Casey Mulligan's Grapes

November 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bloomberg reports (here) that the November increase in hiring – 120,000 jobs – will probably not affect the unemployment rate, which will remain at 9%.

Casey Mulligan, at the New York Times Economix blog, knows why unemployment is high: the safety net.
Government assistance programs have not only supported more people but become more generous, thanks to changes in benefit rules since 2007.
Of course, most people work hard despite a generous safety net, and 140 million people are still working today. But in a labor force as big as ours, it takes only a small fraction of people who react to a generous safety net by working less to create millions of unemployed. [emphasis added]
In February 2008, the official unemployment rate was 4.8% – about 7.4 million people.  By October 2009, the rate had more than doubled to 10.1% or more than 15 million unemployed people. 

Mulligan assures us that that in that 20-month period, “millions” of those newly-unemployed people decided that they preferred to live off government benefits rather than work. 

I had thought that the sharp increase in unemployment was caused by the crash set off by the bursting of the housing bubble, with its inflated house prices and dubious financial schemes based on those prices. Companies were laying off workers or going out of business entirely.  People didn’t lose their desire to work, they lost their jobs.

But what do I know? Mulligan is an economist at the prestigious University of Chicago, and presumably he has insight into the life-decisions of poor people. Still, I’m a bit puzzled because the official unemployment rate counts only those people who are looking for a job. So apparently they have chosen to live off government benefits and are lying when they say they are looking for work.  I guess you just can’t trust these people who aren’t working.

Mulligan’s solution to unemployment, consistent with his view of its cause, is to cut these overly generous benefits.
I suspect that employment cannot return to pre-recession levels until safety-net generosity does, too.
He’s talking mostly about the magnanimous $330 a week unemployment check, but he may also have in mind other programs like TAFN, food stamps, and the rest. 

(more after the break or what should be a break if this new version of Blogger is working correctly)

In Other Words

November 28, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

From The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman
Reciprocal typifications of actions are built up in the course of a shared history. . . .

The habitualizations and typifications undertaken in the common life of A and B, formations that until this point still had the quality of ad hoc conceptions of two individuals, now become historical institutions. . . . This means that the institutions that have now been crystallized . . . are experiences as existing over and beyond the individuals who “happen to” embody them at the moment. In other words, the institutions are now experienced as possessing a reality of their own, a reality that confronts the individual as external and coercive fact.
From Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin
The daily things we do
For money or for fun
Can disappear like dew
Or harden and live on.
Strange reciprocity:
The circumstance we cause
In time gives rise to us,
Becomes our memory.

Thanksgiving — a Classroom Memory

November 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
If you become a teacher
By your pupils you’ll be taught
                                   — Oscar Hammerstein, “The King and I”

It was my Monday-Tuesday-Thursday criminology class, and the two guys, both tall and slightly overweight, always sat in the back row together. They weren’t the best students in the class, but I liked them because they were willing to get into the discussion, often with something that was both on-topic and funny. 

This was decades ago.  One day I was talking after class with one of them, and our conversation drifted to the topic of football and betting.  “George is incredible,” he said.  “Every Thursday he gives me a couple of teams for the weekend. He’s like nineteen and one. This guy’s paying my tuition.”

The next week was Thanksgiving, and on Tuesday, I ended class wishing the students all a good holiday. Then I said, “So George, what do you like this weekend?”

Without missing a beat, George leaned back, raised his index finger to indicate certainty, and said, “The Lions at home on Turkey Day.”

I can’t remember if the Lions won on the field, but I’m sure they covered.  I did not forget or ignore his words of wisdom, not that year, or the next, or the next.  As I said, this was decades ago.  In recent years you could have lost a lot of money following his advice. This year, the Packers are seemingly unstoppable.  They opened as 5½ or 6 point favorites and the line got bet up as high as 7 before settling down to 6 or 6½ this morning.  But the Lions are much improved team this year.

