Living in the Past/Future

July 30, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last night, I saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” This morning I read Gabriel Rossman’s cold critique of an ABC poll that Robin Hanson recently discussed. It was about cryonics. Not so different, really.

Nostalgia is a longing for the past. From that feeling grows a set of ideas and beliefs – that the past was better than the present, more comfortable and comforting. Cryonics feels the same way, but about the future. We are frozen in the present and thawed in some warm, ideal future. (Is there’s a word for this future-nostalgia?)

“Midnight in Paris” is all about nostalgia. It is nostalgia. The main character Gil (Woody Allen in Owen Wilson’s body) is a writer on vacation in Paris with his fiancee. At the stroke of midnight, he is magically transported back to Paris in the 20s. He hangs out with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein reads a draft of Gil’s novel-in-progress, he wins the heart of a beauty who has been posing for (and sleeping with) Picasso.

The scenes of Paris of the present are filmed in the very harsh light of day. Paris of the past is Paris at night, dark with romantic lighting. That’s where we want to be.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Cryonics plays on the same idea, but it reverses the time line and replaces romanticism with science. The fantasy is the same – being transported to a much better world – but that world is in the future. There’s a group version of this fantasy – the dream of society setting up shop on some other planet or space station, starting a whole new civilization free from the frustrations of the world we actually live in.

In the end, “Midnight in Paris” suggests that the nostalgia it has been promoting is not only futile but false and impossible even on its own terms. The beautiful model, who lives in the 20s feels nostalgic about the Belle Epoque, and when she manages to travel back to that period – Toulouse, Gauguin, Degas – she find those artists to be nostalgic for the Renaissance.

Come to think of it, Woody Allen gave us a critique of the future-nostalgia fantasy as well – “Sleeper.”

It's the Demand, Stupid

July 25, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s nice to have one’s ideas supported in unexpected places.

Last month, I speculated (here) on the reasons job growth has been so dismal. The Republicans explanation is that employers are reluctant to hire because they are “uncertain” about government regulation. My explanation was simpler: “If companies aren’t hiring, the real problem, I suspect, is not lack of certainty but lack of customers.”

The Wall Street Journal, under the capable ownership of Rupert Murdoch, is not widely known as a lefty rag. But last week, they ran an article about this same question. Here’s the lede:
The main reason U.S. companies are reluctant to step up hiring is scant demand, rather than uncertainty over government policies, according to a majority of economists in a new Wall Street Journal survey. . . .
It continues:
In the survey, conducted July 8-13 and released Monday, 53 economists—not all of whom answer every question—were asked the main reason employers aren't hiring more readily. Of the 51 who responded to the question, 31 cited lack of demand (65%) and 14 (27%) cited uncertainty about government policy. The others said hiring overseas was more appealing.

Mr. Weber Goes to Washington

July 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

George Packer in The New Yorker (here):
The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation,” drew a distinction between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”—between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences. . .

Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad
The image of Obama as weak, or at least too willing to give in to the Republicans, seems accurate to me. The Republicans appear not so much as “raving mad” but as intransigent and single-minded – less spending, no tax increases, no matter what.

I suspect that they are not as inflexible on this as they claim. They had no objection to very large spending increases when they were in the White House. Reagan, with the support of Republicans in Congress, increased Social Security taxes, and his closing of some tax loopholes and shelters was designed to raise the effective income tax on those who has used them. What the Republicans seem single-minded about is gaining power, as their Senate leader has said.

Read Packer’s article. It’s short, and its context for Weber is the story of a man trying to cope with problems of unemployment and health care.

For an earlier SocioBlog allusion to Weber's essay go here.


July 22, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross posted at Sociological Images)

Changes in language seem to just happen. Nobody sets out to introduce a change, but suddenly people are saying “groovy” or “my bad.” And then they’re not. Even written language changes, though the evolution is slower.

Last weekend, I saw this sign at a goat farm on Long Island.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
WER'E ??

I used to care about the apostrophe, but after years of reading student papers about “different society’s,” I have long accepted that the tide is against me. It’s like spelling a few hundred years ago – you can pretty much make up your own rules.

