Stop Making Sense

August 31, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stephen Moore, in a Wall Street Journal editorial, says that he is “surprised how many students tell me economics is their least favorite subject.”  I’m surprised too, surprised that all these students are talking to Moore.  As far as I know, he has never held a teaching job.  Presumably, they are the students he meets in the WSJ editorial room or at Arthur Laffer’s firm, not exactly a random sample.  Whatever. The reason these many students dislike Econ, says Moore, is this:
Too often economic theories defy common sense.
It’s not just students.  In the title of the article and the closing line, Moore expands the anti-economics population:
Why Americans Hate Economics
For us sociologists, that’s strange, because we’re told that the trouble with sociology is that “it’s just common sense.” 

So students – and (let me be Moorishly grandiose here) Americans  – dislike economics because it defies common sense, and they dislike sociology because it confirms common sense.   Go figure.

What Moore means by “economics” – the kind that students and Americans hate – is Keynes.
the “invisible hand” of the free enterprise system, first explained in 1776 by Adam Smith, got tossed aside for the new “macroeconomics,” a witchcraft that began to flourish in the 1930s during the rise of Keynes.
Others have criticized Moore’s economics (see here and here for example).  It’s the common sense part that interests me.  For example, Moore ridicules an Obama spokesman’s defense of unemployment insurance  – that it pumps money into the economy, and people use the money to buy stuff they otherwise couldn’t.

But Moore says, “That's a perfect Keynesian answer, and also perfectly nonsensical.” 

I’m not sure why.  To me, it sounds like common sense.  To meet the increased demand, the suppliers buy more materials and hire more workers.  It’s all good for the economy. Wasn’t it George Bush who, when the economy got tough, encouraged people to go shopping?

I would think that for many people, it’s that invisible hand that defies common sense – and not just because it requires  belief in something that is invisible.  The basic idea of classical economics is this: if you set a bunch of greedy suppliers free to pursue their own selfish interests, you’ll wind up with greatest good for greatest number – lots of stuff at low prices.  It’s Gordon Gecko’s dictum “Greed is good,” and it may be true.  But it is not common sense.   

Free market economists (like Robin Hanson) also tell us that getting rid of immigration restrictions will similarly lead to good things.
We economists tend to expect open immigration to increase overall wealth and value (and liberty), and to reduce inequality. . . . Open those borders!
Again, It may be true, but it is not common sense.

Here is Moore again:
“All economic problems are about removing impediments to supply, not demand,” Arthur Laffer reminds us.
Since Moore quotes this favorably (he works for Laffer’s firm), he must believe that it’s common sense.  But when I think about, say, the economic problems in the housing market, my common sense tells me that the source of the problem is that people aren’t buying houses.  It does not tell me that the problem is builders being impeded from supplying more houses.* 

It all makes me wonder if common sense is a useful idea.  In these economics examples, common sense is not held in common.  What’s common sense to the Keynesians is not common sense to the supply siders. 

In either case, if economics were common sense, professors wouldn’t have to spend semesters teaching it.** Teaching common sense – that’s sociology.

* I myself am trying to sell a condo in Pittsburgh.  I encountered no real impediments in supplying this condo to the market.  My problem is that I haven’t encountered any buyers.

** I would guess that when you add up the student semester hours, classical free-market economics courses far outnumber Keynesian courses.  So I don’t know why Moore seems to think that what’s turning students off is the Keynesian domination of the field

The Morning After

August 28, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

When Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York in 1969, he proposed “Sweet Sunday.”  On one Sunday each month, powered vehicles would be banned from the city.  No cars, no buses, nothing. 

Today, we’re getting a sense of what that would be like.  The hurricane has pretty much passed through the city, but subways and buses are still out of service (they were shut down at noon Saturday).  A few cabs cruise the streets, but almost no cars.  Broadway in the 60s and 70s is usually full of cars, even on Sunday.  Not today.

Here is West 72nd looking west from Broadway towards the Park (the famous Gray’s Papaya is at the right). 

As a result, the scale of city life has been reduced.  People are out, and they walking in their own neighborhoods.  The restaurants and shops that are open are the small independents.  The large chains – McDonalds, Starbucks, and the like – are closed. 

But it’s the non-commercial areas, the parks, that seem to be attracting the most people. 

Above is the pier at 70th Street.  Of course, in New York, each zip code is its own UN. 

Not all were locals.  The World Police & Fire Games are in town, and apparently the Hong Kong and Swedish teams are staying in West Side hotels.

The hurricane was exciting, and it did some serious damage, especially outside the city.  But the West Side was spared.  Somewhere, Norman Mailer is smiling (and maybe sharing a drink with Jane Jacobs.)

Calm Before the Storm

August 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

With eight hours to go before things get really rough, New York seems to be taking the approaching hurricane in good humor. 

The Town Shop, which has been selling women’s undergarments since the 1880s, remained undaunted.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Even the headline writers at the tabloids seemed to be working in tandem.

Fairway never closes – on Christmas and New Years, through heavy snows – but it closed its doors at 10 a.m.  With the subways and buses shutting down at noon, their many, many employees would have no way of getting home.

But the West Side Market stayed open, and people were lined up waiting to get in.

Trader Joe’s closed.

