The Dutch in Old Amsterdam Do It

February 28, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Amsterdam – “It’s a Disney World for ‘those’ people,” says Bill O’Reilly in the video below.

This clip is a further illustration of the role that the Netherlands plays in the imaginations of US conservatives, the topic of yesterday’s post.

Although it’s nice to have my perceptions confirmed, I’m a bit embarrassed not to have known about the Fox News frenzy over Amsterdam, which apparently goes back to at least 2010.  

Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage posted the video, and advised us to pay close attention to O’Reilly’s keen sense of methodology evident at the end of the clip.  When one of the women mentions the rates of ever using marijuana – “Forty percent of people in the USA and only 22.6% of people in the Netherlands” – O’Reilly says,  
The way they do statistics in the Netherlands is different.  Plus it’s a much smaller country, a much smaller base.
Maybe he's using a Bayesian approach that we need Andrew Gelman to explain.

Pinocchio Politics

February 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the Puritan mind, virtue is found in dutiful hard work, and easy pleasure is the road to ruin.  That mentality still reigns in certain strains of American thought. 

In yesterday’s post about Charles Murray, I said that US conservatives imagined  Europe to be something like Pleasure Island in the Disney version of Pinocchio.  Murray is fairly vague about the penalties Europeans pay for their pleasures.  He says only that they miss out on the satisfactions that we Americans have – doing a meaningful job, being a good friend, etc.  – though I don’t think he provides much evidence for that assertion.

In Pinocchio, the penalties are clearer and more terrifying.   The forces that govern the island and lull the boys with pleasure eventually transform them into donkeys.   A boy’s ears suddenly grow long and furry.  A tail springs out from his backside, tearing a hole in his pants.   When he realizes what is happening, as he sees his hands turn to hooves, he tries desperately to resist, but in vain.  He is now a donkey, a dumb beast under the command of the Island government.  This is the inevitable sad end for all the boys on the island. 

Do Europeans face a similarly horrible outcome?  While Murray demurs, Rick Santorum boldly speaks out.  Last week a New York Times blog embedded a video of Santorum relating his fantasies about the Netherlands.  It’s well know that the Dutch government is unusually indulgent of pleasures.  Not only is it generous in the usual Euro-socialism categories (family allowances, vacation weeks, unemployment insurance, etc.).  But the government even licenses drug dens and brothels.  Amsterdam is a Pleasure Island for grown-ups.

But pity those fools.  For just as Pinocchio’s peers paid a price, so do the Dutch.  The wages of their sin, according to Santorum, is not Donkeyism.  It’s Death.

Here’s a transcript of the first part of the clip.
In the Netherlands, people wear a . . . bracelet, if you’re elderly.  And the bracelet is “Don’t euthanize me.” 
Because they have voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, but half the people who are euthanized every year — and it’s 10 percent of all deaths for the Netherlands — half of those people are euthanized involuntarily, at hospitals, because they are older and sick. And so elderly people in the Netherlands don’t go to the hospital, they go to another country, because they’re afraid because of budget purposes that they will not come out of that hospital if they go into it with sickness.
It’s not true, of course.  There is no forced euthanasia in the Netherlands, and the elderly Dutch do not wear the bracelets that Santorum imagines.  (The Times blog reports on the stringent requirements for legal voluntary euthanasia.)

I do not know why conservatives are so irresistibly drawn to this fantasy of death – forced euthanasia and death panels–  but they are.  They must convince themselves and others that universal affordable health care, health care that people don’t have to work and suffer for, must be a mortal danger.

 It’s one thing to use this pleasure/danger idea in cautionary tales for children – Pinocchio or Hansel and Gretel.  It’s another to use it as the basis of lies in discussing public policy.

Europe – the Tempations of Pleasure

February 26, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the ESS, in almost each session I attended, a speaker would refer to Charles Murray’s recent book.  This would happen in the Q-and-A, not in the formal presentation, and the speaker would invariably add that he or she had not yet actually read the book. 

Neither have I.  But for the purposes at hand, what we get from the reviews or excerpts is probably sufficient.  I’ll be curious to actually read the book and see Murray’s data on the moral disintegration of the white working class, but what strikes me now is Murray’s choice of bad guys – the liberal white elite. 