Sometimes the rule is fairly clear: use an apostrophe in plurals when leaving it out makes the word look like a different word rather than a plural form of the original. Change the “y” in “society” to “ies” and it looks too different. “Of all the cafe’s, I like the one with lime martini’s.”

Or these:

Technically, it should be "ON DVDS." But DVDS looks like it's some government agency (“I gotta go down to the DVDS tomorrow”) or maybe a disease.

It’s not always easy to figure out what rule or logic the writer is following. The little apostrophe seems to be plunked in almost at random. Not random, really. It’s usually before an “s.” But why does Old Navy say, “Nobody get’s hurt”?

There’s a prescriptivist Website,, that collects these (that’s where I found the DVDS and Old Navy pictures). They’re fighting a losing battle.

Technology matters – I guess that’s the sociological point here. The invention of print and then the widespread dissemination of identical texts herded us towards standardization. Printers became a separate professional group (not part of the church or state), and most of them were in the same place (London). They had a stranglehold on published spelling.

Starting a few decades ago, anyone could be a printer. The page you are now reading might harbor countless errors in punctuation and spelling (though spell-checkers greatly reduce misspellings), but it looks just as good as an article in the Times online, and it’s published in a similar way (and to potentially as many readers – right)  .

And now there’s texting. It’s already pushing upper case letters off the screen, and the apostrophe forecast doesn’t look so good either. But what will still be interesting is not the missing apostrophe but the apostrophe added where, by traditional rules, it doesn’t belong.

I still can’t figure out WER’E.

Bought Sex?

July 20, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Did you buy sex last year?

You probably said no, even if you’re a man. But wait. First look at “The John Next Door” an article currently up at Newsweek (subhead: “The men who buy sex are your neighbors and colleagues”). It features a study by Melissa Farley called “Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Don’t Buy Sex”
No one even knows what proportion of the male population does it; estimates range from 16 percent to 80 percent.
Actually, a considerably lower estimate comes from the GSS.
PAIDSEX Had sex for pay last year: If you had other partners, please indicate all categories that apply to them. d. Person you paid or paid you for sex.
Here are the results since the GSS started asking this question..
(Click in the graph for a larger view.)
Not 16-80%, but somewhere around 5%.

Not to get too Clintonian, but it seems to depend on what the meaning of “sex” is. The GSS respondents probably thought that paying for sex meant paying someone to have sex. Farley’s definition was somewhat broader.
Buying sex is so pervasive that Farley’s team had a shockingly difficult time locating men who really don’t do it. The use of pornography, phone sex, lap dances, and other services has become so widespread that the researchers were forced to loosen their definition in order to assemble a 100-person control group.
So if you bought a copy of Playboy, you paid for sex. And if you looked at it twice last month, you are disqualified from the control of “men who don’t buy sex.”
“We had big, big trouble finding nonusers,” Farley says. “We finally had to settle on a definition of non-sex-buyers as men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute.”
I don’t have Farley’s data. If the control group of nonusers was 100, I assume that the user group n was the same – not really large enough for estimating the prevalence of the different forms of buying sex. How many had paid a prostitute, how many had looked at porn twice in a month? Some people probably think that there’s a meaningful distinction between those two. The implication of much of the Newsweek article is that they are all “sex buyers” and that they therefore share the same ugly attitudes towards women.

Shocked, Shocked

July 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
Several teachers and administrators in Texas were shocked to learn of the report.
“That’s astronomical,” said Joe Erhardt, a science teacher at Kingwood Park High School in the Houston suburb of Humble, Tex. “I’m at a loss.”
From the New York Times article about a study of disciplinary procedures in Texas schools. Thirty percent of students had been suspended or expelled; with “in-school” suspensions included, the rate is 60%.

The great state of Texas has an incarceration rate higher than that of all but a handful of states. Since the Supreme Court started allowing death penalty laws in 1976, Texas has executed four times as many people as has the next most execution-friendly state. It accounts for nearly 40% of all executions in the US.

So why should anybody be surprised that Texas schools deal with kids by punishing them? Punitiveness seems to be a fairly strong element of Texas culture. Even before today’s report, it was well known that nearly all school districts in Texas allow corporal punishment. In 2006-07, the most recent year I could find statistics for, 49,000 Texas kids were paddled in school.

