AKD - 2012

March 31, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

We had our annual Alpha Kappa Delta induction ceremony Thursday evening. ΑΚΔ is the sociology honor society, and the students who join are not only the best and brightest (ΑΚΔ has a minimum B+ average requirement), but they’re the ones who have some commitment to sociology.  They’re the ones we like to have in class.   At the ceremony, we get to see them a little more dressed up than usual, and we get to meet their parents, if only briefly.

From left to right
  • Pamella Salgado
  • Jessica McCabe
  • Francheska Martinez
  • Samantha Gowe
  • Nadia Ibrahim
  • Tiffany Holoubek
  • Brienna Rauhauser
  • Atika Rahaman
  • Benjamin Rhodes
Our speaker was Jenn Lena, author of the recently published Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music.  Jenn has done radio interviews about the book, but she says that this was her first “official” book talk.  She used rap as her example of a music that has evolved through the sequence of genre types – Avant Garde, Scene Based, Industry Based, and Traditional.  Good choice, I thought, it’s certainly something students will know. But I was surprised that it was only a few of the parents in the room who knew of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.  I also noticed one of those parents – and no one else in the room – rapping along quietly when Jenn played Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky.”   So rap now has a generation gap; it’s a “traditionalist” genre.  (Jenn also pointed out that it had a genre gap much earlier, with the arrival of gangsta and other variants.)

A great talk.  A great group of students.  A great evening. 
Same time next year.

UPDATE April 1:  After Jenn’s talk, it occurred to me that the Broadway show  “Million Dollar Quartet,” which I blogged about two years ago (here) is really about the transition from Scene-based to Industry-based.  The setting for the show is the scene-based studio of Sam Phillips’s Sun records, but we are looking at the end of an era.  Elvis and Johnny Cash are leaving for industry-based giants like RCA. 

Stacked Bar Graphs

March 30, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

To create stacked bar charts, I usually use Excel.  But whoever* created these used Legos, a children’s diversion, appropriately enough.  Numbers 5 and 8 are based on French -Belgian data**, so you may find them harder to interpret.

(Click on the graphic for a slightly larger view.)

* The farthest I can trace this back is actor George Takei, who posted it on his Facebook page.  I expect that it is zooming around the Internet fairly quickly.

** For original data go here and here.

American Lit – It’s Still the Same Old Story

March 29, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In Commentary, D.G. Myers (here) asks:
Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon?
Since Allan Bloom and probably before, the folks on the right have been wailing that liberal American lit profs were scrapping the canon in favor of politically correct trash.  Myers follows his snarky question with some evidence – the number of “pieces of scholarship” an author has received in the past 25 years, according to the MLA International Bibliography. 
The number in brackets, Myers says, represents  “the rise or fall of each writer when compared to his or her ranking since 1947.”

( 1.) Henry James (3,188 items) [+1]
( 2.) William Faulkner (2,955) [-1]
( 3.) T. S. Eliot (2,659) [+1]
( 4.) Herman Melville (2,579) [-1]
( 5.) Vladimir Nabokov (2,290) [+5]
( 6.) Ernest Hemingway (2,220) [-0-]
( 7.) Edgar Allan Poe (1,958) [-2]
( 8.) Toni Morrison (1,950) [+9]
( 9.) Nathaniel Hawthorne (1,751) [-4]
(10.) Walt Whitman (1,647) [-2]
(11.) Emily Dickinson (1,623) [+2]
(12.) Ezra Pound (1,620) [-3]
(13.) Willa Cather (1,482) [+5]
(14.) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1,326) [-3]
(15.) Wallace Stevens (1,122) [-1]
(16.) Edith Wharton (1,087) [+5]
(17.) Henry David Thoreau (1,076) [-5]
(18.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,002) [-3]
(19.) Flannery O’Connor (935) [+3]
(20.) Mark Twain (882) [-4]
(21.) John Steinbeck (823) [+2]
(22.) William Carlos Williams (772) [-0-]
(23.) Saul Bellow (706) [+2]
(24.) Richard Wright (670) [+2]
(25.) Robert Frost (661) [-5]

Can that number in brackets really be change of rank since 1947?  If so, in 1947 Nabokov was ranked 10th, though at that time he had published only two books in English, both largely unnoticed; Toni Morrison would have been ranked 17th in 1947, the year she turned 16.  Myers must mean since 1987, 25 years ago.

But whatever that number means, it does show an increase for all five women and the one African American male on the list.  That increased attention to women writers may reflect an increase in the number of women scholars.  Or maybe just the recognition that Flannery O’Connor was a very good writer (though both she Nabokov dwelt far from political correctness).

But for the most part, the canon hasn’t changed much.  American lit scholars are still cranking out articles on good old Henry James.  The Commentary insinuation that liberalism is transforming American culture, replacing noble classics with tawdry tracts – that moan is utterly predictable (I think
Commentary has a regular section called Geschrei).  But the message in the evidence seems to be: same old, same old.

“Mad Men” Language – Ahead of Its Time

March 28, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men,” was on “Fresh Air” yesterday talking about the new season. June of 1966 as the show opens.  Civil rights demonstrators are in the street.  Things are changing, Weiner says – hair styles, clothes, mores.  And
, he says The language is becoming more modern.”