So did most of the national chains – all of the many Starbucks, Staples, etc. But many of the independent cafés and restaurants are open, So is the tiny Westsider Book shop across the street from Barnes&Noble, which is closed. 

And if you want to get your shoes repaired during a hurricane, no problem.

The Social Journalist

August 22, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Henry Tischler, sociologist and a friend of mine, took this picture at the Aspen Ideas Festival  last month – a gathering of hundreds of heavy hitters, many you haven’t heard of , many you have.  (No, Henry was not on the program.)

David Brooks (on the right) having breakfast with Alan Greenspan.

When Henry showed me the photo, I thought of what I.F. Stone once said.
Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.

I.F. Stone was the classic outsider journalist.  He had no inside sources.  Nobody, Democrat or Republican, was leaking ideas or information to him.  Instead, he relied on official government information – documents, Congressional testimony – and on press reports to find out what was really going on. 

Stone didn’t have to worry about offending people.  He didn’t have to worry about being played by important people in government.   He didn’t have to worry that his relationships with the people he wrote about were influencing what he wrote and what he thought.*

David Brooks is a journalist who talks regularly to politicians and FED chairmen.  He sees them at dinner parties and at breakfasts in the Rockies.  Does that affect how tough he is on them in print?  Here’s the opening of a Brooks column of a week ago.
Very few people have the luxury of being freely obnoxious. Most people have to watch what they say for fear of offending their bosses and colleagues. Others resist saying anything that might make them unpopular. 
But, in every society, there are a few rare souls who rise above subservience, insecurity and concern. Each morning they take their own abrasive urges out for parade. 

The rest of the column is about Donald Trump.  But Jonathan Chait at The New Republic  thinks that this opening is really how Brooks feels about his colleague Paul Krugman.  Regardless of who is in that obnoxious “very few people” category (Trump, Krugman, whoever), it seems clear that Brooks counts himself among “most people” –  the ones who have to fear offending both their colleagues and those with more power, the ones who can’t afford to be unpopular.  (Brooks was at Aspen to talk about his book The Social Animal.)

Does Brooks’s sociability affect how he writes about newsmakers?  Guess who wrote the following: 
Alan Greenspan continues his efforts to cement his reputation as the worst ex-Fed chairman in history. 

(Hint: it’s not Donald Trump.  Answer here.)

In fact, the only Brooks mention of Greenspan I could find in a quick Google search was a column suggesting that Greenspan might have had some “misperception,” but hey, as Brooks explains, we all make perceptual errors.  You can’t blame a guy for being human.

I haven’t read The Social Animal, but I would expect that Brooks discusses how our perceptions and judgments can be influenced by our social ties to others.  Or maybe not.

 * Stone’s independence was a virtue born of necessity.  He was a radical, a socialist.  In the fifties, amid the anti-communism phobia, nobody in Washington would be seen with him.   He could never question them directly.  The Sunday morning shows like “Meet the Press” no longer put him on their panels.

Civility and Weaponry

August 20, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I concluded the previous post by asking for civility from commenters.  Instead, I got the all too familiar belligerence (“if you dared to tell the truth,” “Instead of ‘thinking’ why not actually do some research, eh.” “Shoddy research, insinuations and obvious bias.”). 

I said I would delete comments that violate common norms of civility.  Any maybe I should have done that and moved on.  But I’m responding and letting the comment stand  just because it’s so fucking stupid  because it includes two relevant facts:
  • The UK has a higher rate of violent crime than does the US
  • Chicago has a high murder rate because of the many gang-related killings.
These both support the idea that more guns make for more murder. 

On the first point: Start from the essential fact that the murder rate in the UK is a fraction of the US murder rate.  That might be because the British are just a less violent society.  But no.  According to the commenter the UK is more violent, not less (I’ll accept his assertion, though I haven’t checked the data).  How can Britain be more violent and yet have less murder?  The obvious answer is that their violence is not lethal, and it’s not lethal because the weapons they have at hand are less deadly. The British are concerned about knives – knives, not guns –  presumably because guns are not so prevalent and hence not so much a problem.

On the second:  The Christian Science Monitor quote provided by the commenter says,  
Chicago's gang problem is greater than that in either New York City or Los Angeles, according to Philip Cook . . . . 81 percent of [Chicago] homicides in the first seven months of this year were gang-related, which Mr. Cook says confirms his research that despite policing efforts, gun access is flourishing among Chicagos gangs.
As I said in my original post, US cities, even those with a thinner gang presence than Chicago, have higher murder rates than London.  Los Angeles, the city mentioned in contrast to gang-ridden Chicago, has a population half that of London.  Yet it had more than four times as many teen murders from guns alone, making its rate of teen murder nearly ten times that of London.

Also, note why, according to Philip Cook, a gang problem makes for higher murder rates:
gun access is flourishing among Chicago's gangs
New York has a lower rate of teen homicide because it has less of a gang problem.  Cook’s argument is
  •     Less gangs, less guns
  •     Less guns, less teen homicide
I don’t know why the Second Amendment boys get so annoyed when someone points out that guns are far more powerful and deadly than other weapons.  If they weren’t, why would it be so important to preserve the absolute right to have them? Try telling the NRA members that they could just as easily defend themselves and their property, and protect their families if they armed themselves with knives or baseball bats. You would be greeted with anger and derision. And rightly so. The idea is preposterous. 

