was revealed in their recognition of the power and might of Jesus to save all who call on His great name.
Look at those first ten words. Gov. Perry seems to assume that everyone in America is Christian. Or should be. As in America, so too in history – all the greats worth noting are Christian men.*

It’s the same view of the US that Justice Scalia would write into the Constitution. The government putting crosses on the graves of Jewish soldiers does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In fact, says Scalia, the Jews and their families should feel honored. (See earlier posts here and here.)
For Gov. Perry and the others, the default setting for America is white, male, Christian. Other exotic types that they might know about are like strange mathematical systems – base 2 or logarithms. They exist, of course, but the real way of thinking about numbers is good old base 10.

Gov. Perry has asked other governors to join him in this August effort. That way, our entire nation will come together by praying to Jesus. The logical inference is that if you don’t pray to Jesus, you’re not part of the nation. Just as Gov. Perry’s nation doesn't include those who don’t pray to Jesus, his history book has no page for Einstein or Confucius or Gandhi (and certainly not Anne Frank). His calendar for August has no indication of Hiroshima.

Maybe this is a view of America you get from the Governor’s mansion in Texas and no doubt from many other places. But it’s not the picture you get when you ride the bus or subway.

* Mark Kleiman and his commenters compiled a long list of great men of history, from Abraham Aristotle to Zheng He, who did not recognize Jesus’s power to save.

Difference, Distance, and Distribution

June 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a famous, though probably apocryphal, quotation, F. Scott Fitzgerald says to Ernest Hemingway, “You know, the rich really are different than you and me.” Hemingway replies, “Yeah, they have more money.”

You can imagine the same conversation with “poor” instead of “rich.”

The question for those who are neither rich nor poor, those in the great middle, is how similar they feel to the people at either end of the income curve. That sense of difference or similarity may be especially important for people’s ideas about redistribution. If you feel some kinship with the poor, you’ll do what you can to protect Robin Hood. If you feel that you have more in common with the wealthy, you’ll rat him out to the sheriff.

Polls and policies are not always in sync. But when it comes to inequality and redistribution, Americans – both the general public and their legislators – differ from people in other countries. We are exceptionally tolerant of income inequality and exceptionally resistant to income redistribution – at least when that redistribution means government actions that shift benefits from the wealthy to the poor. My guess is that this resistance reflects the middle-class perception of having much more in common with the rich than with the poor.

It’s nice to find confirmation for your hunches even when those hunches are pessimistic. Henry Farrell at The Monkey Cage recently summarized this paper by Lupu and Pontusson. Their research on 15-18 OECD countries finds that
the key factor determining redistribution is the income gap between middle income voters and lower income voters . . . When the gap is high, middle class people will have a much weaker sense of solidarity with the poor, and hence be less supportive of redistribution.
Lupu and Pontusson use a measure they call “skew” – the ratio of the dollar distance of the middle from those at either end of the distribution. The question is: where do those in the middle stand relative to the rich and the poor. In the US, those in the middle of the income distribution are closer to the poor, the bottom 10%, than to the top 10%, probably because in the last few decades the very rich have zoomed even farther away from the other 95-99% of the population. If the US middle class followed the pattern of the other OECD countries, they would be more for Robin Hood. But they are not.

How then to explain the anti-redistribution preferences of the American middle?

In a post a few months ago (here), I suggested that perceived distance was still an important factor in our reluctance to redistribute, but that the distance was not so much economic as it was racial. What made the poor different was not their level of poverty but their race.

The Lupu-Pontusson paper reaches the same conclusion. Again quoting Henry’s summary:
Lupu and Pontusson . . argue that the explanation for this is straightforward – “it is clearly attributable to the high-concentration of racial-ethnic minorities in the bottom of the income distribution.” More bluntly put – middle class Americans feel less solidarity with the very poor because the very poor are more likely to be black.
So Fitzgerald might well have said, “You know Ernest, the poor really are different from you and me.” And Hemingway, having read the Lupu-Pontusson paper, would reply, “Yeah, they’re darker.”*

* What Hemingway would say is probably more like: “The poor have no money. But they are good people. When they fight in the bars it is a good fight, a true fight. Sometimes they have nada. It is a Spanish word. It means nothing. Nada. Nada. Sometimes when you run the regression, you get nada. The betas weigh no more than an ant and they have no stars. Nada. But sometimes you get the big r. It is a strong r, a true r. Then you go to the café and drink the cold crisp white wine.”