Maybe too modern.  I noticed the following anachronisms:

1.  Speaking of airline accounts, one of the ad men says
The American Airlines thing isn’t happening. 
The first three words are all right.  But thing (maybe) and isn’t happening (certainly) sound wrong, at least to my ear.

2.  I’m less sure of other advertising terms.  There is a reference to
niche companies and a key demographic
I suspect that these terms come later in the evolution of marketing strategies and language.

3.  Joan’s mother is trying to tell Joan what to do regarding work and family (Joan has a newborn).  The mother refers to her own decision in similar circumstances.  Joan says acerbically 
And how did that work out for you?
This sarcastic phrase is much more recent.  In 2010, Sarah Palin could say, Hows the hope-y change-y thing working out for you?” It was effective and funny not just because of the idea but because the language was fresh, not something that had been around for fifty years. Note also Palins use of thing to make little of something. (I mentioned this linguistic trick in a footnote to a post (here) on the Anti Asian rant in the library,” where the ranter refers to the tsunami thing.”)

4.  Another character uses “Plus” to begin a sentence.  I don’t think that this usage came into fashion until decades later. Plus, it’s grammatically questionable.

5.  Finally the most glaring anachronism: Peggy is pitching her ad for Heinz canned beans to the client.  Peggy describes the ad – dancing beans pirouetting, then the can seen from the top, and finally
We cut to the front, the iconic label.
No, no, no.  In 1966, nothing was iconic.  There were no icons except maybe the statues in Orthodox churches, and these rarely came into the conversation.  If icon was heard at all, it  was more likely as part of the word iconoclast

I’m sure that Matthew Weiner insists that every piece of clothing, every automobile, sofa, and refrigerator, every can of beans that appears on the show be historically accurate.  He probably hires experts to make sure that people are not brushing their teeth with some toothpaste that wasnt on the market until 1980.  Why is he less meticulous about the language in the scripts he writes?

UPDATE:  I wrote this blog using only my own sense of what language was like in 1966.  I did no research.  Now I find that others have also commented on anachronisms in the show.  Benjamin Schmidt in The Atlantic does not mention any of the terms that I noted, but he did pick up others
There are scores of idioms that are strikingly modern. feel good about, match made in heaven, tough act to follow, make eye contact, fantasize about; all are at least tenfold more common today than in Mad Men's times.
Most interesting and least visible (at least to me) is the use of “need to.”  In the 1960s, people were more likely to use “ought to.”   “You need to do something about that account.” (I am making up this example, but it does sound like something Don Draper might have told someone.)  The example Schmidt uses is a real one from Season Two:  “Tell Jimmy I need to talk to him.”  In the real 1960s, “ought to.”

Schmidt adds that the difference is significant. Need implies a focus on the self. Instead of the general moral codes of ought, we now have the language of personal needs. Schmidt provides some systematic evidence. He calculated the ratio of “need to” to “ought to” in scripts from the 60s and scripts from the last five years. In most of the 1960s scripts, the ration is at least ten to one in favor of “ought to.” In the more recent scrips, its twenty to one for “need to.”

( Click on the graph for a larger view.)

UPDATE 2: Philip Cohen, in an unpublished comment on this post, went to Google Ngrams and entered “that work out for you.”  It remains flat through the Mad Men 60s, then rises in the late 70s.  The rise in “that working out for you” comes even later, in the mid-90s. 

Following Philip’s lead, I tried the other terms in this post with similar results.  “Isn’t happening” and “iconic” appeared in the late-60s with less than 1/15th the frequency that they do today.  “Niche company” and “niche marketing” are virtually 0 until the mid-80s.  “Key demographic” starts its rise only a few years before that.  Unfortunately, I cannot figure out how to search for “plus” as the start of an independent clause.  My Lexis-Nexis searches for “niche marketing” and “key demographic” came up empty for the 1960s.  Even niche and demographic are rare.

Names on the Map

March 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The National Geographic has an interactive map (here) of the most frequent names in the US.  Here is our mid-Atlantic region.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

It’s tempting to read the names as a proxy for ethnicity, as the color coding implies.  The green Kelly and Murphy show that those are those common Irish names.  But what about the Williamses?  On the map, they’re all Welsh blue.  But in person, their color is not nearly so uniform.  I doubt that Juan (of Fox News) and Deron (of the Nets) trace their ancestry back to Wales.  (However, National Geographic does make some distinctions.  The Lees in the central part of the map are Chinese.  The Lees further down the coast are English.  National Geographic counts Martin as Spanish in California but English in other parts of the country. )

I’d also like to see an interactive map that showed the change in ethnic concentrations over time.  When I first started teaching at Montclair a few decades ago, I used to joke that on my class list, the C-Cathys were Italian, and the K-Kathys were Irish, and that accounted for a lot of the class.  This semester, more than a quarter of my students have Hispanic surnames, though not the more popular Rodriguez and Gonzalez on the map, and they far outnumber the Italian and Irish. 

HT: Ezra Klein, where I found this link.

Piety, Politics, and the Press – New York Edition

March 25, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Venn diagram of American culture shows a large overlap of political conservatism and Christian belief.  Folks who take their Christianity seriously (and their Bible literally) can be counted on to vote with Fox News.  Those who mock Christian piety even mildly are over on the left side of the room watching The Daily Show.