As for the effectiveness of suspension and expulsion
“We see so many kids being removed from the classrooms for disciplinary reasons, often repeatedly, demonstrating that we're not getting the desired changes in behavior,” Thompson [one of the authors of the report] said. “When we remove kids from the classroom, we see an increased likelihood in that student repeating a grade, dropping out or not graduating. We also see an increased likelihood of juvenile justice involvement.” (From the Houston Chronicle)
Will the report affect state and school policies. Maybe. But I suspect that this will be another instance where values (ideas about what is good) shape beliefs (ideas about what is true). If cultural values hold that punishing bad behavior is right, people will cling to the belief that punishment is also effective, i.e., that it reduces bad behavior. People who cherish these ideas will dismiss the evidence from this report and others as wrong or irrelevant. If they refer to these studies, they will be careful to put the word in quotation marks. You might have to pay attention to a study, but you can ignore evidence from “studies.”

Tough Situation

July 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Coming in October: a conference on Jersey Shore Studies. It had to happen, right? But at the University of Chicago?? Where have you gone, Allan Bloom? (HT: Scott McLemee, who has more to say on the subject at Insider Higher Ed.)

Despite very pleasant vacations last summer at Barnegat Light and Ocean Grove, I haven’t managed to watch much of the TV show. But I did take notice back in May when my favorite newspaper ran a story about a video posted by the father of Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino. Apparently, Sorrentino père has little good (and much unprintable) to say about Sorrentino fils.
The rift between the father and son started when, according to the elder Sorrentino, when his son ignored his plea for help with his medical expenses.

“I’ve been a diabetic for 25 years and my insurance was running out and I called up my son and said, ‘Listen, Mikey, I'm between jobs right now, can you help me out?’ I don’t want to lose my health coverage.”
Only in America, I thought.

Not “only in America” could a talented fellow like The Situation rise from modest circumstances to an esteemed position of wealth and fame

Not “only in America” could a father and son have a serious falling-out over money.

And certainly not “only in America” would a father make disparaging remarks about his son’s companions and co-workers.

But only in America, among wealthy, industrialized nations, would a diabetic, regardless of his son’s lack of filial financial piety, not be able to obtain the necessary treatment.

That situation, of course can be remedied. But the remedy is one form or another of what the Republicans still like to call a “government takeover” of health care. Unfortunately for Mr. Sorrentino,* that won’t happen in the US for another year or more at the earliest. And if the Supreme Court runs true to form, it might not happen for decades.

*According to a story at Trendbuzz a month later, Sorrentino the elder had switched to a cheaper diabetes med, and thanks to the side effects he wound up in the emergency room.

Too Much Goverment Spending on Schools?

July 14, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on an earlier post raised the question of whether “rich Republicans . . . pay so much for their kids' education but don't want to pay for the education of poorer children .”

Neither that comment nor the response to it had much to do with the substance of the post itself (which was about the ways in which the SAT might be biased). It was a tempest in the shot glass that is the Socioblog and not of much relevance, so I said nothing.

But just now I read this WaPo story saying that the Minnesota government shutdown is going to be resolved. It looks like the Mark Dayton, the Democratic governor, caved. Here’s the relevance:
  • Rich Republicans: “Dayton reluctantly acceded to Republican demands not to raise any taxes . . Dayton {had] wanted to include a tax increase on the state’s top 2 percent of wage earners.”
  • Paying for public education: “The plan would balance the state’s budget by cutting programs, delaying state aid to local school districts . . .”
So the Republicans would rather delay aid to schools than allow a small tax increase on the very rich.

It’s only one case, but I also did a quick-and-dirty rummage through the GSS, specifically the question of government aid to education. Here’s the breakdown by party and income.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

In the highest income groups, the percentage of Democrats and Independents saying “too much” is zero. Among Republicans, 8.8% and 12.7%.

The good news (good if you think that cutting education spending isn’t going to do much for educational results) is that not many Americans think we are spending too much. Most think we’re not spending enough. Who are those folks who think that the government is overspending on public education? Republicans, especially rich Republicans.