This explanation is nothing new.  Forty years ago, James Q. Wilson was making the same argument to explain the increase of drugs, crime, welfare, and out-of-wedlock births among African Americans in the 1960s.  It seemed unlikely then that what kids in Bed Stuy were doing had anything to do with ideas about “self-actualization” and “self-expression” that were becoming popular at Brandeis and Berkeley. But that was the argument Wilson was making.

Fast forward to 2012, and who does Murray blame for trends among poor whites?  Educated liberals . . . even though Murray allows that their behavior is exemplary. Yet they are to blame because they have not raised their voices in judgment on the ways of poorer whites.  This reluctance to preach is immoral not just in its consequences; its causes too may be venal.
If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself.
Murray and Wilson are smart guys, so it must be something other than the evidence (or lack of evidence) behind their anti-liberal animus.  Something leads them to see a causal link between the behavior of rich liberals and that of poor people, and that something seems to be the Protestant Ethic*, a mind-set that makes them deeply suspicious of pleasure.  Virtue, in this Protestant-Ethic view, resides in self-denial, and much of Murray’s book is about how the decline in virtue has led to personal and social disaster. (My earlier post on this is here. )

But even where this abandonment of the Protestant Ethic has had no such visible ill effect, Murray insists that something is wrong.  Like in Europe.  Murray writes about the Europe  “Syndrome” – a complex of “symptoms.”  But it’s different from other diseases because it’s just so darned attractive.  In this passage late in the book, Murray looks across at Europe and sees an incarnation of the Pleasure Island scene in Disney’s Pinocchio.
There’s a lot to like about day-to-day life in the advanced welfare states of western Europe. They are great places to visit. But the view of life that has taken root in those same countries is problematic. It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible – The Europe Syndrome.

Europe’s short workweeks and frequent vacations are one symptom of the syndrome. The idea of work as a means of self-actualization has faded. The view of work as a necessary evil, interfering with the higher good of leisure, dominates . . . The decline of fertility to far below replacement is another symptom. Children are seen as a burden that the state must help shoulder, and even then they’re a lot of trouble that distract from things that are more fun. The secularization of Europe is yet another symptom. Europeans have broadly come to believe that humans are a collection of activated chemicals that, after a period of time, deactivate. If that’s the case, saying that the purpose of life is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible is a reasonable position. Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational.

The alternative to the European Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things – raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can. Providing the best framework for doing those things is what the American project is all about. (p.284)
Those poor Europeans.  They’ve been turned into donkeys, leading meaningless lives, unaware of the absence of transcendent meaning in their lives – sans friends, sans neighbors, sans family, sans craftsmanship, sans belief, sans everything but their sybaritic pleasures.

No wonder the Republicans constantly warn us against the temptations of “European-style socialism.” The warning is not really necessary since most Americans don’t know about legally mandated vacation time, maternity leave, paternity leave, government support for all families with children, job protection, and other family-friendly policies. Nevertheless, the conservative helmsmen stuff our ears with wax and lash themselves to the mast lest the siren song of European pleasure lead us off our American course.

* Robin Hanson, from whose blog I borrowed the excerpt from Murray’s book, says that Murray’s view of vice and virtue is part of the agricultural stage of society – “a farmer-style intellectual point of view” (the full blogpost is here). The agricultural revolution stretches back thirty centuries, give or take, but I think the puritan ideology Murray exemplifies is much more recent – not necessarily simultaneous with the rise of Protestantism, but not far off.

Inflation - Garden Variety

February 22, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sports is a business. 

The Dow is getting close to 13,000.  The Knicks are getting close to .500.  This month at least, it’s the Knicks who have been doing better, but then the Dow doesn’t have Jeremy Lin.  The Knicks do. 

The Knicks are owned by MSG, and the change in the Knicks’s fortunes has been taking place not just on the floor of the Garden but on the floor of the Stock Exchange as well.  Here is the chart of MSG vs. the Dow so far this year.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Lin’s breakout game was against the Nets on Feb. 4, a Saturday.  The next trading day, Feb. 6, MSG shows mostly a continuation of a pre-Lin upswing.  But Lin does seem to have had an effect.  The stock kept rising over the next several days, climbing higher than it had been in a couple of years.  February 13 was the first trading day after Lin’s 38-point game against Kobe and the Lakers.  Both the volume of trading and the price were up. 