Not in New York. 

I was listening to the Christian radio station (officially “family radio”) on my drive home*  the day Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos.  The announcers main concern of course was what would happen to Tim Tebow.  They did not speculate much as to where Tebow would wind up, but they did assure me and my fellow listeners repeatedly that the Manning deal was evidence that “God has a plan.”  

A few days later, Tebow was on his way to New York and the Jets.  If you thought the New York Post would treat God’s plan with the appropriate respect, think again.

The New York Post, brought to you by the same Rupert Murdoch gang that owns Fox, is reliably right-wing on just about any political matter you can think of. But when the Manning/Broncos deal went down, the Post front page report on Tebow-Jets rumors was not quite in tune with the church choir.

The Post continued this irreverent tone when the Jets did sign Tebow.  The front page had a photoshopped picture of a towering Tim, Tebowing over Times Square.

Today, the Post tone on Tebow seems to be  bordering on sacrilege.  The QB is shown topless in a crucifix-like pose – arms outstretched, head turned to the side, legs crossed at the ankles – over the headline “The Passion of the Tebow.” 

(Previous Post posts in this SocioBlog are here and here.)
* If you must know, this is what happens when you’re not interested in the guy Terri Gross is interviewing and you hit the Scan button.

The Decline of Car Culture

March 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

(I was going to call this post SocioBlog Scoops the Times - By Five Years”)

Nearly five years ago, a post on this blog said
cars may have lost their symbolic value as markers of identity.
Today, a front-page story in the Times  says
many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars.
My comment came after I’d been watching “American Graffiti” on TV.  My teenage son was in the room, and it just seemed to me that while the cars in the movie carried so much meaning for me, the cars of his generation were at best transportation, at worst nuisances or eco-villains.  As I put it five years ago,
Occasionally, I would offer an astute cinematic comment like, “The fifty-eight Impala, what a car.”   But later as we were talking about it, my son wondered what sorts of things from today would trigger the same kinds of response forty or fifty years from now.  “Will we look at a movie and say, ‘Wow, a 2007 Accord!’?”
Or as the Times says today,
That is a major shift from the days when the car stood at the center of youth culture and wheels served as the ultimate gateway to freedom and independence. Young drivers proudly parked Impalas at a drive-in movie theater, lusted over cherry red Camaros as the ultimate sign of rebellion or saved up for a Volkswagen Beetle on which to splash bumper stickers and peace signs.
This loss of iconic status for the car is not universal.  It has happened primarily among the current counterparts of the kids in “American Graffiti” – white, middle-class, mostly suburban. Young, urban African Americans may still prize their ride.  In the 1960s, we had the Beach Boys, an unquestionably white group, singing about T-birds, 409s, and deuce coupes, while their imitators paid homage to Barracudas, super-stocked Dodges, and many others.  For today’s equivalent, you have to go to the rappers, who favor Beamers, Benzes, Bentleys, Escalades, and Lamborghinis.

It’s Not So Hot Being a Republican

March 22, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Hot enough for you?  Your answer might depend on who you’re voting for.

World views affect not just how we interpret what we see; these views influence what we actually experience.  That was the point of the previous post.

Do people who reject the idea global warming perceive the weather as being cooler?  Gallup just published the results of a poll (here) that asked people if this winter was warmer than usual. Unfortunately, Gallup asked only for political affiliation, but it can stand as a rough proxy for ideas about global warming.  So the data are suggestive, not conclusive. But for what it’s worth, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say yes, it’s been a warm winter.  Some of the difference can be attributed to geography (Democrats living in places that had a much warmer winter than usual). But I suspect that at least part of the 11-point difference is political.  

Republicans reject the idea that the world is getting warmer – that’s a question of science – but they also experience their own immediate environment as cooler, which is a matter of perception.

As the graph shows, Gallup then asked those who did think that the winter was unusually warm what they thought the cause was – global warming or just normal variation..  As you might expect, political affiliation made a difference.   Democrats were more than twice as likely as Republicans to cite global warming as the cause.

Faulty Cognitive Wiring and the News

March 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted on April 18 at Sociological Images)

Have you heard about the killing of Trayvon Martin?  Even if you watch the news channels, the answer might depend on which one you watch.  ThinkProgress counted the number of stories about this killing on three cable news outlets in the week following the event. 

Megan McCardle (here) interprets the data as an example of “the Availability Heuristic, a rule of thumb that says the frequency of an event should correspond to how quickly you can think of examples of it.”  The Availability Heuristic makes us overestimate the risk of shark attacks.  The Availability Heuristic is probably behind my students’ writing confidently that teenage pregnancy has been steadily rising (thank you, MTV). 

McCardle looks at the graph and sees a reason for different perceptions of racism as a problem:
the disparity here may have something to do with whether one thinks institutional racism remains a serious problem in the United States. Conservatives often seem to think it isnt, and that if anything, the real problem is how often spurious charges of white racism are deployed by their political opponents, while liberals more often tend toward the opposite view. Maybe both groups are drawing justified inferences from the data theyre seeing.
Do Fox viewers discount racism because of what they see?  Or is the network disparity more an example of another cognitive wiring problem – Confirmation Bias?  Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out and to remember information that fits with our existing ideas.  Faced with information that clashes with that world view, we ignore, forget, distort, or misinterpret. 