Like a Virgin – Whatever That Was

July 13, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
Virginity has mattered as far back as we can tell. It is introduced in Genesis . . . and is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Bible.
So says Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his recent book How Pleasure Works. But Bloom’s “as far back as we can tell” ignores most of the evolution of the human species.

Bloom is certainly no creationist who believes that our species dates back only a few thousand years and is no older than the people in the Bible. He believes in evolution, and one of his arguments about how pleasure works is that evolution accounts, in part, for what we find pleasurable.
Pleasure draws upon deep intuitions . . . it is smart, and . . . it is evolved and universal and largely inborn. [my emphasis]
Culture and society, in Bloom’s view, matter only in that they vary the foods that feed these largely inborn hungers.
Belgian chocolates and barbecued ribs are modern inventions, but they appeal to our prior love of sugar and fat.
Since the importance of virginity goes back “as far back as we can tell,” it must be like the love of sugar – largely inborn. In that same chapter on sex (you couldn’t very well write a book called How Pleasure Works and not have a chapter on sex), he writes,
The obsession with virginity is one of the ugliest aspects of our sexual psyche.
I could be wrong; Bloom is, after all, a Yale professor – smart and well-educated and the book jacket has accolades from heavy hitters like Steven Pinker. But if the obsession with virginity, like the taste for fat and sugar, is hard-wired  by evolution, it must have been with us since our earliest days on the savanna. But unfortunately, Bloom’s truncated history (“as far back as we can tell”) ignores most of our time on this planet.

For a few hundred thousand years, we humans lived as hunter-gatherers – small, egalitarian bands, nomadic and with fluid membership . And not much concern for virginity. The societies that prize virginity are agricultural and pastoral. They have been around for only the past 15,000 years or so. Agrarian societies may seem like the “real” humans, but that’s only because they account for all of our recorded history. Pre-literate hunter-gatherers left no accounts detailing their canons of morality.*

So maybe the concern with virginity is not inborn or universal but just a patriarchal blip in a much longer history, a fad that captured our imaginations for a few thousand years and fit well with other ideas but is now fading. As societies move from agricultural to industrial or post-industrial modes, people come to regard virginity as something like the horse-drawn plow – a curious, antiquated instrument that might have been important to people once upon a time but is not really of much use today at the office. Even in an advanced country like the US, you can still see the link between agrarian life and the value on virginity.  It is in the regions closest to their agrarian past (and present) where people are likely to see virginity as a necessary sign of virtue.

Also, even in the agrarian era, just whose obsession with virginity was this anyway? My guess is that women were and are far less obsessed than men. If you want to argue that the obsession is part of the sexual psyche that evolved over millennia, you would have to show how the male and female brain evolved differently with regard to this very specific idea that virginity is of paramount importance.

So when I read that sentence about the obsession with virginity being part of “our sexual psyche,” I am tempted to ask, “What you mean ‘we,’ patriarchal agrarian?”

*Update. True, we have no information about the morals of humans who lived long before the dawn of recorded history. But we do have accounts of hunter-gatherers in the past few centuries, and these do not provide much support for the idea that virginity has always been a universal and eternal obsession.

SAT, GPA, and Bias

July 8, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Cross-posted at Sociological Images)

Is the SAT biased? If so, against who is it biased?

It has long been part of the leftist creed that the SAT and other standardized tests are biased against the culturally disadvantaged - racial minorities, the poor, et. al. Those kids may be just as academically capable as more privileged kids, but the tests don’t show it.

But maybe SATs are biased against privileged kids. That’s the implication in a blog post by Greg Mankiw. Mankiw is not a liberal. In the Bush-Cheney first term, he was the head of the Council of Economic Advisors. He is also a Harvard professor and the author of a best-selling economics text book. Back in May he had a blog post called “A Regression I’d Like to See.” If tests are biased in the way liberals say they are, says Mankiw, let’s regress GPA on SAT scores and family income. The correlation with family income should be negative.
a lower-income student should do better in college, holding reported SAT score constant, because he managed to get that SAT score without all those extra benefits.
In fact, the regression had been done, and Mankiw added this update:
Todd Stinebrickner, an economist at The University of Western Ontario, emails me this comment: “Regardless, within the income groups we examine, students from higher income backgrounds have significantly higher grades throughout college conditional on college entrance exam . . . scores. [Mankiw added the boldface for emphasis.]