The people at The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (they have an understandable interest in all things Lin) have tracked the Lin effect on the stock price and compared it with similar periods surrounding the arrival of other big Knicks – Carmelo and Stoudemire.  Air ball.  Apparently, the traders at the NYSE ignored those trades at the Garden. 

The Collective provides one other financial indicator:  $503.82.  That was the average cost of a ticket to Sunday’s game against Dallas (the Knicks won by five).  That Nets game back on the Feb. 4th would have cost you, on average, only $140.57.  The price of a Knicks ticket has more than tripled in less than a month.  Talk about inflation (and no, I’m not going to say it, not here, not in the post’s title, not anywhere.  Enough already.)

Distinction in the Buff

February 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

According to a story in today’s Guardian, Bourdieu is “the second most frequently quoted author in the world, after Michel Foucault.”  
Sociology students the world over are familiar with concepts such as social reproduction, symbolic violence and cultural capital.
Funny you should mention cultural capital, given another story in the Guardian (and elsewhere) about Dominique Strauss Kahn.  I may be misinterpreting Bourdieu, but I think cultural capital includes the ability to distinguish what is of high quality from what is ordinary.  La distinction is what characterizes the French elite.

As for Strauss Kahn,  certainly a member of that elite, he’s being questioned by French police about his part in recruiting prostitutes for “soirées coquines” at a hotel in Lille.   (In France, being a client is not illegal, but pimping is.)  DSK is claiming that he didn’t know the women were prostitutes.   As his lawyer said, shortly after the case came to light in France,  
People are not always clothed at these parties. I challenge you to tell the difference between a nude prostitute and a classy lady in the nude
That “classy lady” may not be le mot juste.  Worse, this Times translation also loses the Bourdieu angle – distinction.   Here’s what the lawyer actually said,
Je vous défie de distinguer une prostituée nue d'une femme du monde nue.
Ill have to reread Bourdieu to see if he makes the point that la distinction requires that people have their clothes on.

Exceptional American Magazine Covers

February 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

American “exceptionalism” often takes the form of American insularity – the assumption that we don’t really need to know anything about the rest of the world.  The European economic crisis, how and whether it is resolved, surely will have an impact on the US economy.  But to judge from Time Magazine covers (the Feb. 20 edition) , it’s not worth our attention, at least not when you compare it with something really important – like animal friendships.

Kos has several other examples.  Or go to the source and click back through the weeks.

I’ve noted before (here) how news magazine covers show the American preference for life-style stories rather than hard news.  Again, I’m reminded of the line spoken by Ben Kingsley as Behrani, the Iranian immigrant in the movie “The House of Sand and Fog”:
Americans . . . They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in the mouth.

Avoiding Indeterminacy (Predicting the Past)

February 15, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

One of the most difficult ideas to grasp or accept is indeterminacy, randomness.  We devote a considerable effort to making up stories to show that nothing is random, that everything is, or was, predictable. 

“We should have seen Lin coming” was the headline in Carl Bialik’s Wall Street Journal blog post (here) on Monday. 

Jeremy Lin – is there anybody who has not heard about “Linsanity”? – a guard for the Knicks, is the NBA’s new great white hope, though he’s Asian (his parents are from Taiwan).  Single-handedly he is bringing the NBA a new demo.  Even when the Knicks are on the road, the fans – in Washington, in Toronto, wherever – cheer for Lin.

Like one of those huge best-sellers by an unknown author that 39 publishers turned down before one took a chance, Lin’s talents might never have seen the light of NBA.  He played well at Harvard but in the NBA draft received not a nibble.   Eventually, he was picked up by the Knicks, but they too had no idea that Lin was star material.  Coach D’Antoni didn’t give him much court time until a game earlier two weeks ago when Lin went in to give Bibby a breather.  He scored 25 points, and since then, he has been headline news.