Cancer Is Good For You (Asthma Too)

June 9, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1950s, as the evidence on smoking was becoming undeniable, someone suggested that the cigarette companies were about to launch a new ad campaign: “Cancer is good for you.”

It was a joke, of course. But how about “A really bad is recession is good for your marriage”? No joke. The National Marriage Project has released a report with a section claiming that the current economic crises has produced “two silver linings” for marriages. Philip Cohen at Family Inequality eviscerates this report with the level of snark that it deserves.

A bad recession is good for crime too, or so says the title of James Q. Wilson’s article in last Sunday’s Wall Street Journal:
Hard Times, Fewer Crimes*

And now welcome the next cancer-is-good-for-you entrant, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, which spends millions each year lobbying against clean-air legislation. Last month, Peabody was the object of Coal Cares, a clever spoof Website

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

What appears in this recent screen grab as “Patriot Coal” was, in the original version, “Peabody Coal.” For some reason,** the creators of the Website changed it. But it was Peabody’s press release in response that makes them the clear winner of the Cancer-Is-Good-For-You competition.
The United Nations has linked life expectancy, educational attainment and income with per-capita electricity use, and the World Resources Institute found that for every tenfold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer.
The spurious logic – the implied fallacy of composition, fobbing off correlation as cause – is so obvious that it could easily be part of the Coal Cares spoof. But no, it was for real, at least while it lasted. Unfortunately, Peabody removed the document before we could award them the CIGFY trophy.

What the UN data actually show is not surprising: Richer countries produce more electricity. They also have better health, education, and income. The message Peabody wants us to get takes the global and misapplies it locally, and it reverses cause and effect If you want to be long-lived, educated, and rich, live near a coal-driven power plant.

Cancer, asthma, and heart disease are all good for you.

*I don’t know if Wilson wrote that headline. Unlike the post-hoc logic the title suggests, Wilson does not argue that the recession caused the decrease. But he does imply that the recession did not exert any upward force on crime.

**Peabody is no stranger to lawsuits, and while they are usually the defendants, their massive legal guns can also shoot from the plaintiff side.


June 8, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Henry Tischler called my attention to this nugget in the Wall Street Journal a week or so ago:
Archie Bunker used to call his son-in-law “Meathead” for his fatuous opinions, and Meathead was a graduate student in sociology. A graduate student in sociology is one who didn't get his fill of jargonized wishful thinking as an undergraduate.
(I guess the WSJ is trying to catch up to The Weekly Standard in the let’s-trash-sociology category.)

It’s from a piece by Harvey Mansfield. In a mere 500 words, Mansfield manages to be both a know-nothing and an elitist. As a know-nothing, he’s leery of quantitative research. As an elitist, he apparently thinks that a university should be like the military academies, which he mentions in his first paragraph, telling students what to study, and what to think. He’s all for instilling values, but only if they are the right values, i.e., Mansfield’s values.
Just as Gender Studies taints the whole university with its sexless fantasies, so economists infect their neighbors with the imitation science they peddle.
That pretty much summarizes his view of what’s wrong with universities – taint from the wrong values, infection from quantitative data and logic. You can read the whole thing here.


June 8, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

No sociology in this post, and if you don’t like magic, read no further. But if you have an iPad, you should watch this.

(Personal note: the app that may tip the balance and tip me into iPadland is one that a piano player, Andy Ezrin, showed me – the iRealBook. He had it on his iPhone).

HT: Richard Wiseman

Careers in Academia – Endings and Beginnings

June 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Rubinstein, professor of sociology, was, by his own account, something of a slacker. Now that he has retired, he’s telling tales out of school (i.e., at the Weekly Standard) about how much he was paid for how little work.

Sure, he didn’t do squat, he seems to have been a lousy teacher. But even though he pranked academia for several decades, and even though he’s standing there, thumbs to ears, waggling his fingers and sticking out his tongue at his former home, I’m ambivalent about lobbing tomatoes at him. You see, I owe my first job, and the prestigious name Princeton on my vita, to a Rubinstein-like professor.

I had finished my third year in grad school and had no more course work to do, just the dissertation. It was a mid-May afternoon, and I was hanging around in the department. The academic business for the semester was over. Almost nobody else was around, and I was chatting with one of the secretaries who I was on good terms with. A call came in. She answered it. I discreetly moved down the hall.