The gunslingers are arguing that guns in the hands of someone with good intentions make it easier for him to achieve good ends (all that defending and protecting).  But it’s equally true, probably more so, that guns in the hands of a person with bad intentions make it easier and more likely for him to achieve bad ends. Like murder. 

That was my point in the original post. The London chavs and other blokes may be as numerous and vicious as the nasty youths in our cities, maybe more so.  But they don’t have guns.  Therefore, London has a much lower rate of teen homicide.

Knives Out

August 17, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The London riots have provided tasty fodder for the “Broken Britain” crowd – the conservatives and right-wing tabloids that have been wringing their hands about the social and moral decay they see in the UK. For them, the riots are a delicious “see I told you so” moment.

A British publication, The Prospect, recently ran a long and calm assessment, and generally concluded that Britain is not broken. But it was this paragraph that caught my attention.
Consider violent youth crime, one of the hot-button issues of recent years. No one doubts that there is a serious problem in some parts of the country. Teenage killings in London have risen from 15 in 2006 to 27 in 2007, and stood at 21 halfway through 2008. But to read the Daily Mail, one of the government’s chief tormentors, is to encounter a Britain apparently on the brink of bloody collapse. Take this lurid piece, from 20th July: “A few nights ago, as an 18-year-old stab victim lay in a pool of blood awaiting his statistical turn to become the 21st teenager to die violently in the streets of London this year, we learned that crime statistics are dropping dramatically. All is well. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, while concerned that ‘knives are still being used,’ is best pleased. As well she might be, for the figures are the creation of none other than the British Crime Survey, itself a creation of Jacqui’s home office. If the British Crime Survey sounds like a vast analytical laboratory stuffed with academics in some ivy-clad university city, that is the whole idea.”* [emphasis added]
Knives?? They’re worried about kids with knives? Indeed they are. The article later mentions, “the fear spread by high-visibility ‘signal’ crimes, like knife crime in London.” And a year ago,The Guardian had an article called, “Can the fight against teenage knife crime be won?”

In America, we worry (some of us do) about kids with guns, serious guns. If we’re old enough, we think with nostalgia of the good old days when the authorities and tabloids were sounding the alarm about teenagers with switchblades and zip guns and greasy hair. Or even a decade or so later, when the scourge was the Saturday Night Special, a handgun whose reliability, accuracy, and deadliness are laughable by today’s standards.

A knife or a 9 mm – does the choice of weapon make a difference? Not if you believe that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” A killer will kill, regardless of the weaponry available. On the other hand, look at the numbers. Twenty-one teen murders in London in the first half of 2008. Suppose the trend continued and London had 40 teen murders for the year. Chicago’s population is less than half that of London; in 2006 it had 150 teen homicides from guns alone (I don’t know how many homicides from knives or other weapons, but it was surely far fewer). Houston, with a population less than one-third of London’s, had 89 gun homicides by teens. (More CDC data here.)

Are our kids so much more bloodthirsty than the London chavs? Or is it that the availability of guns makes teen nastiness more lethal here in the land of the free? New York, with a population about the same as London’s, had “only” 100 teen gun murders – a rate two-and-a-half times that of London but well below that of Chicago, Houston, LA, and other large US cities. I’d like to think that our New York teenagers are three times nicer than youths in those other cities, but I suspect that NYC’s relatively low teen murder rate has much less to do with the general level of teenage civility and propriety in the Big Apple and more to do with the NYPD making it much harder for kids to obtain guns and carry them on the streets.

P.S. A blogger friend once told me that sometimes when he’s feeling lonely and ignored, he’ll put up a post about guns, knowing that it’s sure to bring large numbers of people to his blog. Of course, they are mostly hard core NRA types, and they burst in, many of them, with both barrels blazing. I speak from experience. So a word to you gunslingers and other potential commenters: use your indoor voices; otherwise, I will delete your comment.

* Note how the Daily Mail, in good know-nothing fashion denigrating analysis and research, dismisses the evidence from the British Crime Survey.  The BCS is probably most accurate measure of crime in the UK.

Echoes of Everett Hughes on NPR

August 16, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

You probably didn’t hear Everett Hughes on “Fresh Air” recently. I did.

Hughes himself, regrettably, was not Terry Gross’s guest. That was Melissa Febos, ex-dominatrix, now English professor. Neither she nor Terry Gross mentioned Hughes by name. But Febos was talking about her work as a dominatrix – a four-year stint she did in her early twenties. (The paperback of her memoir Whip Smart has just been released, and this was a rebroadcast of an interview originally aired when the book first came out.) Much of the show sounded like material for Hughes's course on the sociology of work and professions.

In 1951, Hughes wrote that if you want to study the world of work, you can “learn about doctors by studying plumbers, and about prostitutes by studying psychiatrists.”

Sixty years later, Terry Gross said to her ex-dominatrix guest,
This is one of those jobs . . . probably a lot of people in the medical industry have this kind of experience, or maybe even people in sports, too. But you work very, very closely with human bodies in a way that most people don't.
A bit later in the interview there was this exchange:
GROSS: You know, I was thinking for some of the clients, it was probably not unlike going to a doctor or a therapist, in a way, because you've got this secret life, this secret part of you that you can't share with anybody. So you go to a paid professional and reveal it to them, whether that secret thing - I mean, in a doctor's office, that secret thing might be a, you know, a growth or, you know, something happening in a private part of your body.
. . . .
FEBOS: I was actually surprised, after I started working, at how sort of perfunctory a lot of people were about it. It was like their weekly checkup or their weekly session with their therapist, and it was just a built-in part of these men's lives. And to a lot of them, it was just as essential as a checkup with a doctor, or a session with a therapist.
(The full transcript is here.)