How did everyone miss him?  Carl Bialik is the WSJl’s “Numbers Guy,” and he puts together some numbers to show that Lin’s abilities were clear from the start.  Numbers like this:

Per 40 minutes this season, he’s taken 7.8 shots at the rim and made five of them. That’s the second-most made field goals from the rim for guards who’ve played at least 10 games and at least 10 minutes per game, and a percentage in line with the impressive Nos. 1 and 3 on the list . . .
If you thought a rim shot was something that followed a lame joke in a burlesque house, you might not find this convincing.  But Bialik has more such numbers, and he makes the case. 

Still, it reminded me of days at the horse track.  The Racing Form provides a wealth of information, mostly quantitative, on each horse in the race – the horse’s past performances.*   Horseplayers process all this data and make a bet.  Then, after the race, as they tear up their losing tickets, they go back to the past performances, and no matter which horse won, they can always find the bits of data that made it clear why that horse was bound to win. 

Prediction is very hard, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra or someone said.  Prediction about the past and present is much easier, as Bialik’s blogpost illustrates.  Or as Duncan Watts puts it in the title of his excellent book, Everything is Obvious . . . Once You Know the Answer.** 

There’s another reason the Knicks didn’t know how good Lin was.  Here’s Knick announcer Clemson Smith-Muñiz (la voz en Español de los Knicks):

I’ve asked the coaching staff the question this way: didn't you see this in practice? And the answer has been, invariably, “What practice?” Due to this condensed season, which included barely 4 weeks of pre-season, all teams are limiting their practices, especially the full-court scrimmages, on off days.
Their point, again, is that the Lin phenomenon was not indeterminate.  Given a chance to see Lin in practice, any good coach would have seen his abilities.

Of course, Lin might turn out to be a flash in the pan.  Maybe by his second time around the league, the other teams will have learned how to play him.  It hasn’t happened yet (last night, his three-pointer with less than a second on the clock won the game), but if it does, sports writers, maybe even Carl Bialik, will write columns and blog posts saying that his short-lived success was utterly predictable.

Linsanity is fine, Lindeterminacy is intolerable.


* When non-horseplayers appropriated the term “track record,” they distorted its meaning, just as Bialik does in his blogpost (I did not bother to quote it).  What they are referring to is what horseplayers know as “past performances.” 

Not only does the popular meaning of “track record” have nothing to do with its meaning at the race track, but in most cases, the speaker or writer could drop the “track” without changing the meaning, except perhaps to make it clearer. 

** Another blogpost on Watts ideas and horse races is here.

Class and Virtue

February 13, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

How to inculcate virtue in the lower classes?  Since Victorian times, if not before, this question has troubled the upper classes.

I’m sure that it’s pure coincidence that Charles Murray’s new book* hit the stores just a few days before the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  To us, looking back to the England of Dickens, it seems obvious that the virtue of the upper class was a luxury afforded by their wealth (largely inherited).  And the absence of virtue, the vice, of the lower class was a reasonable response to the cruel conditions of their position in society. 

I can’t really do a Tale of Two Charleses here since I haven’t read Murray’s book (I confess I never read that other Charlesbook, the two cities one, either), but the reviews make it clear that Murray’s central theme is virtue, especially the decline of virtue among the white lower classes.  Here is economist Bryan Caplan paraphrasing:
College graduates in high-IQ occupations aren’t just doing well economically; they continue to practice the Founding Virtues of marriage, industry, honesty, and religion.  The working class, in contrast, has fallen apart.  Never mind their stagnant wages; they’ve almost completely lost touch with the Founding Virtues that allow college graduates to live successful, meaningful lives. 
Pay no attention to those stagnant wages behind the curtain. Focus on virtue.

But maybe even virtue can be confusing.  Take family for example.  Murray provides the statistic that among white women who never went past high school, the proportion who have had out-of-wedlock children has risen to 40%.  This should have disastrous consequences –  for the children themselves, for the women, for the working class, and maybe for whole sectors of society. 

But apparently it is not inherently damaging.  If bastardy (to use Dickensian diction)  indicates lack of virtue, and if a healthy economy rests on virtue, countries with high rates of out-of-wedlock births must be in for a rough time. By contrast, a country with a very low rate of out-of-wedlock children, a virtuous society, would be rich in other ways too.