In Foxland – the world of both those who create Fox news and those who consume it – racism is not a real problem.  A story of a white Hispanic man armed with a 9mm chasing down and shooting a black teenager armed only with Skittles has no place in that world.  The Fox news producers don’t want to tell that story, and the viewers don’t want to hear it.  In the days since this graph appeared, the story has become too big for even Fox to ignore. I would imagine that Fox will instead interpret the events so as to fit with the view that McCardle suggests – that whites are the victims.  If you watch Fox, get ready to hear a lot about self-defense.

Subtle Ben

March 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ben Bernanke defended the Fed yesterday.  He explained the origins and functions of his little organization, and he explained the wisdom of FDR’s decision to abandon the gold standard.

Ostensibly, he was lecturing to a handful of George Washington University students.  In fact, his intended audience was the whole country and perhaps a former TV host and a politician or two with retrograde views on central banks and gold (“I’m looking at you, Ron Paul.”  No, he didn’t say that, but he might well have done so.)

His PowerPoint included a few slides on the gold standard, all with the same graphic.

And in case you didn’t catch the subtlety of those ingots, this part of the lesson was followed immediately by a detour through William Jennings Bryan and his “cross of gold speech.”


If you missed class, you can get the notes and slides here.

Friends, Kids, Sex

March 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The set-up of “Friends With Kids” seems very contemporary.  Jason and Julie (Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt) are  besties who decide to have a baby yet remain just friends.  They live in the same building, so they easily share baby-care while each continues to search elsewhere for a soul mate. Their open talk to each other about their sex lives is also something you don’t usually hear in romantic comedies. 

But the movie plays on an idea that goes back many decades. As Jeannette Catsoulis in the Times review put it, the “jokes about vaginal elasticity (in this case lack thereof) and other formerly unmentionable female concerns” seem like an attempt “ to veil the retrograde themes lurking behind them.”  Catsoulis doesn’t specify those retrograde themes, but the principle one is this: the assumption that marriage and children spell the death of romance and sexuality. 

In the early TV family sitcoms of the fifties and sixties, this assumption was a taken-for-granted part of the landscape.  It wasn’t just that prudish standards required separate beds for Ozzie and Harriet, Rob and Laura Petrie, Lucy and Ricky, and the other couples.  Their kisses and hugs were friendly, never passionate. There was never a hint that sex might exist between them. Even by the seventies, when Archie and Edith could share a double bed, we could be pretty sure they wouldn’t be doing much there except sleeping. More recent sitcom couples have been allowed to acknowledge sexuality, maybe because these are characters whose erotic encounters most viewers might prefer not to think about – Dan and Roseanne, Homer and Marge, Peter and Lois. 

In “Friends With Kids,” one of the two married couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) comes straight from this old sitcom stockroom. They are relatively happy and funny, but sex is a rarity.   Once a month, O’Dowd tells Scott.

The other couple (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) are married but sexy (they first appear on screen in a restaurant, returning to the table after a quickie in the bathroom). 

Over the course of the film, they suffer the same loss of sexuality, but their very non-sitcom marriage cannot survive it (“Once, she gave me a blow job on the Taconic,” Hamm shouts angrily in an uncomfortable dinner-table scene, “Now look at us!”)

It may be particularly American, this idea that parenthood makes sexuality impossible or irrelevant, and it may have something to do with our view of children and childhood.  In France, says Elaine Sciolino in a review of Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, mothers “refuse to make child-rearing an all-consuming vocation. Rearranging your schedule to fit the baby’s is a no-no. Getting back your sexy, pre-pregnancy self is a priority.”

In the US, children and childhood have a much more important and even enviable position.  Hence, in American movies, as I noted in a post on “The Descendants” (here), adults must often turn to children to tell them what to do. In comedies, it’s usually clear from the start that the male and female protagonists are made for each other – clear to everyone except the protagonists themselves. The only question is how they will come to this realization and overcome the barriers to their getting together.  In American movies like “The Parent Trap” and “Sleepless in Seattle” and probably others I cannot think of right now, the one who brings about this happy ending is a kid. “Friends With Kids” takes this theme to a new level – the kid is two years old and capable only of two-word utterances (“Daddy stay”).  But it’s enough to prod Scott to deliver the speech we’ve been waiting for since the film began. 

That said, I thought the film was funnier and more enjoyable than did the reviewers (WaPo, NYT, even Variety).  As usual, the trailer provides a better plot summary.  It has gotten only narrow indie-style distribution, but on a per-screen basis, it’s doing better than Eddie Murphy.

Accidental Banksters

March 16, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a comment about the “Why I’m Leaving Goldman” op-ed, Peter Moskos wrote,
People working there have always been pricks. I mean, they were already pricks in college in the early 1990s.
Were they? 

In my early days in New York, I knew a gentle soul named Bruce. Whatever the opposite of macho is (mousy?), he was it.  Short, soft-spoken, reserved.  Bruce was in a clinical psych program and wanted to be a therapist.  No surprise there.  One evening in a group discussion, we briefly got on to the topic of taxis. Bruce  had worked as a cabby to pay for his tuition.  “If you drive a cab in New York,” he said, “you drive like an asshole.  You have to.”  It was clear that he was talking about himself, not just the other 30,000 cabbies in the city.