What this means is that if you are a college admissions officer trying to identify the students who will do best in college, as measured by grades, you would give positive rather than negative weight on family income.
Not to give positive weight to income, therefore, is bias against those with higher incomes.

To see what Mankiw means, look at some made-up data on two groups. To keep things civil, I’m just going to call them Group One and Group Two. (You might imagine them as White and Black, Richer and Poorer, or whatever your preferred categories of injustice are. I’m sticking with One and Two.) Following Mankiw, we regress GPA on SAT scores. That is, we use SAT scores as our predictor and we measure how well they predict students’ performance in college (their GPA).

(Click on the image for a larger, clearer view)

In both groups, the higher the SAT, the higher the GPA. As the regression line shows, the test is a good predictor of performance. But you can also see that the Group One students are higher on both. If we put the two groups together we get this.

Just as Mankiw says, if you’re a college admissions director and you want the students who do best, at any level of SAT score, you should give preference to Group One. For example, look at all the students who scored 500 on the SAT (i.e., holding SAT constant at 500). The Group One kids got better grades than did the Group Two kids. So just using the SATs, without taking the Group factor (e..g., income ) into account, biases things against Group One. The Group One students can complain: “the SAT underestimates our abilities, so the SAT is biased against us.”

Case closed? Not yet. I hesitate to go up against an academic superstar like Mankiw, and I don’t want to insult him (I’ll leave that to Paul Krugman). But there are two ways to regress the data. So there’s another regression, maybe one that Mankiw does not want to see.

What happens if we take the same data and regress SAT scores on GPA? Now GPA is our predictor variable. In effect, we’re using it as an indicator of how smart the student really is, the same way we used the SAT in the first graph.
Let’s hold GPA constant at 3.0. The Group One students at that GPA have, on average, higher SAT scores. So the Group Two students can legitimately say, “We’re just as smart as the Group One kids; we have the same GPA. But the SAT gives the impression that we’re less smart. So the SAT is biased against us.”

So where are we?
  • The test makers say that it’s a good test - it predicts who will do well in college.
  • The Group One students say the test is biased against them.
  • The Group Two students say the test is biased against them.
And they all are right.

Huge hat tip to my brother, S.A. Livingston. He told me of this idea (it dates back to a paper from the1970s by Nancy Cole) and provided the made-up data to illustrate it. He also suggested these lines from Gilbert and Sullivan:
And you'll allow, as I expect
That they are right to so object
And I am right, and you are right
And everything is quite correct.

Records and Performances

July 6, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A personal rant. If you are not interested in language or horse racing, read no further.)

One of these things is not like the others.
  1. “He’s a guy with a track record that's beyond reproach.” (Nationals GM Mike Rizzo speaking about Davey Johnson as manager. USA Today, June 27)
  2. The decision to publish was made easier by Ritter’s proven track record as a songwriter. (Steven King reviewing a book by Josh Ritter, NYT July 3)
  3. Members of the House don't have a very good track record in primary campaigns. (Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight NYT blog on Michelle Bachman, June 23, a post called “Handicapping the Republican Field..”)
  4. That’s what the OLC is good at, and what it has a long track record of doing on war powers. (Ruth Marcus on the Office of Legal Counsel, WaPo, June 22)
  5. He walked a 20-kilometer race in Finland in 1:23:49.39 . . . just nine seconds off the U.S. men's 20K track record, which, as it happens, is held by his coach. (An article on racewalking, USA Today, June 24)
  6. That No. 1 finish extends Pixar’s perfect box-office track record - all 12 of its feature films have opened in first place. (NYT article on “Cars 2,” June 27)
  7. G.M.’s track record for making cars people want has not exactly been inspiring. (Joe Nocera, NYT, June 26)
One of these things uses “track record” in its original and logical sense. Can you guess which one is not like the others by the time I finish this post?

In the previous post about history, I said that horseplayers use the past performance charts to handicap the horses – i.e., to assign each horse a probability of winning – and decide which horse to bet on. “Past performances” are the details of each horse’s performance in previous races. It’s a lot of information.