As Gross and Febos were talking, I was also hearing Everett Hughes and that bit of wisdom from the opening sentence of “Mistakes at Work.” That topic (mistakes) did not come up in the interview. Too bad.

Class in Canada

August 14, 2011

I know far too little about Canada – not much more than the information in the Histeria! version of the national anthem, which begins
O Canada
You’re really good at hockey. . .
(Full lyric here. Histeria left out the part about universal affordable health care.)

Here’s another possible difference with the US. It’s from a Paris Review blog post by Misha Glouberman (here).
If you go to Harvard and then you live in New York, no matter what you do, the fact remains that you will have old college friends who are in the top positions in whatever field of endeavor you’re concerned with. If you’re twenty-five, you’ll know people who are getting their first pieces published in The New Yorker. If you’re forty, you’ll know people who are editors of The New Yorker. You will know people who are affiliated with every level of government. And across the board, just everywhere, you will know some people at the top of everything.

But in Canada, if you went to Harvard, it’s just a weird novelty, a strange fact about you, like that you’re a member of Mensa or you have an extra thumb. There’s no Harvard community here. There are equivalent upper-class communities to some degree, like maybe people who went to Upper Canada College prep school, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. I mean, partly there just aren’t the same heights to aspire to. There’s no equivalent to being the editor of The New Yorker in Canada, or being an American movie producer or anything like that. Partly, the advantages of class aren’t as unevenly distributed in general.
I wonder if Glouberman’s perceptions are congruent with more systematic accounts of class in Canada.

(My earlier post on the Harvard brand is here.)

Riots and Social Class

August 12, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Just a couple of thoughts about Faye’s post and the largely predictable response.

1. The old college try. A comment on Faye’s post about the London riots asked, “Can you show me a pattern or history of middle class or rich people rioting and looting?”

Well, yes.

I am old enough to remember hearing about the riot at the July 1960 Newport Jazz festival. The rioters were white, middle-class people – mostly college students. Probably, some of them wealthy. (Wealthy people do send their kids to college.)

Newport may have been one of the largest riots by college students (n = 12,000), but it was certainly not an isolated or unusual occurrence. The pattern of spring break riots has been so commonplace that vacation towns have had to weigh the lure of the student generated revenue against the costs and risk of riot. Here’s the LA Times in 1986 reporting on Palm Springs (a town not easily confused with Tottenham):
While Mayor Sonny Bono and other proponents of this year's crackdown pronounced the break the most orderly and successful in years, T-shirt merchants and others catering to the young crowds declared the week a disaster.
Sport too, especially football, has often brought out the inner rioter of college students.
Fierce fighting on the football field and in the streets of this town for two hours was the result this afternoon of the game. Members and followers of both teams were cut by blows from clubs, bricks, canes, and any other weapons that were handy, townsfolk and students joining in the melee.
That’s from the New York Times, November of 1903. But the history of these middle-class and rich people rioting pour le sport has carried on to the present. In the first decade of the current century, we’ve had fairly large riots after games at Tennessee, UMass, The Ohio State, Oregon, Minnesota (hockey), and perhaps others, and smaller ones at other schools.

In other countries, college student riots have an explicitly political agenda, but this is still a pattern, and the rioter-students, even more so than students in the US, are middle-class or rich.

2. Social class and mixed motives. Riots combine practical goal-attainment and irrational exuberance.

Urban riots, as opposed to college riots, are much more likely to start in poor or working-class neighborhoods. These riots usually begin as a collective expression of emotion, usually anger. In London, as in many of the urban riots of the 60s in the US, the immediate cause was the police shooting a person from the neighborhood. But for the youth in these neighborhood, that shooting is only one incident in a long history of unpleasant encounters with the police.

Such shootings do not happen in middle-class or wealthy neighborhoods, and in any case, people in those neighborhoods are less likely to have a history of what they feel is ill treatment by the police or a general dissatisfaction with their lot in life.

The comment also asks, “If the rich and middle class were rioting; wouldn't it make sense for them to tear up, burn down and steal in their own neighborhoods?” No. Regardless of your financial position, burning down your own neighborhood does not make sense. It is irrational. The burning and destruction are part of the expressive, emotional side of rioting (anger, excitement, exuberance, etc.).

But riots also have a practical, rational side – getting stuff for nothing. The lure of an easy bargain appeals to middle-class shoppers as well as to the poor. The middle-class might not have the numbers (or the nerve) to start looting in their own neighborhoods. But if the lootable shops – i.e., the ones that other rioters have already broken into – are not too far away, some middle-class people, especially adventurous youth, might well take their chances. Apparently, that’s what happened in London, though, as Faye says, we don’t know (and may never know) the true extent of middle-class representation among the looters. Middle-class people did not, as a comment on Faye’s post suggested they would, announce their financial position by driving their Bentleys into the middle of a riot where cars are being smashed and burned. The toffs may be greedy to the point of lawbreaking, but they’re not a damn fool. (In the 1960s riots in the US, there are documented instances of people driving to the riot zone from other neighborhoods, even the suburbs, to get a good deal on a television or other merchandise.)