We usually think of motives and personality traits as residing within the individual person, as in Peter’s take on the folks at Goldman.  Some people are pricks, and they seek out settings like Goldman, where they can give free rein to their nasty motives and be rewarded handsomely for it.

But motive and character traits also reside in the larger system – in its structure and culture. In Bruce’s view, the aggression, risk, and rudeness of the guy behind the sliding plastic partition are like the dispatcher’s radio and the meter – a basic part of the cab, not the driver.

I’m sure that some of the people at Goldman were the Princeton pricks Peter knew in the 1990s.*  But for many graduates who signed on at Goldman, this quality (prickitude? prickiness?) was something they acquired on the job, probably without even realizing it. In a word, we’re looking at socialization.

A couple of years ago, Ezra Klein posted an interview with a Harvard grad who had spent some time at Goldman.  Reading the interview (here), it’s hard to see this guy or the others of his cohort as greedy cutthroats.
Investment banking was never something I thought I wanted to do. But the recruiting culture at Harvard is extremely powerful. In the midst of anxiety and trying to find a job at the end of college, the recruiters are really in your face, and they make it very easy . . . .  The idea is that once you pass the test at Goldman, you can do anything. . . . .  So it seems like a good way to launch your career.

Q:  The impression of the Ivy-to-Wall Street pipeline is that it’s all about the money. You’re saying that it’s actually more that Wall Street has constructed a very intelligent recruiting program that speaks to the anxieties of the students and makes them an offer that there’s almost no reason to refuse.

Exactly. . . .There are  certainly are people who want to be in finance, but a large portion are intrigued by these jobs for those reasons. I think that’s a majority, at least at Harvard. And the same goes for consulting jobs or even Teach for America . . . . And investment banking has the added advantage that you can make money very quickly and afford a great apartment in New York, which is very expensive.
The bankers don’t arrive on Wall Street with their motives fully formed.  Instead, much like Becker’s pot-smoking musicians of 70 years ago, they acquire their motivation on the job.  The motives – the reasons for doing what you do – also become the reasons for doing more of it. They (bankers, pot smokers) also learn a set of ideas that makes their questionable behavior legitimate and even virtuous.
There’s this notion of the accidental banker, people who get caught up in that world and get more and more pay and find it harder to justify leaving . . . . . A  lot of people decide to sacrifice much more time than they normally would because the money is so good, and then they believe they deserve extremely high pay because they’re giving up so much time. It’s not malicious. But there are a lot of unhappy people who end up in that situation.
This Harvard-Goldman grad winds up taking a much more sociological view of where the flaws are – not so much in the personalities of individuals as in the structural arrangements.
the malice towards the individuals at places like Goldman is misplaced. I get where it comes from, but just like it’s wrong for the banker to say they work harder than everyone else and deserve more, it’s also dangerous to paint bankers as evil. Lloyd Blankfein isn’t out to screw the world. Wall Street’s problems are more systemic.

* For an example, read this guy, though perhaps I should add a trigger warning.  He may make you rethink your position on the bailouts and TARP and maybe your position on summary execution.

Leaving on a (Private) Jet Plane

March 14, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

You’ve probably already seen or heard about the Times op-ed piece that’s getting a lot of attention: “Why I’m Leaving Goldman.” A guy who has worked for Goldman for many years, has risen to a fairly high position, and has probably made a lot of money along the way says that in its greed for profits, Goldman has turned away from its original, admirable principles.

You might not have come across this blog post: “Why I Left Google.”  A guy who has worked for Google for many years, has risen to a fairly high position, and has probably made a lot of money along the way says that in its greed for profits, Google has turned away from its original, admirable principles.

Makes you wonder if maybe structural forces and not just greed have something to do with these changes.

The Wall Street Journal Or Your Lying Eyes

March 13, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

This graph tracks the share of income going to the top 1% in seven countries.  It’s from a paper by two Swedish economists, Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenström (pdf here).

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The trend was towards greater equality up to 1980 – the share of the 1% was shrinking.    Since then, the 1% have increased their share of the income pie in all seven countries.  But the graph seems to show important differences, especially in recent decades.  Here is a  cropped version of the graph showing the 1980-2004 years.  I have added straight lines connecting those two points for Sweden and for the US.

Both changes are increases, but are they the same or are they different?  The answer is crucial.  The US and Sweden have different economic policies.  If the changes are no different between countries, then inequality is just one of those inevitable things that’s happening no matter what governments do.  But if the growth of inequality in the US is much greater than in Sweden, maybe government policy can in fact mitigate the trend towards inequality.

The Swedish 1% share went from a little under 5% to about 7.5%.  In the US, the 1% share increased from about 7% to 16%.* You might see those increases as very similar.

In fact, Allan Meltzer in the Wall Street Journal takes precisely that view.  He stretches out the graph to de-emphasize the vertical differences, and adds a title implying that all countries are “together” in this shift of income to the top 1%.