When I came back, she said, “That was John Darley at Princeton. They need an advanced graduate student to be on the faculty. Here’s his number.”

I called back almost immediately. John was the head of the social psychology section of the psychology department. He explained that there was a guy in the department, an older, tenured professor, that they’d been trying to get rid of for years. He taught the minimum, did little or no research, didn’t work with any of the grad students, and spent most of his time in his office on the phone making real estate deals. Finally, he had announced his retirement, leaving the department with a use-it-or-lose-it line and no time to do a real search.

John was calling his old professors looking for a grad student to fill in. I guess I sounded reasonable, for he told me to fly down to Newark, rent a car, and drive to Princeton for an interview. Which I did. The “interview” was a year-end department party, faculty and students drinking and milling around, and I was introduced to them. That was about it.

A day or two after I had returned to Boston, John called and told me I had the job – a lectureship. I wouldn’t really be teaching. I’d run some “precepts” (discussion sections) – basically what their grad students did. My instructor’s salary was at the bottom of the faculty scale, but it was three times as much as the stipends my fellow grad students got. And if I needed secretarial help (this was way before computers), all I had to do was ask. All told, a sweet deal. I had my own office and plenty of time to work on writing my dissertation. Come to think of it, I was bit like Rubinstein myself, getting pretty good money for not very much work.

I’m not sure what Princeton got out of it except a place-holder for two semesters. It was made clear to me that I needn’t bother entering the real search that they were doing during my time there (though I did attend a couple of the presentations). That was fine with me, for as I got to know what academic psychology was, I realized that I definitely was not a psychologist.

That was my first job in academia – two semesters and out. I held what John referred to as the Folding Chair in Social Psychology.

Politics – Means and Ends

June 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Matt Yglesias posted at this chart of poll results in eight states that elected Republican governors. In seven of the eight, if the election were held today, Democrats would win.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

Matt calls this shift “buyer’s remorse” and takes it as a rejection of GOP policies (his post is here). Gabriel Rossman has a different take.
Repeat after me: REGRESSION TO THE MEAN.

I don’t doubt that some of this is substantive backlash to overreach on the part of politically ignorant swing voters who didn’t really understand the GOP platform, but really, you’ve still got to keep in mind REGRESSION TO THE MEAN.
Politicos like Yglesias might have overlooked this possibility because regression to the mean is mostly a matter of random “error variation,”* or unexplained variation. Intuitively, that doesn’t seem to fit with political opinions. If I get an unusually high score in a bowling game or a math test, I can try to explain it – something about my footwork or concentration. But I also realize that I may have been playing over my head. I have some sense of my true level of ability. I also know that my scores vary, and for reasons I can’t always explain. If you tell me that my lower score in the next game is regression to the mean, I’m not going argue.

It’s much harder to think this way about my opinion about the governor or anyone else’s opinion for that matter. Whether or not I’d vote for him is not a sample of my opinion. It is my opinion. It’s not random, it’s not an error, and it’s not unexplained. I know why I would or wouldn’t vote for him, and I figure that the same is true for other voters. So you can see why discussions of political shifts tend to leave out regression to the mean.

Even so, is the political shift here regression to the mean? It might help if we had some idea of what the mean is. Suppose that the mean is 50/50 Democratic/Republican. A shift from 8-0 in favor of the GOP to 1-7 in favor of the Democrats is regression way beyond the mean. So, like Lucy, we still have some splainin to do.

* I do not know, though I should, how this variation came to be called “error” or why we persist in using that term.

Graphs - Framing the Data (and the President)

June 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I assume that most people reading this blog have already seen Philip Cohen’s take-down of this graph that’s been spreading through the right-wing neighborhoods of the blogosphere.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

Check out Philip’s analysis at his Family Inequality blog (here).

It’s basically a “gee-whiz” graph. The examples I’ve mentioned earlier in this blog (here, for example) worked their effect by skimming the top of the y-axis. The food stamp graph also hacks off most of the x-axis. It’s not very sophisticated cheating, but it’s all for the noble conservative purpose of showing what Michelle Malkin calls Obama’s “mission of dependency.”

Philip provides the graph below to make visible what the right-wingers choose not to see. (I have added the yellow frame showing roughly the portion of the graph preferred and promulgated by Malkin, et. al.)