Here’s an excerpt of the past performances for the horses in the first three post positions in this year’s Belmont Stakes. (A tutorial on how to read past performances is here.)

(Click on the image for a slightly larger view. Or go here and click on this same image for the full thing at readable size.)

After the race, horseplayers become historians. They go back to the same past performance charts to find the information that explain why the winner won (and why their horse finished out of the money).

The term “track record” also comes from horse racing. It indicates the fastest time for a given distance at a given track. The track record allows you to compare the performances of horses that have been running at different tracks.

For some reason, beginning in the late 1960s, “track record” spread far beyond the track.

The results were disastrous. Now, just about everybody except horseplayers – i.e., just about everybody – says “track record” when they mean “past performances.”

In the examples above, only #5 uses “track record” as it should be used (pardon my prescriptivism). Nate Silver (#3) even calls his blog post “Handicapping the Republican Field.” For Godssakes Nate, if you’re going call what you do “handicapping,” use the language of handicapping correctly.

It’s possible that this use of “track record” differs slightly from “past performances” and that the speaker is referring to someone’s record in some particular bailiwick, some metaphoric “track.” But in nearly every case, there is no other “track” that it could possibly be confused with. The added word “track” is totally unnecessary. Go back and read the sentences above, mentally removing the “track.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

A simple “record” instead of “track record” retains all the meaning. And to my ear, once you remove the distraction of “track,” the sentences are clearer.

Why do people need to misuse the beautiful and precise language of horseplayers? Maybe they think that using a racing term gives their persona a dash of risk and romance, the roguish and the raffish. But inevitably, they get it wrong.

History and Horse Races - Run Only Once

July 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s sentence from a New York Times op-ed by David Greenberg last week.
Modern Republican isolationism began with the 1919 battle over joining the League of Nations, when Senate Republicans, led by so-called Irreconcilables like William Borah of Idaho, killed the deal - even though without American guidance, European affairs were doomed to explode again.
I’ve read sentences like this hundreds of times – I’ve probably written some myself. But last week, I had been reading Everything is Obvious* (*Once You Know the Answer) by Duncan Watts, and I got stuck on doomed. “European affairs were doomed to explode again.”

Were they? Was the explosion inevitable? And was the absence of US guidance a necessary cause of the explosion?

It certainly seems that way. We know that Europe exploded in war twenty years after that 1919 decision by the US to stay out of the League. But we know that only in retrospect. At the time, there may have been several other equally plausible outcomes.

It’s like saying that the 2011 Belmont Stakes was “doomed” to be won by Ruler on Ice. True, he did win. But before the start of the race, there were many other plausible outcomes, most of them more likely. If the same race were held tomorrow – the same twelve horses running on a similarly sloppy track – would Ruler on Ice inevitably win? I doubt it. (If he were again 24-1, I might be tempted to put a small bet on his nose, but I wouldn’t be at all confident of collecting.)

The trouble with history is that, like the 2011 Belmont, it’s run only once. And after it’s run, historians and op-ed writers do the same thing that horseplayers do after a race: they go back to the Racing Form, the past performances, and pick out the information nuggets, often pebble-sized, that account for the results. Sometimes they even add their own speculation as fact. A horseplayer might say that Ruler on Ice would also have won the Kentucky Derby if only he’d been entered, a statement for which we have zero observations. An op-ed writer might say that the US presence in the League of Nations would have prevented World War II, a speculation based on a similar number of observations.

Watts suggests a different way of looking at history. Here, for example, is his take on the surge in Iraq. In the fall of 2007, the US upped its Iraq force by 30,000 troops. By the next summer, violence had substantially decreased. Conclusion: the surge worked. It reduced the violence.

Or did it?
Many other things happened between the fall of 2007 and the summer of 2008 as well. Sunni resistance fighters, seeing an even greater menace from hard-core terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda than from American soldiers, began to cooperate with their erstwhile occupiers. The Shiite militia – most importantly Moktada Sadr’s Mahdi Army – also began to experience a backlash from their grassroots, possibly leading them to moderate their behavior. And the Iraqi Army and police forces, finally displaying sufficient competence to take on the the militias, began to assert themselves, as did the Iraqi government. Any one of these factors might have been at least as responsible for the drop in violence as the surge. Or perhaps it was some combination. Or perhaps it was something else entirely.
We can’t know because history is run only once.