UPDATE:  The betting public must have been paying attention.  A lot of money came in on Detroit, and by game time the spread had dropped to 4½ or even 4.  It looked like a test for my skepticism about “wisdom of crowds” in sports betting (see an earlier blog post here with links to even earlier posts).  The crowd was on Detroit, and the crowd lost its shirt.  The Packers won 27-15. 

I wonder what George would say.

Constructing Value

November 23, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

I don’t know the sociological research on auctions – surely it must exist – but auctions seem like a wonderful illustration of how value is socially constructed. I didn’t really need to be convinced that people don’t always live up to economists’ ideals of rationality, but I was reminded of it on Saturday when I watched the auction of items from my mother’s “estate” (i.e., stuff in her apartment). I wasn’t in the actual auction room; nowadays you can watch – and bid – online.

As someone who is relatively ignorant about art, I of course was puzzled as to why one piece was worth several hundred dollars while another might fetch only a $50 or no bids at all. But I thought that potential buyers would have an idea of how much something is worth – the objects and information about them are all available beforehand – and they would bid and stop bidding according to these prior valuations. But look at this lithograph, which graced my parents’ wall for as long as I can remember.

The opening asking price was $20.* None of the people at the auction house or online would offer that much. For the potential bidders, the picture was not worth $20. 

The auctioneer then lowered the opening bid to $10. Someone offered the ten bucks. A bargain. But then someone else bid $20. The picture which had not been worth $20 suddenly was. And then it was worth $30. You can see the bidding history to the right of the lithograph. The bidders were reluctant – twice someone came in just as the gavel was about to come down – but in the end, the picture that nobody thought was worth $20 eventually sold for twice that much. In the interval of a few minutes, this minimal interaction between bidders had quadrupled the value of the picture.

There’s also a cognitive-dissonance explanation. If I bid $10 for the item, I’m not just telling myself, “I think this picture is worth $10.” Instead, the message I’m sending to myself is more general: “I want this picture.” Once we decide to buy something, our subjective valuation of it goes up – we’re more comfortable thinking that we got a good deal than thinking that we wasted our money. Most transactions end there; we buy something at a price, and we are happy with it. But an auction encourages us to turn that subjective valuation into higher and higher cash bids.

* It can be a bit daunting, depressing even, to think that a picture so familiar that it feels like a part of your life turns out to be worth so little to other people.

The Weekly Car Crash

November 21, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Every couple of years, I'll see a piece about the reality of pro football that makes me want to stop watching.  This time, it was a nicely edited piece (here) that Greg Bishop at the Times stitched together from interviews with Kris Jenkins, a former interior lineman for the Jets and Panthers.
N.F.L. fans, people outside, they have no clue what goes on. This isn’t like playing Madden.
You ever been in a car crash? . . .  Football is like that. But 10 times worse. It’s hell.
After I read an article like this, I may leave the TV off for a week or two, maybe more if it’s early in the season and the weather is still like summer.  But eventually I go back.  So do the players, even though they know all too well the immediate pain and the long-term damage.
There aren’t too many places a 400-pound guy with an attitude can go and beat the crap out of somebody and not get locked up for it. 
The entire article is worth reading.

Constructing Character

November 17, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat, a Catholic and a conservative, is grappling with what he calls “the sins of Joe Paterno.”  Douthat draws a parallel with a Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, who worked admirably in Colombia – against poverty, against hunger, against the Medellin cartel – but then denied, minimized, and helped cover up sexual abuse in the Church. 
How did the man who displayed so much moral courage in Colombia become the cardinal who was so morally culpable in Rome? In the same way, perhaps, that college football’s most admirable coach — a mentor to generations of young men, a pillar of his Pennsylvania community — could end up effectively washing his hands of the rape of a young boy. . . .
Here, abbreviated, is Douthat’s explanation:
Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. . . .

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind.  (The full Times op-ed is here.)
There’s much to be said about this (which is why this post is too long).  First of all, Douthat has no real knowledge of what Paterno or the cardinal were thinking or what “illusions” they carried in their minds. This is pure speculation, based on the relatively few facts that have become newsworthy.  I too have read about JoePa over the years, and I have seen him on my television, pacing the sidelines.  But I don’t think for a minute – well, maybe for a minute – that I know what’s going on in his psyche.

Second, the behavior of these two heroes is puzzling only because of Douthat’s basic assumption, the assumption of personal consistency.  It’s one that most of us make.  We attribute far too much consistency to other people.  We judge a person to be good and heroic or bad and mediocre, often on the basis of a very few bits of information.  We then assume that the good people will always do what is good, and the mediocre will always do what is weak. After that, it’s easy to float on the tide of confirmation bias. Most of the time we don’t see evidence to the contrary, or if we do see it, we don’t notice it. 

But when a discrepancy becomes unavoidable, we struggle, as Douthat does, to come up with explanations – but only explanations which do not disrupt that basic assumption about consistency or “character.” As Nabokov (speaking in Humbert’s voice) says,
I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader's mind. No matter how many times we reopen ‘King Lear,’ never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten . . . . The less often we see a particular person, the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We could prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.
As Nabokov indicates, we apply this hard carapace of consistency not just to distant, famous figures, but to our friends and neighbors.  This constructing and attribution of characteristics goes on continuously, as Goffman  pointed out long ago (around the same time that Nabokov was writing Lolita).  We are always sizing up other people, forming impressions of them; and we are aware – sometimes painfully aware – that they are doing the same to us.  From a single act, people classify us as having the trait that goes with that act. 

Jay Smooth notes this same process in conversations about race.  If you point to some action or comment by a person, they often assume that you are also judging their entire character. 
“Are you saying that I am a racist?  I am a good person. How could you say that I’m a racist?”
And you try to respond, “No, I’m talking about the particular thing that you said.” 
“No, I am not a racist.”  
And what started out as a what-you-said conversation turns into a what-you-are conversation.  (The video is here, starting at about 1:20  You should watch the clip.  Jay Smooth is better in person than in print.  ht: Angie Andriot and Jenn Lena)
Of course, nobody wants to be thought of as a racist. But even when the description might be more flattering, we often resist these specific characterizations.  Those heroes we admire so much never think of themselves as heroes – not Superman, not Sully.   They were just doing their job or their duty.  Besides, they know all those facts about themselves, facts too ordinary to be mentioned in the media, which are unheroic.  No man is a hero to his valet, and in this Goffmanesque, information-control sense, we are all our own valets.  We know too much about ourselves to characterize ourselves as only heroic, villainous, or anything else. 

Paterno’s culpability, whatever it is, can be especially unsettling to a Ross Douthat not just because it threatens an image of JoePa as hero,* but because it threatens a whole theory of human character. But if we are making judgments, we’re probably more accurate in labeling actions rather than actors.

If only Douthat had been listening to Jay Smooth.
We need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift toward seeing being good as a practice.
* Douthat has come in for criticism for his choice of heroes.  But Douthat’s detractors engage in the same kind of labeling.  Kos, for example (here), sees Paterno and the cardinal not as heroes but as “assholes.”  The valence is negative rather than positive, but the process of character construction is the same.

Morality — Drawing the Line (and Erasing Part of It)

November 15, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Morality is based on the group.  Whether an act is right or wrong depends on which side of the group boundary people are on.  That’s one of the points I’ve been trying to make in class recently.  The general topic is religion, specifically Durkheim’s notion that god, belief, ritual, and other components of religion, including morality, are all about group solidarity.  

Case in point – bullying.  It’s been in the news periodically for a long while now, with stories of schoolkids who commit suicide after enduring continual bullying from their peers, both in person and now online.  And for every suicide, there are many, many more victims who never make the headlines but who suffer similar bullying. The statistics that get thrown around are questionable, but regardless of the actual scope of the problem, bullying is nasty stuff, and we’d like to have our children doing less of it.* 

Many states are passing anti-bullying laws.  That’s what we do here in America. If we don’t like something, rather than frame it as a problem and seek a solution, we take a moralistic view, especially if we are conservatives with a preference for “moral clarity.”  We declare it bad or even “evil,” we criminalize it, and we punish people who do it.

But if morality depends on group boundaries – Us and Them – what do we do when the bullies are Us, and the victims are Them?  If we’re Michigan Republicans, we give Our bullies an indulgence.
On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled state senate passed an anti-bullying bill that manages to protect school bullies instead of those they victimize. It accomplishes this impressive feat by allowing students, teachers, and other school employees to claim that “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” justifies their harassment. [The Time article is here].
Translation: your Christian beliefs give you a free pass to bully kids you think are gay. 

See, the trouble with just a plain bullying law is that it might punish one of Us for bullying one of Them. And it’s pretty clear that Us is conservative Christians, and Them is gay kids.
Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, [has] referred to anti-bullying measures as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda.
The legislators in Michigan, some of them, have been trying to pass an anti-bullying bill for nearly ten years. The proposed bill was called “Matt’s Safe School Law,” named for a bullying victim who committed suicide in 2002. The Republicans consistently weakened the bill’s provisions and then attached the “religious beliefs” exemption, so even Democrats voted against it. 

In that ten year period, at least ten Michigan bullying victims have committed suicide.

* Not all of us, of course.  Somewhere in my files I have a WSJ piece from a decade ago by Joseph Epstein, who was downright nostalgic about bullying as he recalled his Chicago childhood.  “If one couldn’t oneself enjoy the bullying of the larger over the smaller, there was still the simple delight of ganging up, the many against the one.”

Costly Thy Habitus . . .

November 12, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

From Liquidated, by Karen Ho
 Massive corporate restructurings are not caused so much by abstract financial models as by the local, cultural habitus of investment bankers, the mission-driven narratives of shareholder value and the institutional culture of Wall Street.
Yes, you read that correctly: habitus, narratives, and culture trump finance. 

Here’s more from the Financial Times review by Gillian Tett (she’s the FT reporter with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology who called the crash two years before it happened).
It has become painfully clear that bankers placed far too much faith on their quasi-scientific models. It has also been evident that a grasp of cultural dynamics is critical in understanding how modern finance works – or doesn’t.
Ho’s central argument borrows heavily from the work of Pierre Bourdieu . . . [and] the concept of the “habitus” – the idea that a society develops a cognitive map to order its world, a map that is usually based on its physical experience, albeit in ways the participants are only dimly aware of.
In the case of Wall Street, Ho argues that the “habitus” is shaped by bankers’ educational experience and employment history. Modern financiers live in a world where jobs are insecure, and where bankers are paid by trading things or cutting deals. They tend to project their experience on to the economy by aspiring to make everything “liquid”, or tradeable, including jobs and people.

Surveys and Confirmation Bias

November 10, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

When he taught research methods as a grad student, Michael Schwartz gave his students this assignment: “Create a survey to show . . .” and he would tell them the conclusion he wanted the survey to support.  The next week, he’d give them the same assignment but with the desired conclusion the opposite of the first one.

A year and a half ago, I criticized (here) a much publicized study by Dan Klein and Zeljka Buturovic:  “This survey, I said, “wasn’t designed to discover what people think. It was designed to prove a political point,” and that point was that liberal ideology blinds people to economic facts. 

I was reminded of Mike’s assignment when I read Klein’s recent article at The Atlantic.  In a bit of academic fairness that’s probably all too rare, Klein went on to create a survey designed to see if conservative ideology has a similar effect.

Klein hoped that his conservative and libertarian allies would not so readily agree with politically friendly economic ideas that were nevertheless unsound. But conservatives in the new survey were “equally stupid” as the liberals in the earlier survey.

Klein also expected some nasty nyah-nyahing from his liberal critics.  But no, “The reaction to the new paper was quieter than I expected.”   In fact, one of those liberal critics, Matt Yglesias, offered an observation that Klein used as his takeaway from the two surveys: “there’s a lot of confirmation bias out there.” 

Yes, but confirmation bias is not just something that affects people who respond to surveys.  As Mike’s assignment makes clear, we also need to be wary of confirmation bias on the part of those who create the surveys. There is the further problem I mentioned in my earlier post:  a one-shot survey is inherently ambiguous. We can’t be sure just what the respondents really hear when they are asked the question. 

My own takeaway, besides admiration for Klein’s honesty, is that when you design your research as a statement (proving some point), you don’t learn nearly as much as when you design it as a genuine question.

Defining Deviance — Up and Down

November 9, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the increase in economic inequality over the past two or three decades comes from the enormous growth in money going to the very rich.  David Brooks attributes that growth in part to a change in culture.*
You see a shift in social norms. Up until 1970 or so, a chief executive would have been embarrassed to take home more than $20 million. But now there is no shame, and top compensation zooms upward.
It’s what Daniel Patrick Moynihan nearly two decades ago (1993) called “defining deviancy down.”  Things which had once been a matter of shame have become acceptable. Norms change.

But they don’t change all by themselves – as though they were part of some “low-pressure system” or “cold air mass” moving into the region.  And the change is not always towards looser standards.  Moral entrepreneurs campaign to define deviancy up, and sometimes they succeed.  If we were back in the pre-feminist, “Mad Men” world of the 1950s, Herman Cain wouldn’t be having his current problems.**  But women – those pesky feminists – in just a few decades, have changed the dominant public judgment about men using a position of power to get laid.  Once accepted, maybe even admired and envied, it’s now something a guy doesn’t want other people, even his friends, to know about. 

“Mad Men” shows us some other examples of deviance defined up.  Look in on an ad agency today and you won’t see anyone smoking. A few souls may go out to the street for a cigarette break, but we see their smoking not as pleasure but as addiction, something to be pitied. Nor will you see anyone coming back drunk from a three-martini lunch or pouring himself a tumbler of Canadian Club in his office. Score one for the anti-tobacco and anti-drunkenness forces.

Besides moral entrepreneurship, norms can change as a matter of invidious social comparison – when those lower down the social scale take cues from those above them.  Fashions in clothes or names filter down through the class structure. So do ideas of unacceptable behavior. In the 18th century, new canons of manners started with the court, then the aspiring gentry, and eventually even commoners were embarrassed by the audible belch or fart. In the 21st century,  it’s not that we suddenly realized that drinking at work or smoking is harmful. Rather, as my British friend once said, “it isn’t done” – meaning that it isn’t done by people of our social position. In fact, moral entrepreneurs might be more successful if instead of trying to convince people that something is wrong, they tried to convince them it is low class.

As Oscar Wilde said,
As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular. (HT: Mark Kleiman)

*  Brooks is a conservative columnist for the New York Times. But his liberal counterpart on the Times op-ed page, Paul Krugman, years ago offered a similar explanation for the skyrocketing pay of those at the top.

** For those who might not remember: in 2011, when I originally posted this, Herman Cain, a business executive, was a candidate for the Republican nomination for President, and some of his female former employees had accused him of sexual harassment.

Patriotism Goes to the Movies

November 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Patriotism,” says Paul Krugman. “is about making sacrifices for the national good, not serving your personal motives or interests.”  Krugman (in his blog, here ) was citing Michael Lind’s Slate article about “The Patriot,” the 2000 film starring Mel Gibson.  Lind complains that the Patriot of the title, “sits out the American Revolution, until a sadistic . . . British commander kills one of his sons. whereupon he spends the next two days – oops, I mean two hours – avenging himself.”

That’s not patriotism, harrumphs Lind, it’s “amoral familism”*
It appears that today's audiences can't imagine any cause that could justify political violence other than injury to a child or wife.
This movie is deeply subversive of patriotism. Indeed, patriotism is a concept that neither the screenwriter . .  nor the director . . . seems to understand.
Maybe so.  But the writer and director do understand something that Lind apparently does not:  movies are not real life.  If they are, then  “Singin’ in the Rain” is deeply subversive of rational reactions to meteorological events. 

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it’s no refuge at all for a filmmaker. Real-life Americans are patriotic, sometimes to an extent others find offensive. But that kind of patriotism doesn’t make for good movies.  In the American movies that I know, good guys never do their good deeds out of abstract idealism. Their motives are always personal. (Even better than a non-ideoogical hero is the character who has an ideology but abandons it in order to kill bad guys – e.g., Grace Kelly in “High Noon”).  

America movie-heroes often take up arms against bad guys, but we would mistrust a hero whose actions are purely ideological and not rooted in personal revenge. Our heroes, even when they are fighting for Good, have the decency to deny any ideological motive. Here’s one familiar (I hope) example:

I’m afraid Michael Lind would be disappointed in Rick, and in Grace Kelly shooting the bad guy to protect her husband.  “[In] the Zeitgeist in the United States in A.D. 2000 . . . American national patriotism is giving way . . .to the perennial rival of patriotism at all levels: amoral familism.”

If that’s the Zeitgeist, it’s a Geist that goes back a long Zeit.  “Casablanca” was made in 1942, “High Noon” in 1952.  Or take another classic from the early 1950s, “On the Waterfront.”  Marlon Brando winds up doing the right thing in ratting out the racketeer union boss (the right thing according to the film’s construction of morality).  But it’s not until he has a personal reason – the union boss has his brother Charley killed – that he takes action.  
You gave it to Joey, you gave it to Dugan, and you gave it to Charley who was one of your own.. . and I’m glad what I done to you!
The film’s attempts to make stevedores spout lofty motives ring embarrassingly false, as when one of the longshoremen urges Brando to defy the boss in order to
give us back our union, so we can run it on the up and up.
(I still cringe when I hear that line.)

Is this bias towards the personal and against the political an aspect of American culture?  Or is it the medium?  Maybe political ideals – socialist realism, capitalist realism, patriot realism, etc. – don’t make for compelling movies.  Movies are first about characters, not ideas. The medium washes out the message.  

* The term comes from Edward Banfield’s 1958 book The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.  Amoral familism, according to Banfield, was that basis.

Lying With Statistics, and Really Lying With Statistics

November 4, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The #1 way to lie with statistics is . . . to just lie!” says Andrew Gelman, who a) knows much about statistics and b) is very good at spotting statistical dishonesty.

But maybe there’s a difference between lying with statistics and just plain making stuff up.

I’ve commented before about social psychologists’ affinity for Candid-Camera deception, but this Dutch practitioner goes way beyond that.  [The Telegraph has the story .] 

The committee set up to investigate Prof Stapel said after its preliminary investigation it had found "several dozen publications in which use was made of fictitious data" . . .
[Stapel’s] paper that linked thoughts of eating meat eating with anti-social behaviour was met with scorn and disbelief when it was publicised in August, it took several doctoral candidates Stapel was mentoring to unmask him. . . .

the three graduate students grew suspicious of the data Prof Stapel had supplied them without allowing them to participate in the actual research. When they ran statistical tests on it themselves they found it too perfect to be true and went to the university's dean with their suspicions.
What’s truly unsettling is to think that maybe he’s not the only one.

Abstract Preferences and Real Choices

November 3, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

We’ve known for a long time that surveys are often very bad at predicting behavior.  To take the example that  Malcom Gladwell uses, if you ask Americans what kind of coffee they want,  most will say “a dark, rich, hearty roast.”  But what they actually prefer to drink is “milky, weak coffee.”

Something that sounds good in the abstract turns out to be different from the stuff you actually have to drink. 

Election polls usually have better luck since indicating your choice to a voting machine isn’t all that different from speaking that choice to a pollster.  But political preference polls as well can run into that abstract-vs.-actual problem.

Real Clear Politics recently printed some poll results that were anything but real clear.  RCP looked at polls matching Obama against the various Republican candidates.  In every case, if you use the average results of the different polls, Obama comes out on top. But in polls that matched Obama against “a Republican,” the Republican wins.

 The graph shows only the average of the polls.  RCP also provides the results
of the various polls (CNN, Rasmussen, ABCl, etc.) 

Apparently, the best strategy for the GOP is nominate a candidate but not tell anyone who it is.

The Distribution of the Wealthy

November 2, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

After reading David Brooks’s column in the Times yesterday, I was catching up on podcasts of KCRW’s “The Business.”  The installment from three weeks ago included a short clip from the “30 Rock” pilot:
DONAGHY:  Sure. I gotcha. New York, third wave feminist. College educated. Single and pretending to be happy about it. Over scheduled, under sexed. You buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover. And... Every two years you take up knitting for... a week.
Like Jack Donaghy, David Brooks gets a lot of mileage out of cultural stereotypes. That’s because there’s some truth to them. Yesterday, the day after Halloween, he went back to the closet and pulled out his favorite costumes – two Blue, two Red.

The two costumes in each color reveal a basic inequality.  In the Blue
  • the urban elites, concocting complex financial deals and buying expensive merch
  • the unwealthy liberal liberal-arts majors in Zucotti Park.
In the Red
  • the solid middle-class, unpretentious and hard-working
  • dropouts struggling to find work and keep their families together – struggling but too often failing.
The Red inequality, says Brooks, is more important yet less noticed.

The Blue inequality is confined to “New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Houston and the District of Columbia.” The Red inequality is “everywhere else.”

These costumes are colorful; they capture our attention. But they can mask other realities.* As Brad de Long points out, the economic and social gulf between the educated and the uneducated – Brooks’s Red inequality – is just as wide, perhaps wider, in New York as in Fresno. Brad also unfairly goes to Forbes magazine and waves the page showing the geography of the very wealthiest. It looks like there’s a bit of Bluish inequality in the heartland too.

“I count 6 of the top 10 living in regions where Brooks claims people like them don't live,” Brad says. But three of those six are Waltons (John-boy didn’t make the list this year), and ten is hardly all of the top 1%.

Howard Wial at the Atlantic  uses IRS data to give a more complete picture. He uses $200,000 household income as his cutoff point – the top 3% rather than the 1%. But while the lives at the 99th percentile may be different from those only at th 97th, the maps are probably similar.

Here’s where the wealthy are.

The twenty MSAs shown in shades of green (nice choice) account for slightly more than half of all such households. Which means that nearly half of the top 3% live everywhere else. The New York area is home to 11.5% of the wealthy. But then, it’s home to more people of every income. So Wial looks at the ratio of wealthy to nonwealthy. A handful of rich folks can make a difference in a small population like Washoe County, NV and Natrona County, WY, which go from gray to green (who’s rich in Casper?). But in Phoenix, the population is so large that the although many wealthy people live there (2% of all wealthy people in the US), they are under-represented.

It’s not surprising that the Occupy movement started in New York, nor that it has spread to other places highlighted in these maps. But as Wial says, Occupy protests have also sprung up in “such seemingly unlikely locales as Anderson, Indiana, and Texarkana, Texas.”

If you’re looking for only red and blue, you’ll miss a lot of interesting purple shades, from magenta and mauve to puce and plum.


* Brooks has done this before, notably in Bobos in Paradise. See Sasha Issenberg’s article in PhillyMag for notes on Brooks’s blindness to inconvenient realities and his just plain making stuff up.