The London Riots – How Do We Really See Class?

August 12, 2011
Posted by Faye Allard

[Note the byline and welcome Faye Allard, my colleague at Montclair and first-time contributor to the SocioBlog. JL]

(Cross-posted at Sociological Images.)

I am a Londoner. A proud East Londoner, hailing from the working class. And this past week has been one of the most difficult I’ve encountered since I moved to the US nearly ten years ago. This weekend my hometown was attacked by rioters, just minutes away from my family’s homes and businesses, my high school and a million childhood and teenage memories. I don’t think I can do justice describing the feeling of watching this unfold from so far away. Needless to say, I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. Thankfully, it would appear that most of the violence has subsided. In its place: a myriad of social commentaries on why this happened. Not only from journalists, but from the everyman benefiting from the very same social media that helped rioters coordinate. Indeed, many sociologists have aired their ideas on Facebook, blogs and even op-eds.

But perhaps in our rush to explain and apportion blame, we all missed asking some important questions. Why did we assume that the rioters are poor? How do we really know the class background of the rioters? Why did the media depict the rioters as underprivileged? And why did we accept this depiction unquestioningly?

The sociologist in me fantasizes of a post-riot 10-question survey to be distributed to all rioters immediately after completion of law-breaking activities with questions including: what is your average household income, what is your and your parent’s highest level of education, what is your occupation, on a scale of one to ten just how angry with the government are you at this moment, ten being really jolly pissed off?

Short of such a research tool, how did we come up with such sweeping generalizations of a group of people we really know little about, except for the fact that they all rioted?

As someone who has lived in both nations, I feel class is certainly a nuanced thing in Britain, much more so than in the US. But even with the subtleties of the British system you cannot simply see class. And for the most part, all the information we initially had about rioters is what we saw on TV and in still photographs. Case in point:

Spot the posh people?

In this picture we just cannot tell. If you thought you could tell, you’d be guessing, and you’d be basing your decision on ideas you have about the poor. Some might argue that those wearing hoodies are poor, as the wearing of hoodies has become synonymous in the British press with certain low-income groups. But people of all class groups own hoodies. We also cannot surmise that the rioters were from the area they attacked and attempt to extrapolate social class from that location. Police reports indicate that in some cases there was organized traveling to targeted areas. So how do we ascertain the social class of the rioters? Their behavior?

Did we see violence, looting and vandalism, assume that this could only be the work of poor people, and passively accept the media’s categorization of the perpetrators as such? Or are we so blinded by our ideological beliefs – romanticizing the riots to be exactly what Marx warned us of – that we bought this generalization? Or do we want so desperately to blame deep governmental cuts against the poor that we ignore the lack of solid evidence as to who these rioters really are?

I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I know that being from a proud working class background, I am angry that so many of us have jumped to this prejudicial conclusion.

As I write this, on Friday 12th August, long after many of the commentaries have been published and opinions have been shared, news outlets are beginning to report the demographic information of the rioters who have appeared in court (for example, here)

Among those rioters who fit the stereotype – alienated, poor youth – are those who do not fit this type at all. They have already been the subject of several headlines: teachers, an Olympic ambassador, a graphic designer, college graduates and a “millionaire’s daughter.” The very fact that these “unusual suspects” have been singled out by the press demonstrates the power of this prejudice; we are shocked when it isn’t poor people rioting. But why? Maybe it’s because deep down we believe that the poor are capable of violence, but the rich aren’t.

At this point, we are far from really knowing the class backgrounds of the rioters, especially since many people have not, and probably will not, be caught for their actions. We are still without reliable data to draw conclusions, just as we were earlier in the week when so many of us rushed to attribute this rioting to disenfranchised youth. It may well be that these riots were mostly poor people, but my point is, we cannot say with certainty at this point that this is the case. And as an East End girl, I ask: what does it say about us, especially sociologists, that we were so willing to believe this about the poor without any solid data?

A Rain Dance Is Not About Rain

August 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rick Perry is about to toss his hats into the ring. Perry wears two public hats – politician and preacher – though the millinery styles are so similar it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. Last Saturday, Perry was preaching at the Christian rally he organized. This Saturday, he’ll officially announce his candidacy for president at a political rally in South Carolina.

A political campaign, of course, is all about winning, presumably in order to carry out effective policy and solve the nation’s problems. A religious rally is all about . . .

Well, according to Gov. Perry, it’s pretty much about the same thing. Here’s what he said when he launched the idea:
Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.
His supporters echoed this idea of the religious rally as problem-solving
In a video created for the event, a diverse group of residents recite a litany of ailments afflicting the country, including unemployment, injustice, abuse, terrorism, depression and personal fears, such as addiction, preventing parents from fighting and a young girl asking for her daddy to love her. In response, they say they will lift up our cry to Jesus, through worship. (Quoted in Texas Independent, June 6)
Durkheim had a different take on the purpose of a rally. Rallies, whether religious gatherings or pep rallies, are rituals, and regardless of the ostensible objectives, the real goal of a ritual is group solidarity. As Robin Hanson might put it, rain dances are not about rain.