Ideally, we should be able to go back, examine our variables, look at the possible scenarios, and assign each outcome a probability. Maybe the outcome that did happen would have a lower probability than others, and we would wind up saying that what happened was a fluke or at least improbable. But that’s not what we do.

Rather than producing doubt, the absence of “counterfactual” versions of history tends to have the opposite effect – namely that we tend to perceive what actually happened as having been inevitable.
As I was reading this part of Watts’s book, I kept thinking of Hans J. Morgenthau, the great political scientist. This was many years ago, perhaps during Vietnam, and after Morgenthau’s analysis, typically thoughtful and insightful, someone in the audience asked him what we could expect as the outcome. In his elegant, German-accented English. Morgenthau said,
Well, the answer to that is that I am a professor, not a prophet. I cannot tell you what will happen. I can only tell you why what did happen was absolutely bound to happen.

Will Ruler on Ice beat those same horses again? Will another surge reduce violence? Maybe, but don’t bet on it.

Whose Declaration Is It Anyway?

July 4, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mark Kleiman complains that the old Fourth-of-July custom of reading the Declaration of Independence “seems to have virtually disappeared.”

In a post three years ago, I reported that the custom was still alive and well in liberal Lenox, Mass. (Here’s the photo, the full post is here.)

Patriotism has usually been a value waved about by conservatives, especially when they are in power. But this was 2008, and after seven years of Bush-GOP rule, the liberals were starting to play Capture the Flag, a game they had been mostly sitting out of for decades.

When they are out of power, conservatives put their dissent-equals-disloyalty rhetoric back in the closet. The Declaration is an anti-government document. So I expect that we will see it read at many gatherings of the Tea Partistas. They have been calling Obama a tyrant for a while now, so they will be whistling and stomping their feet at every mention of tyranny and taxation. They’ll especially like the line about the “multitude of new offices.”

I wonder if they will feel uncomfortable (as the Lenox liberals did) at the negative tone in the references to “domestic insurrections” (i.e., slave rebellions) and “merciless savages” (native Americans).

Hush Little Baby

July 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The parenting style of Mrs. Scavolini (not her real name), our next-door neighbor, was different from that of the other moms in the upper-middle-class, mostly WASP suburb where I grew up .

“I’m gonna kill you,” we would hear her scream at her kids, who for their part were often screaming at one another as well. “I’m gonna kill you.”

“But she never does,” sighed my mother.

It’s the recent flap* over Go the F**k to Sleep that takes me back across the decades to Mrs. Scavolini, with her shrill voice and her orange hair (and this was in an era when nobody had orange hair).

From the CNN website**

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
"Imagine if this were written about Jews, blacks, Muslims or Latinos," says Dr. David Arredondo. He is an expert on child development . . .
The irony, says Arredondo, is that the people buying the book are probably good parents.
It’s not an irony. It’s the whole point.

I haven’t read Go the F**k to Sleep, but it seems like one of those books you don’t have to actually read. The title says it all. The book is a satire of middle-class niceness and civility. It reveals the inconvenient truth that despite that niceness, kids can sometimes be a pain, and even good, kind, thoughtful, nice parents run out of patience. They’d like to explode at their kids, but they know they shouldn’t, just as know they shouldn’t denigrate Jews, blacks, Muslims, or Latinos. So they don’t flip off their kids and tell them to go the fuck to sleep. But they’d still like to, and maybe they even think it might be justifiable. That’s why the book is a best-seller.
Forbidden truth informs good satire’s jest –
What oft is thought but has to be suppressed.
OK, it’s not Pope, but you get the idea. You have to be what Dr. Arredondo calls a “good” parent to know the tension that makes the book title funny.

Mrs. Scavolini would not have gotten the joke.

* See the post and comments at Scatterplot for example.

** If you like the on-screen juxtaposition of this book and the caption about fungal disease among bats, you’ll find similar ironies here . (On many of these, an ad is covering the caption, so you have to click on the “x” to close it.)