He adds this explanation:
As the . . . chart . . . shows, the share of income for the top 1% in these seven countries generally follows the same trend line. That means domestic policy can’t be the principal reason for the current spread between high earners and others. Since the 1980s, that spread has increased in nearly all seven countries. The U.S. and Sweden, countries with very different systems of redistribution, along with the U.K. and Canada show the largest increase in the share of income for the top 1%. [emphasis added]
If your pay went from $5 an hour to $7.50 an hour while your co-worker’s went from $7 to $16, you might think that your co-worker had gotten a substantially heftier raise.  But if so, that’s because you’re not the Wall Street Journal.  

Meltzer’s main point in the article is that we should not raise taxes on the very wealthy.  However, as Bruce Barlett points out (here), if the rich are getting just as rich in high-tax countries like Sweden and the Netherlands as they are in low-tax countries like the US, we may as well raise taxes on them. They’ll be doing just as well, like their Swedish and Dutch counterparts, and the nation will have more revenue to put towards Medicare, education, deficit-reduction, etc. 

But Meltzer is wrong.  Sweden and the Netherlands are very different from the US.  As the graph shows, the income share of the 1% in the US is twice that of the 1% in Sweden and 3 times that of the 1% in the Netherlands.  And it has risen more rapidly.  Yet Meltzer claims that inequality trends are similar everywhere. 

So who are you going to believe - the Wall Street Journal or your lying eyes?

* Big hat tip to Andrew Perrin at Scatterplot.  Several economics blogs have also looked at the Meltzer article. 

UPDATE March 16: Gwen Sharp at Sociological Images posted this link to a database of income data from various countries.  You can to create your own graphs of income shares.

Deep Change in the Deep South?

March 12, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The polling news today is that very few Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi (14% and 12%, respectively) think that President Obama is a Christian.  Three times as many think he’s a Muslim. (A pdf of the entire survey is here.)

The poll also finds that only about one in four Republicans in those states believe in evolution.  Five times that many flatly reject evolution, with about 10% “not sure.” 

The results I found most curious were the opinions on interracial marriage.  Alabama 21% thought it should be illegal, 67% thought it should be legal; in Mississippi,  29% illegal, 54% legal.  None of the news stories I looked on this noted that when the same pollsters (Public Policy Polling) asked the same question of Mississippi Republicans less than a year ago, the results were very different.  A plurality thought it should be illegal.
  (My post on that poll is here.)

The margin of error is 4% (N = 600), so the 15-point swing supposedly reflects a real change.  But I’m skeptical.  What could account for such a large change if not sampling variation?  Did the GOP organize mass screenings of “The Help” and shame some of their number into allowing that maybe Loving v. Virginia wasn’t a mistake after all? Did the Heidi Klum - Seal breakup make it OK?   I can’t come up with even a dubiously speculative explanation.

The Wisdom of Crowds - Jersey Cow Edition

March 11, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

James Surowiecki begins The Wisdom of Crowds* with the true fable of Francis Galton and the ox.  Galton was at a country fair where an ox was on display, and the locals could submit guesses as to what the weight of the ox would be when it was slaughtered and dressed.  Galton, a statistician and a bit of a eugenics fan, figured that the guesses of the less savvy would dilute the accuracy of the smart money guesses.  So he kept track of the roughly 800 entries. 

No individual guess had the exact weight – 1198 pounds.  But when Galton caculated the mean of all guesses, it turned out to be 1197 pounds, much closer than the best individual guess.  That was in 1906, and while Surowiecki presents other examples of successful crowd-sourcing, I’m not sure if there has been an exact repeat of the Galton-ox scenario. 
We’re many months away from county fair season in New Jersey, so we have no oxen to be weight-guessed.   But The New Republic has come close to replication: crowd sourcing the weight of the governor.**

(The ox is on the left.  For a larger view, click on the image.)

Unfortunately, TNR closed the contest with only 19 entries, a far cry from Galton’s 800.  But for what it’s worth, the mean was 334 pounds. 

* The SocioBlog has had several posts on this topic. See this one for an example and for links to others.

** I didn’t know whether I should  put the photo of the Governor behind an NSFW gate.  I even hesitated to use it, but then, Galton’s fairgoers too had to guess the weight of the ox before it was dressed.  (I found the photo here.  That site credits Wonkette.)

Freud Is Dead (Long Live Freud)

March 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

I had thought that Freud had pretty much disappeared into the fading intellectual mists of the twentieth century. 

But on “Live With Kelly”* this is “Spring Cleaning Week.”  Viewers send in their tips.  Some of these make for good on-air demonstrations – like using Tang to clean your toilet bowl or vodka in a spray bottle to wash windows. Others can only be read. This morning, guest host Martin Short read this one. 
Marry someone who’s very anal about housecleaning.
I remember a time when you would never hear the word anal on morning network TV.  I also remember a time when college students might have been taught the theoretical reason for linking anality and neatness.  They would have known about the anal stage in childhood psycho-sexual development à la Freud, with its attendant concerns of order and neatness. It’s spring break, so I can’t ask my students,** but if I could, I doubt that even the psych majors would know.

* Did you really think I watched only “Downton Abbey”?