Even the rallyists know this. They judge the pep rally on how much school spirit it generates. If we’re all together in fervent unison, cheering for our side and generating power-plant levels of energy, it’s a great pep rally. If the team goes out the next day and loses 56-3, we don’t judge the pep rally a failure and demand that the cheerleaders be fired. Similarly, if a few months or a year or two, we still have high levels of unemployment, injustice, and abuse; if terrorism is still a potent threat; and if the soil of Texas is still parched and cracked from drought; nobody in Perryland will look back and say, “Gee, maybe that rally thing was a waste of time.”

In fact, back in April, Gov. Perry (or is it Rev. Perry), proclaimed “the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.” It would be irrelevant to point out that last month was the second driest July in the recorded history of the Lone Star State.

Irrelevant because, as Durkheim says, the true object of a rally or any ritual is not the economy or climate or terrorism. It’s the group itself. That’s why the generally accepted measure of a rally’s success is how many people show up. Beyond the body count, we also look to estimates of more subjective qualities – unity and emotional arousal; these, too, are properties of the group, not the outside world.

So a good ritual heightens group solidarity. The downside of that effect is that although the ritual increases solidarity within the group, it can be divisive for the society as a whole. Rituals firm up group boundaries. They emphasize the borderline between the group members and everyone else. The Perry rally was a Christian event. To attend was to acknowledge Jesus. It highlighted the line between Christians and non-Christians. Some people criticized Perry for this sectarianism. They argued that the governor was supposed to represent all the people, not just one religion. As if to confirm this criticism, Perry told the assembled, “ Indeed the only thing that you love more [than the US] is the living Christ.”

To appreciate how extraordinary and potentially divisive this statement is imagine an American Muslim leader telling a rally of co-religionists, “We love Islam even more than we love America.” The people at Fox News would go apoplectic, and thousands of their good Christian viewers would be sending e-mails calling for the execution of these traitors.

The counter-argument is that Perry was acting as a private citizen, not as governor. Maybe so, but that argument might have been more convincing if Perry had taken Durkheim to heart – that is, if he had not promoted his rally as a solution to external economic and political problems.  Or maybe not. A ritual is inherently divisive, though that divisiveness often remains invisible to the participants. Outsiders however, those who are not in the group, can clearly see the line in the sand drawn by the ritual.  Perhaps the governor of Texas should be a uniter, not a divider.

The Long Side of History

August 9, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images)

Peter Berger* takes issue with the phrase “on the wrong side of history” (here). Mostly, he takes issue with those who use that phrase. Specifically, he refers to proponents of gay marriage who claim that the Defense of Marriage Act is “on the wrong side of history” (or in Berger’s acronym, OTWSOH) The trouble with this statement, Berger says, is that “we cannot know who or what is on the right side.”

Berger is correct (though he doesn’t offer much explanation) because the history that people are referring to hasn’t happened yet. The history of OTWSOH is the future, and we can’t know the future. However – and here’s where Berger is wrong – we can make a pretty good guess about some things that will happen, at least in the short-run future. We can look at the trend – Americans becoming more accepting of gay marriage – and predict that the trend will continue, especially when we see that the young are more accepting than the old.

But beyond the short-run, who knows? It’s possible that the values, ideas, and even facts that are right today will, decades or centuries from now, be wrong, as in this clip from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” Allen, cryonically frozen in 1973, has been awakened 200 years later, and two doctors are discussing his case. (Stop the video at about the 0:50 mark.)

So it may turn out that at some time in the future, people will think that gay marriage is a plague on civilization, that human slavery is a pretty good idea, that Shakespeare was a hack, and that Kevin Federline was a great musician.

The trouble with asking history, “Which side are you on?” is that history doesn’t end. It’s like the possibly true story of Henry Kissinger asking Chou En Lai about the implications of the French Revolution. Said the Chinese premier, “It’s too early to tell.”

At what point can we say, “This is it. Now we know which side history is on”? We can’t, because when we wake up tomorrow, history will still be rolling on. Duncan Watts, in Everything Is Obvious . . . Once You Know the Answer, makes a similar point using the historical film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The two robbers flee the US and go to Bolivia. Good idea? Since we know how the movie ends – that sepia freeze frame – we can safely say, “No, bad idea.”

But if we had stopped the movie twenty minutes earlier, it would have seemed like a good idea. The vindictive lawman and his posse were about to find and kill them. A few minutes later in the film, Bolivia seemed again like a bad idea – it was a miserable place. Then, when their robberies in Bolivia were easy and lucrative, it seemed again like a good idea. And then, they got killed. Butch was 42, Sundance 31.

But history is not a movie. It doesn’t end. So at least for the long run, the OTWSOH argument smacks of arrogance. It says, “We know what will happen, and we know that we are on the right side of history, and those who are not with us are on the wrong side of history.” Arrogant indeed, though not so arrogant as those who claim to know whose side God is on and who say in effect, “We are on God’s side, and those who disagree with us are against God.”

Berger is probably right that OTWSOH “comes more naturally to those on the left,” mostly because that is the side that is pushing for historical change. For some reason, Berger, whose field is sociology of religion, makes no mention of people, mostly those on the right, who claim to be on God’s side.

* Yes, this is the same Peter Berger whose Social Construction of Reality (co-written with Thomas Luckman), published forty-five years ago, has an important place in sociology’s relatively short history.

HT: Gabriel Rossman

Conservatives at the Movies

August 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the recent conflict over the debt ceiling, the GOP impressed the country with its willingness to tank the economy – and in the process hurt a lot of people – in order to get their way. Their Senate leader likened their strategy to the threats used by hostage takers.

This is consistent with George Haidt’s research on conservative and liberal morality. Liberals, he says, base their morality mostly on two dimensions: Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. They ask, “Will people get hurt?” and “Is it fair?”

Conservatives add the dimensions of Purity, Authority, and Loyalty. As an illustration, consider the choice of motivational films. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), was trying to motivate the Tea Party types to join with the rest of the party. So he played a clip from, “The Town.” In that clip, Ben Affleck, who robs things like banks and baseball stadiums – he also shoots people – says to his friend, “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re gonna hurt some people.” (Complainers about “the liberal press” please note: The Washington Post, which first reported the story, decided to leave out that last line.)

The friend’s only question is whose car to use.

According to the Post,
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), one of the most outspoken critics of leadership among the 87 freshmen, stood up to speak, according to GOP aides.
“I’m ready to drive the car,” West replied.
The point McCarthy was making with this clip is that loyalty to the group outweighs the harm to others.

Perhaps “The Town” was not the wisest choice. When word got out, Sen Schumer filled in some of the rest of the plot.
In the scene they chose to inspire their House freshmen, one of the crooks gives a pep talk to the other, right before they both put on hockey masks, bludgeon two men with sticks, and shoot a man in the leg!
(Schumer omitted the fact that later in the film, the Affleck character kills someone by shooting off the guy’s penis. What a role model for the GOP.)

In a post nearly four years ago (here), I referred to this morality based on Authority and Loyalty as “Mafia morality,” and I noted its apparent appeal to conservatives. As if to confirm this, the recent Rupert Murdoch Newscorp flap revived the nice detail (from a 2005 Forbes article) that the head of one of its marketing divisions, Paul Carlucci, “once rallied his sales force by showing a film clip from The Untouchables in which Al Capone (played by Robert DeNiro) beats a man to death with a baseball bat.” Capone is emphasizing loyalty, much like the motivational clip Rep. McCarthy used, though the DeNiro/Capone level of cruelty and violence is such that I’m not going to embed it here.

Carlucci left little doubt as to how his ideal motivational strategy fit in the liberal-conservative spectrum.
Mr. Carlucci said that if there were employees uncomfortable with the company’s philosophy — “bed-wetting liberals in particular was the description he used” Mr. Emmel testified — then he could arrange to have those employees “outplaced from the company.” (from The Gothamist)
On a different issue, regulation of banks, the Republicans could have used John Ford’s classic Western, “Stagecoach.” One of the people in the stagecoach is a banker, Henry Gatewood, who has just embezzled $50,000 from his bank. (I don’t know how much the Affleck character netted in his bank robbery – probably less than $50K in 2010 dollars, certainly less in 1880 dollars. As someone said, the best way to rob a bank is to own one.). Gatewood offers his views on financial regulation.

The film is set in 1880, but this has a contemporary ring, just as it did in 1939 when bankers, whose unregulated banks had failed disastrously a few years earlier, were resisting FDR’s proposals on banking regulation.

The audio isn’t too clear, so here’s a transcript.
I don’t know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business! Why, they’re even talking now about having bank examiners. As if we bankers don’t know how to run our own banks! Why, at home I have a letter from a popinjay official saying they were going to inspect my books. I have a slogan that should be blazoned on every newspaper in this country: America for the Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is something shocking. Over one billion dollars a year! What this country needs is a businessman for president!

IRS Data on 2009 Incomes

August 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The gist of yesterday’s post was that while retailers that serve the rich are doing very well, those that serve the rest of us are not. The obvious reason is that the rest of us aren’t spending money, and we’re not spending it because we don’t have as much of it.

Tax figures from 2009 give some of the bleak details. (But in the comparisons, remember that 2007 was the last good year, the year before the recession.)
(Reuters) - U.S. incomes plummeted again in 2009, with total income down 15.2 percent in real terms since 2007, new tax data showed on Wednesday.
Average income in 2009 fell to $54,283, down $3,516, or 6.1 percent in real terms compared with 2008, the first Internal Revenue Service analysis of 2009 tax returns showed. Compared with 2007, average income was down $8,588 or 13.7 percent.
In various comments on this blog and elsewhere, some people have complained about the many earners who pay no income tax. Now there’s even more of them to complain about.
While the number of people who earned enough income to file a tax return fell, the share of those filing who paid no income tax rose to 41.7 percent of tax returns, up from 36.4 percent in 2009.
The Wall Street Journal has referred to these nonpayers as “lucky duckies.” Here’s how lucky they are:
The average income of those filing but paying no tax was $14,483.
Not all nonpayers are poor, just most of them. But there were some truly lucky duckies, and there were more of them as well.
No income tax was paid by 1,470 of the 235,413 taxpayers earning $1 million or more in 2009, compared with the 959 taxpayers with million-dollar-plus incomes who paid no income taxes in 2007.
There was really bad news, at least for those who believe that’s what’s best for the country is what’s best for the wealthy
The number of Americans reporting incomes of $10 million or more also plunged even more than the steep drop in income for the population as a whole.

Just 8,274 taxpayers reported income of $10 million or more in 2009, down 55 percent from 18,394 in 2007. Compared with 2007, total real income of these top earners in 2009 fell 58.6 percent to $240.1 billion, but average income slipped just 8.1 percent to $29 million.
Things are tough all over. If you want to read the whole grim Reuters story, go here.

HT: Global Sociology

Expensive Shoes, Good News

August 4, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Times this morning has a reassuring front-page story – the rich are spending, and prices don’t seem to matter all that much.
“If a designer shoe goes up from $800 to $860, who notices?” said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at the consulting firm Kurt Salmon, and the former chairman and chief executive of Saks.
For the record, the negligible increase from $800 to $860 (a 7% increase) is actually larger than the 5% income tax increase Obama proposed on incomes over $250,000 (from 37% to 39%). This 5% increase would have wrought such disaster that Republicans, in the words of one of their leaders,* held the economy hostage to ensure that it would not happen.
Nordstrom has a waiting list for a Chanel sequined tweed coat with a $9,010 price. Neiman Marcus has sold out in almost every size of Christian Louboutin “Bianca” platform pumps, at $775 a pair. Mercedes-Benz said it sold more cars last month in the United States than it had in any July in five years.
Here’s why we should all be cheered up by the good fortune of those with large fortunes.
“This group is key because the top 5 percent of income earners accounts for about one-third of spending, and the top 20 percent accounts for close to 60 percent of spending,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics. “That was key to why we suffered such a bad recession - their spending fell very sharply.”
You might think that the rich account for more spending because they have the bucks. The top 5% that accounts for one-third of spending also accounts for about one-third of income. Now Mark Zandi is a very smart economist, so I’m sure there’s some reason that it’s better for the economy when rich people buy luxury German cars than when the other 95% of us buy the things we buy.

So it’s good that the money is flowing to the top. It’s certainly not flowing to the rest of us.
The success luxury retailers are having in selling $250 Ermenegildo Zegna ties and $2,800 David Yurman pavé rings - the kind encircled with small precious stones - stands in stark contrast to the retailers who cater to more average Americans. [emphasis added]
How about shoes? One of these shoes is the Nieman Marcus $750 Louboutin Bianca mentioned above. The other is a Viviana by Mossimo, available at Target for $29.99

(Click on the image for a view large enough that you can read the writing inside the shoe
and see which one costs 30 times more than the other -- as if you really had to look.)

Apparently, it’s better for one rich woman to buy the Bianca than for twenty-five women of average income to buy the Viviana. But I’m not sure why.

*GOP Senate leader quoted in WaPo: “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting,” [McConnell] said. “Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”

Open-minded or Just Outnumbered?

August 3, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tyler Cowen links to a Financial Times article about and gives the money quote, which quotes the engineer:
“Conservatives are far more open to reaching out to someone with a different point of view than a liberal is.” That is, when it comes to looking for love, conservatives are more open-minded than liberals.
The article provides no data or details, but I wonder whether the Match brains take into account the numbers of liberals and conservatives in the pool. If conservatives are in the minority, it may be simple math that makes them appear more open minded. If they remain closed-minded, compared to their liberal counterparts, they will have less chance of success.

In addition, if the liberal-conservative ratio is way out of balance, even a random matching will make the conservatives seem more open minded. By analogy, suppose that a population is 90% orange and 10% purple. No matter how many orange-purple matches occur, the rate of linking up with someone of a different color will be much higher for the purples. Unless all matches are same-color, the purple minority will seem more “open-minded.”

The president herself says something that supports this idea that those with fewer kindred spirits wind up becoming more open-minded.
I might come in and say I’m looking for a nice Catholic guy between 30 and 40 who is non-married. But after weeks of looking at people, I might get an e-mail from a guy who has kids, and I might accept that.

Going to Extremes

August 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a recent post (here), I referred to George Packer’s short essay on the current standoff in Washington. Packer used Max Weber’s distinction between an “ethic of responsibility” and an “ethic of ultimate ends.” Or, in Packer’s words, “between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences.”

Packer said that the Republicans came down on the side of ultimate ends and that they were now extreme in their emphasis on principles regardless of consequences.

A commenter objected to Packer’s choice of words and dismissed his take on conservatives as “caricature.” . But a recent Economist/YouGov poll (here, July 23) suggests that although Packer’s diction may have been undiplomatic, he was essentially correct about the difference between the Republicans and others, a difference that holds not just in Washington but in the electorate generally.

The poll asked.
If you had to choose, would you rather have a congressperson who...
  • Compromises to get things done
  • Sticks to his or her principles no matter what

Here are the results.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

No other variables produced such large differences. Region, sex, age, and education yielded differences of at most a few percentage points. There was an 11-point gap between blacks and whites, High income respondents ($100K and up) were 17 points more likely to want compromise than were those with incomes less than $40K. These differences are dwarfed by the 36-point gap between Democrats and Republicans and the 45-point gap between Liberals and Conservatives. It’s also worth noting that the Independent/Moderates were much closer to the those on their left than to those on their right.

Readers of a certain age or readers of history may remember Barry Goldwater, GOP candidate for president in 1964, and his defense of principled “extremism.” Despite the reverence for Reagan that Republicans often proclaim, it’s Goldwater who may be their true guiding star.