Just to confirm this, I looked up some data on OECD countries. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
The US is at just about the OECD average, but look who’s above us. The Scandinavian countries, France, Belgium, the Netherlands – they all have national rates that are above that of our “fallen apart” white working class.  And yet, their economies are relatively solid, even in these uncertain times.  And who’s way below us?  Greece, for one, along with some other countries – notably Italy and Spain –  which are said to be near the brink of economic disaster.

The point is that the consequences of having an out-of-wedlock child are not automatically disastrous. Governments can do things to make having children – in or out of wedlock – more economically difficult or less so. 

The marital status of a mother may be less important than her age.  Having a child at an early age makes everything more complicated.  And the US has many more teenage mothers than do other advanced countries.

Our adolescent fertility rate has decreased considerably since 1980, but it’s still three times that of most European countries.  Should we chalk this up to lack of virtue?  Murray seems to blame the kinds of people who drive to Whole Foods in their Priuses, or better yet, go on their bicycles, and then of course recycle.  You know them, the liberal elite – the ones that conservatives accuse of wanting the US to be more like Europe.  Maybe on this teen motherhood thing, these elitists have a point; being more like Europe might not be so bad.

* Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

What Were They Thinking . . .

February 10, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images - with some interesting comments)

 . . .  or not thinking?  

Being in the dominant majority allows you that comfort of not thinking.  People in that majority can assume that everyone shares their views, ideas, and even characteristics, and much of the time, they’ll be right.  “Flesh colored” in the US, sometimes even today, means the color of white people’s flesh.

White is the default race, the American race.  It’s easy to ignore that African Americans might not see those Band-Aids as flesh colored.  Similarly, Christianity is the default religion, and those who are in the majority can make those same flesh-colored assumptions.  Justice Scalia, for example, seemed unable to understand that the Jewish families of Jews killed in war might not feel “honored” by a cross placed on the grave of their son or daughter. (My post on this is here.)

The latest example:  this Hannukah card sent in South Carolina, presumably to Jews, by Rick Santorum
s local team.  First tweeted by political reporter Hunter Walker, it’s rapidly making the rounds of the Internet. 

Whoever created and sent this card, it just did not occur to them that Jews might not feel the holiday warmth of that New Testament message from Jesus.

Psychology (!!!) or Sociology (zzz)

February 8, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

News media have to come up with provocative headlines and ledes, even when they’re reporting on academic papers.  And even when the reasonable reaction would be “Well, duh,” rather than a gasp in 72-point caps.  But if that’s the route you want to go, it usually helps to think psychologically rather than sociologically.

Here’s a headline from Forbes
Facebook More Addictive Than Cigarettes, 
Study Says
And the Annenberg School Website started their story with this.
Cigarettes and alcohol may not be the most addicting drugs on the market, according to a recent study.
A team from the University of Chicago's business school has suggested everyone's suspicion: social networking is addictive. So addictive that constantly using sites like Facebook and Twitter may be a harder vice to kick than smoking and drinking.  [emphasis added]
The study in question is “Getting Beeped With the Hand In The Cookie Jar: Sampling Desire, Conflict, and Self-Control in Everyday Life” by Wilhelm Hofmann, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Roy F. Baumeister, presented at a recent Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference.  They had subjects (N=205) wear beepers and report on their desires. 
I found out about it in a Society Pages research round-up (here).
A study of 205 adults found that their desires for sleep and sex were the strongest, but the desire for media and work were the hardest to resist. Surprisingly, participants expressed relatively weak levels of desire for tobacco and alcohol. This implies that it is more difficult to resist checking Facebook or e-mail than smoking a cigarette, taking a nap, or satiating sexual desires.
Of course it’s more difficult.   But the difficulty has almost nothing to do with the power of the internal desire and everything to do with the external situation, as The Society Pages (a sociology front organization) should well know.  In a classroom, a restaurant, a church, on the street, in an elevator – just about anywhere – you can quietly glance down at your smartphone and check your e-mail or Facebook page.  But to indulge in smoking, sleeping, and “satiating sexual desires,” you have to be willing to violate some serious norms and even laws.

It’s not about which desires are difficult to resist.  It’s about which desires are easy to indulge.  The study tells us not about the strength of psychological desires but the strength of social norms.  You can whip out your Blackberry, and nobody blinks.  But people might react more strongly if you whipped out, you know, your Marlboros. 

The more accurate headline might be
Checking Twitter at Starbucks OK, Having Sex There, Not So Much, Study Finds
But that headline is not going to get nearly as much attention.

Doing the Math

February 7, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

My students sometimes have trouble with math, even what I think is simple math.  Percentage differences, for example.  I blame it on the local schools.  Once I explain it, I think most of them catch on. 

Stephen Moore is not from New Jersey.  His high school diploma is from the highly regarded New Trier, he has an economics masters degree from George Mason, and he writes frequently about economics.  A couple of days ago he wrote in the Wall Street Journal (here) about how much better it was to work for the government than for private employers.* 
Federal workers on balance still receive much better benefits and pay packages than comparable private sector workers, the Congressional Budget Office reports. The report says that on average the compensation paid to federal workers is nearly 50% higher than in the private sector, though even that figure understates the premium paid to federal bureaucrats.

CBO found that federal salaries were slightly higher (2%) on average, while benefits -- including health insurance, retirement and paid vacation -- are much more generous (48% higher) than what same-skilled private sector workers get.
It’s not clear how Moore arrived at that 50% number.  Maybe he added the 2% and the 48%. 

Let’s assume that the ratio of salary to benefits is 3 - 1.  A worker in the private sector who makes $100,000 in salary would get $33,000 worth of benefits. The government worker would get 2% more in salary and 48% more in benefits. 

Salary 100,000 102,000
Benefits   33,000 49,500
Total 133,000 151,500

If total compensation for private-sector workers is $133,000, and if government workers were getting 50% more than that, their total compensation would be $200,000. But the percentage difference between the $150K and the $133K is nowhere near 50%.  The government worker pay package is 14% higher. 

I think I could explain this so my students would understand it.  But then again, they don’t write columns for the Wall Street Journal.

* The WSJ gives the article the title “Still Club Fed.” The more accurate title would be “Government Jobs Are Good Jobs.” Of course, the latter takes the perspective of people looking for work, a viewpoint that doesn’t get much consideration at the WSJ.

Applied Probability

 February 6, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Long-odds prop bets are sucker bets.  The odds that bookmakers offer are nowhere near the true probability.  But expected values matter only if you’re playing a large number of times, which is what the house is doing.  The bettor is betting just once, and 50-to-one odds sounds like a lot.

Take yesterday’s game. The odds that the first points of the game would be the Giants scoring a safety were 50-1.  That
’s what the bookies offered.

But what is the true probability?  In the previous NFL season, there were 2077 scores, not counting point-after-touchdown.  Here is the breakdown (I found the data here).

  • Touchdowns      1270
  • Field Goals           794
  • Safeties                    13
The probability of the first score being a safety by either team is 2064 to 13 or about 160 to 1.  The probability of the first score being a safety by a specified side is double that.  Even if that specified side is the Giants and their defense is twice as good as the Patriots defense, that still makes the probability at least 200 to 1.  The Las Vegas books were offering only 50 - 1, one-fourth of the correct odds.  So the expected return on a $1000 bet is $250 – a $750 loss.   What a ripoff.

Of course, not everyone feels duped.

Somewhere, someone is walking around with an I Brady t-shirt. 

HT: My colleague Faye Glass, though she tells me this picture is all over the Internet.

Guess Again

February 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Prediction is hard, especially about the future, even the very near future. The New York Times that arrived early this morning reported the wisdom of the economic crowd.

A few hours later, the Times Website had this.

February 3, 2012

U.S. Jobless Rate Falls to 8.3 Percent, a 3-Year Low

The United States economy gained momentum in January, adding 243,000 jobs, the second straight month of better-than-expected gains.
The unemployment rate fell to 8.3 [emphasis added]

The reported number was 80% higher.  The experts were off by 108,000 jobs.

Speaking of predictions,  I asked my students yesterday to predict the score of the Superbowl.  The class mean had the Giants winning 28 to 24 or 25, though no individual guess had those two numbers.  The bookmakers have it the other way – Patriots by 3.  We were closer to agreement on the under-over, which is 54 in Las Vegas, 52-53 in University Hall 3008.

If the final score is close to the class prediction, I may revise Monday’s lesson plan to include Galton and the Wisdom of Crowds (an earlier post on that is here).

This Goon for Hire

 February 2, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In basketball, assaulting another player on the court used to be called, in ancient times, “playing dirty.”  In more up-to-date language, it is a gift bestowed. Jabbing an elbow into the another player’s face or clotheslining a player who is in midair is called “giving the hard foul.” 

Of course, you don’t want your starters fouling out.  So some observers believe that teams have specialists – designated hitters – who the coach sends in to do this giving.

To verify that the basketball goon is not a myth, Nick Jaroszewicz at the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective looked at patterns of fouls in the major conferences of the NCAA (the “Big 6”).   He was looking for players who didn’t play many minutes but who did pick up a high number of fouls in their brief moments on the court.  He found nine.

Jaroszewicz notes that six of the nine are in the Big East.  He might have added, but didn’t, that five of the nine are white, a proportion well in excess of that race’s overall representation in these conferences.

Name It and Frame It

February 1, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images.)

It can take a while to find the right word.  But a mot juste may be crucial for framing a political issue. If you like the idea of men being able to marry men, and women women, what should you call the new laws that would allow that?

The trouble with “gay marriage” and even “same-sex marriage” is that these terms suggest – especially to conservatives – some kind of special treatment for the minority.  It’s as though gays are getting a marriage law just for them. 

At last, the gay marriage forces seem to have come up with a term that invokes not special treatment but a widely-held American value that’s for everyone – equality.  A bill in  New Jersey has been in the news this week, mostly because Gov. Christie says he will veto it.  The bill is a “marriage equality” law.

The governor is in a bit of a squeeze.  As a Republican with ambitions beyond New Jersey’s borders, he can’t very well be for gay marriage.  But if his opponents can frame the matter their way, he now has to come out against equality.  Which is why the governor continues to refer to the issue as “same-sex marriage.”* 

It’s like “abortion rights” or even “women’s rights.” A phrase like that might rally women to your cause, but if you want broader support, you need a flag that every American can salute.  I’m not familiar with the history of abortion rights so I don’t know how it happened, but those who want to keep abortion legal have managed to frame the issue as one of freedom to choose.   They have been so successful that the media routinely refer to their side as “pro-choice.”   To oppose them is to oppose both freedom and individual choice, principles which occupy a high place in the pantheon of American values.

It’s not clear that the “marriage equality” movement has been similarly successful, at least not yet.  I did a quick Lexis-Nexis search sampling the last week of the months January and July going back to 2007.  I looked for three terms
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Gay marriage
  • Marriage equality

The general trend for all three is upwards as more legislatures consider bills, with big jumps when a vote becomes big news – that blip in July 2011 is the New York State vote.  But the graph can’t quite show how “marriage equality” has risen from obscurity.  That first data point, July 2007, is a 4.  Four mentions of “marriage equality” while the other terms had 25 and 50 times that many.  As of last week, “gay” and “same sex” still outnumber “equality,” but the score is not nearly so lopsided. 

Here is a graph of the ratio of “equality” to each of the other two terms.  From nearly 1 : 20 (one “marriage equality” for every 20 “gay marriages”) the ratio has increased to 1 : 3 and even higher when the discussion gets active. 

If the movement is successful, that upward trend should continue.  When you hear Fox News referring to “marriage equality laws,” you’ll know it’s game over.

* Christie is usually politically adept, but he’s stumbling on this one.  He referred to a gay legislator as “numb nuts” (literally, that might not necessarily be a liability for a politician caught in a squeeze).   Christie also said that he’s vetoing the bill so that the matter can be put on the ballot as a referendum – you know, like what should have happened with civil rights in the South. 
I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.
Several critics, including Numb Nuts, responded that, yes, Southern whites would have been happy to have civil rights left up to the majority.  African Americans not so much.  (If you’re looking for an illustration of Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority,” the post-Reconstruction South might be a good place to start.)  The analogy is obvious – race : 1962 :: sexual orientation : 2012 – even if it was not the message the governor intended.