** I probably wouldn’t ask anyway, for fear of getting the obvious response, “Because housecleaning is for assholes.”

The Kindness of Strangers

March 8, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

A philosophy professor at Brown, Felicia Nimue Ackerman,  has come out against random acts of kindness. Her op-ed, originally in the Providence  Journal, appeared in a New Jersey paper today (here). No Blanche du Bois she, Prof. Ackerman begins:
Suppose you stop for coffee on your way to work. When you try to pay, the cashier smilingly informs you this won't be necessary. “Someone has paid for 20 coffees and you are number 8,” she says.
How would you feel?
If you said you'd feel a bit more cheerful and that you might be inspired to do something similar, not so fast. Prof. Ackerman has a better idea.
If you want to make your thought count, why not direct it at a loved one? The money that you spend on 20 cups of coffee could buy a gift for your friend, spouse, parent or child, who would cherish it as a symbol of personal affection that — let’s face it — means a lot more than a cup of coffee from a stranger.
That’s the great thing about being a philosopher rather than a social scientist, I guess. You can make statements about what people would do or how they would feel and not have to worry about evidence. Me, I’m not so sure.  Assume a cup of coffee costs $1.50, so we’re talking about $30.  Also, economists tell us that it’s better to give cash rather than a gift.  It avoids “deadweight loss.”

Imagine a friend handing you $30?  “Here take it.”

“What’s that for?”

"‘Because I want you to have it. I want to give it to you.”

“Really?  But why?” And so on. 

None of this questioning of motives occurs with the explanation for the anonymous gift of a $1.50 cup of coffee. 

Which does more to increase the total amount of happiness in the world  – the 20 cups of coffee to 20 strangers or the single gift of  $30 in cash or merchandise to one friend? That is an empirical question, and not an easy one to settle. The two relationships (stranger vs. friend) are different.  More important, so are the outcomes Ackerman mentions (cheerfulness vs. strengthening of the relationship).  If I give my $30 to Dunkin’ Donuts, the last thing I’m looking for is to strengthen my relationship to the next twenty people who walk in.

Surely there must be some empirical evidence on both these kinds of gift.  For example, is there a variation of the Ultimatum game where the subject of the experiment is offered more than half and in the next round becomes the one who makes the offer?

Shut Up and Move On

March 6, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

If there’s a lesson in the recent Rush Limbaugh flap it’s this: when you make a mistake, apologize – simply and, as nearly as you can, sincerely.  Then STFU about it.  Don’t complain, don’t make excuses, and don’t try to shift the blame, especially if you play for the team that claims to be all for personal responsibility.*

That’s not what Limbaugh is doing.  His apology was lame, and now he’s making it worse.  He’s still insisting that the only thing he did wrong was to use “those two words,” when what offended most people was the idea behind those words.  After all, in his original attack Limbaugh carefully explained why those “slut” and “prostitute” were les mots justes.  He just does not get it.**

Then, he blames the left.  If it weren’t for those nasty lefties, he would never have “descended to their level.” 
That was my error. I became like them, and I feel very badly about that. I've always tried to maintain a very high degree of integrity and independence on this program. Nevertheless, those two words were inappropriate.
One of Limbaugh’s backers, James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal , goes even further in blaming the left.  He says that the whole thing was a cleverly designed snare, long in the planning, that the Democrats engineered to trap the Republicans and pull a fast one on the public.
The kerfuffle was no fluke but a left-liberal set piece.
If only.

- - - - - - - - - - -
* This post is mostly speculation.  I don’t know of any evidence on the effect of the various statements made in recent days.

** “Getting it” is a concept coined by the 1960s feminists, or as Limbaugh calls them Feminazis, a term he applies freely and without apology to women who disagree with him, from Sandra Fluke to the woman who is now the US Secretary of State.

Birthers as an Economic Indicator

March 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andy Borowitz sprays out a daily stream of one-liners, mostly political (you should follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his newsletter).  Some are just name calling (“Eric Cantor's Endorsement of Romney Could Persuade Undecided Sociopaths”).  But some are on target. 

When wingnuts got some press recently by claiming that Obama’s birth certificate was a fake, Borowitz posted  

In Positive Economic Sign, Republicans Starting to Say
Obama Wasn’t Born in US Again

It was just a joke.  But Barry Ritholtz stopped chuckling long enough to see if it fit with the evidence.  He compared
  • the timing of birther references (Lexis-Nexis search with “Obama” and “birth” separated by no more that five words)
  • with the fluctuation in jobs added (three month average)
Sure enough, when the job reports are good, birther stories go up. After all, the anti-Obama machine has to find some kind of fuel.

(How many gag writers have the data to back them up?  Maybe it’s because Borowitz, as an undergrad at Harvard, was a research assistant to sociologist Wendy Griswold.)

Something similar happened in the past few days.  For a while, the Republicans were shouting about “religious freedom” – i.e., the freedom of employers to pick and choose which prescription and procedures their employees’ health plan would cover.  Then Rush Limbaugh joined the chorus with personal attacks on a young woman, name calling the even Republicans felt uncomfortable with.  Rush screwed everything up, and that issue became a loser.  All of a sudden, Republicans couldn’t change the topic fast enough.  The whole thing was “absurd.”  They wanted to talk about the “real issues” that are “important to Americans.”  Limbaugh himself echoed this dump-your-losing-issues idea in an “apology”  that is characteristically inaccurate, and in its inept language is probably funnier than most of his material.  “I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress.” 

UPDATE (March 5):  John Sides at The Monkey Cage re-graphed the data.  Rather than plotting both variables against a time line, he created a scatterplot with Jobs Added on the X-axis and Birther stories.  The graph shows only a slight correlation, which disappears entirely when he removes two outliers (Trumps birtherism and Obamas release of his long-form birth certificate).

Sex, Power, and Rush Limbaugh

March 2, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke reminded me of something; I just wasn’t sure what.  Fluke, as you surely know, is the law student who dared testify before Congress to support the idea that employers should not be allowed to choose which procedures and prescriptions their employee medical plans will and will not cover.*  The  item of dispute currently is birth control prescriptions.

For her efforts, Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.”   In a subsequent broadcast he said,
So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.
At first, I thought that what was underlying Limbaugh’s reaction was the age-old male obsession with female sexuality and simultaneously a fear of female sexuality.  The efforts of men to control that sexuality, part of what Robin Hanson would call the “farmer” mentality, have been a regular and often unpleasant feature of male-dominated societies.

But Limbaugh wasn’t concerned that Fluke was doing something wrong sexually. She was doing something wrong politically.  The issue isn’t sex, it’s power.  (Limbaugh’s coinage Feminazi is another illustration.  Any woman who opposes his views is automatically both powerful and evil, a force to be feared and attacked –  like the Nazis.)   

Then I remembered the feminist observation that rape is not about sex, it’s about power. I found the Susan Brownmiller quote from her 1975 book Against Our Will:

Rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.
A bit over the top – all rape, all men, all women? I don’t think so.  But it’s certainly true of many rapes and many rapists.  This aspect of rape is especially easy to see in Sudan, in Rwanda, in the Balkans . . .  – when the context is political conflict.

Similarly, in the current political conflict over healthcare, two things are clear
  • In a dispute over policy, Limbaugh has chosen to make his attack sexual
  • His goal is not sexual pleasure, it’s intimidation**
* The government and the employee might have a legitimate claim to having some say in these decisions.  The government gives the employer money in the form of tax breaks, and the employee pays too – usually directly, and always indirectly in the form of a lower salary (if the employer weren’t paying for medical coverage, that money would go, at least in part, to salaries).

** Its possible that in his own sexuality, Limbaugh does conflate intimidation and sexual pleasure.  Some men do.  But since he has not posted his own sex videos, we do not know.

UPDATE (March 4):  The response of the Republican candidates to Limbaugh’s vulgar incivility has been swift and severe.  Well, maybe not so swift.  It took them a couple of days, and they had to be asked directly about it before they denounced Limbaugh in no uncertain terms. 

Rick Santorum, the great moralist, said,  “He’s being absurd, but that's you know, an entertainer can be absurd.”  In other words, “Hey, that’s show biz.”  I’m sure he would have said exactly the same thing if similar remarks had been made about his own wife or daughter.

Romney said,“I’ll just say this, which is, it’s not the language I would have used.”  And he meant it –the “I’ll just say this” part.  He immediately changed the topic to something else.  Still, you have to admit that “not the language I would have used” is the kind of firm statement about principles that we have come to expect from him.

Deprivation at the Top

March 1, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes it’s hard to remember relative deprivation. 

Most of us aren’t going to get all weepy about the financial problems of the 1%.  We might sympathize with the rich in fictional TV shows and movies – like George Clooney in “The Descendants.”  (The Socioblog take on this film is here.)  Poor guy – he has to decide what to do with 25,000 prime acres in Kauai, and his wife and daughter have been a bit of a problem.  But it’s different when the real-life rich start complaining about the decline in their fortunes.
“People who don’t have money don’t understand the stress,” said Alan Dlugash . . .  specializes in financial planning for the wealthy. “Could you imagine what it’s like to say I got three kids in private school, I have to think about pulling them out? How do you do that?”
The full article (here) has some specifics on the real-life consequences of Wall Street cutbacks.  You’ll especially like the headhunter who used to make probably close to half a million a year and is now checking the supermarket newspaper inserts for the best price on Wheat Chex. 

There’s much to be said about this and I said some of it a while ago in a post about Todd Henderson, also mentioned in the article, who complained publicly that if the Bush tax cuts expired he just didn’t see how he could get by on his $400,000 a year.  (The full post is here, but you can just scroll down to the Stevie Wonder part and get the idea.)

Yes, deprivation is relative. 
“If you’re making $50,000 and your salary gets down to $40,000 and you have to cut, it’s very severe to you,” Dlugash said. “But it’s no less severe to these other people with these big numbers.”
In the context of their current lives, a 20% reduction in a $500,000 income is a big blow for the wealthy.  But what galls us is the insularity and insensitivity they show when they complain about it in public while millions of people are trying to cope with real deprivation.* 

The headhunter who used to buy his Wheat Chex without checking the price now sees the discount prices offered at some stores.  “Wow, did I waste a lot of money,” he says.   You can’t tell for sure, but I assume he was joking.  Maybe not.

UPDATE, March 3.  This tendency of the rich to ignore the sufferings of the less wealthy while moaning about their own misfortunes is nothing new.  In 1759, Adam Smith, in  The Theory of Moral Sentiments, wrote:
A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations..