Standing Your Ground in the Wild West

June 30, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andrew Gelman has some comments on a recent NBER paper on the deadly effects of Stand Your Ground laws. The authors, McClelland and Tekin, conclude that “between 4.4 and 7.4 additional white males are killed each month as a result of these laws.”

The article is here but gated.  Andrew however provides some of the graphs . . . and some criticisms.  He also comments,
these laws aren’t really enacted as a homicide-control measure, right? It’s more the opposite, that they legalize certain violence that used to be criminal.
Presumably, if the killers were standing their ground, those additional dead white males deserved to die.  Or at least, their killing was justifiable.

I was reminded of a post I did for Everyday Sociology back in 2009, not about Stand Your Ground laws as such but about the more general claim that an armed citizenry is a deterrent to crime.  I’m off duty these days (I’m up in Maine for a wedding), so rather than post something new, I’m hauling this one out of the storage locker.

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April 16, 2009

The recent shootings in Alabama, Binghamton, and Pittsburgh along with the anniversaries of massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech have brought more than the usual calls for stricter gun laws. The pro-gun side is also speaking up loudly, arguing that if more people were armed, we’d have less crime, and an armed citizenry would be a deterrent. If criminals knew that everyone was carrying a gun, the NRA reasons, they wouldn’t dare commit the crime for fear of being shot.

How can we assess these claims? The usual strategy for measuring deterrence is to compare crime rates in states with different gun laws. Some states have strict gun laws. Other states have made carrying a concealed weapon (CCW) widely legal. The problem with this comparison is not just that we need to control for all the other factors that might affect crime. There is also the problem that even in states that do not restrict CCW, we don’t know how many people are actually walking around packing heat. And neither do the criminals.

It would be nice if we could do an experiment. We could create a place in America where everyone carries a gun. We’d give our experiment a few years, then we’d check the crime rates. It’s impossible to do, of course.

But wait. I think I’ve seen such a place. It’s called the Wild West. And in the versions that I’ve seen in movies and on TV, nearly everyone there (at least the men) carries a gun. And none of this concealed weapon stuff--the guns are in plain sight, holstered and ready for a quick deterrent draw.

But is that picture of the West accurate, and how much crime was committed there? Fortunately, there is a systematic study of crime in a real town in the Wild West – Bodie, California, a mining boom town high in the Sierras near the Nevada border.

In the 1870s, when news got out that there was gold or silver in those hills, Bodie’s population quickly grew from a few hundred to about 5,000. For our purposes this town is a good place to examine the links between guns and crime.

On the one hand, Bodie’s demographics should lead us to expect a high rate of crime. Most of the population consisted of young, single, men with no deep ties to the community and a social life centered around saloons, gambling halls, and prostitutes. Bodie had racial minorities (Mexicans and Chinese) and hard drugs (opium). On the other hand, nearly all those men carried guns.

Historian Roger McGrath* went back through court documents and newspaper reports to reconstruct the actual crime rates in the five-year period when Bodie was booming. His results can help us decide whether the net result of all those guns was good, or whether it was bad and ugly.

When McGrath counted up the numbers and did the math, it turned out that, by comparison with crime rates today, Bodie didn’t have much crime. Its rate of burglary was about one-sixth that for the U.S. today as a whole. That difference, though, probably has less to do with guns and deterrence than with the absence of things to steal. No iPods, TVs, or even jewelry. People didn’t have silver, they had silver mines, which are a bit harder to make off with. In fact, the most frequently taken items in Bodie were blankets and firewood (nights are cold in the High Sierra).

But what about robberies, where the bad guys are usually after cash? Bodie’s 21 robberies in five years work out to an annual rate of 84 per 100,000. That’s lower than the overall U.S. rate for 2007 (148 per 100,000). The closest cities geographically I could find 2007 data for were Carson City, Nevada, whose rate was much lower (38 per 100,000) and Reno, whose robbery rate was nearly triple that of Bodie.

So Bodie’s guns might have made a difference. The bank tellers were all armed, and Bodie had no bank robberies. On the other hand, the stagecoach had an carmed guard, but still McGrath counted eleven stagecoach robberies. (Just like in the movies, the bad guys weren’t completely bad. They took the strongbox but usually let the passengers keep their money and valuables.) So were guns a deterrent in Bodie? The overall picture is mixed so far.

But there was one crime where Bodie left contemporary rates in the dust – murder. In five years, Bodie had 31 murders, for an annual rate of 116 per 100,000, twenty times the national rate for the U.S. in 2007. Even our most murderous cities like Baltimore and Detroit have murder rates less than half of Bodie’s.

It’s also clear that the cause of Bodie’s high murder rate was those guns. When men have guns close at hand, ordinary arguments and disputes can become fatal. And remember, guns in 1880 were primitive by today’s standards. We can only wonder what Bodie’s murder rate would have been if those miners had been carrying .357 Magnums.

* McGrath describes Bodie in his 1984 book Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier. As for Bodie, it quickly declined after the 1880s, and by the early 20th century, it became a ghost town.

When the Going Gets Tough – Lipstick and Evolution

June 28, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

L’Oreal did not lose sales during the current recession.  And psychologist Sarah Hill says that this increase is part of a more general trend – “the lipstick effect.”  In a recession, women cut back on other stuff, but not cosmetics.

What makes L’Oreal worth it, even when times get tough, according to Hill, is evolutionary psychology.  (Hill’s new JPSP article  is here. She also has a shorter, more general write-up at Scientific American.)  It’s all about “reproductive strategy” – how to get your genes strewn about as much as possible. 
Human ancestors regularly went through cycles of abundance and famine, each of which favors different reproductive strategies. While periods of abundance favor strategies associated with postponing reproduction in favor of one’s own development (e.g., by pursuing an education), periods of scarcity favor more immediate reproduction. The latter strategy is more successful during times of resource scarcity because it decreases the likelihood that one will perish before having the chance to reproduce.

Got it? In good times, our human ancestors would try to get an education.  In hard times, they would try to get laid. 

Hill elaborates on the special problems for women.
For women, periods of scarcity also decrease the availability of quality mates, as women’s mate preferences reliably prioritize resource access.
“Reliably prioritize resource access” is from the SciAm blogpost, presumably the venue that’s reader-friendly for the general public.  What the sentence means, I think, is this:  A recession reduces the number of guys with enough money to take care of a family.

Those well-off guys, I mean males, thanks to evolution, are “men who seek in mates qualities related to fertility, such as youth and physical attractiveness.”  So a girl has to go even further in dolling herself up in order to snag one of them. 

It all makes sense, but it ignores one important factor – the economic  inequality between men and women.  The evol-psych explanation takes as a given that women must rely on men for “resource access” (which I think is roughly what you and I call “money.”)  What if women knew that their chances of getting a decent job were as good as a man’s, or better?  Would hard times still send them to the cosmetics counter?

Hill did include a measure of resource access, and found that it was not significantly related to the lipstick-effect, at least not in the lab experiments.  Here was the set-up: Subjects read an article that was either about the recession (“Worst Economic Crisis Since ’30s With No End in Sight”) or about “current architecture.” Then they were asked which products they preferred.  Women who read about the recession were more likely to go for (in the words of evolutionary psychologist C. Berry) “tight dresses and lipstick.”*  The “resource access” measure did not significantly alter that effect.  Rich girls and poor girls alike switched their preference to L'Oreal.

As for the guys, reading about the recession did not affect them in this way.  Their desire for “attractiveness products” was unchanged.

I never know what to make of psychology experiments.  Their elaborate contrivance gives them enviable control over the variables, but it also raises questions about their link to the real world.  In Hill’s experiments, as is typical, the subjects were “unmarried female university students” – what we used to call “college girls” (plus, in one of the experiments, college boys).  It would be interesting to see if actual recessions lead to lipstick-buying across the socio-economic landscape.  Evol-psych would predict that the effect should be most visible in places where the recession hits hardest.

It’s also worth noting that L’Oreal might have been the exception this time around.  Sales in the industry as a whole suffered in the recession and did not reach pre-recession levels till 2010, and much of the increase came from bargain hunters.  (An industry report is here.) That contradicts Hill’s lab experiment results showing that “the lipstick effect applies specifically to products that enhance beauty, even when those products are more expensive.”   The larger increase in cosmetics sales came in 2011, especially for nail products (up 59%, go figure).

The experiment’s “priming” with newspaper stories is also a problem.  I’m puzzled about the use of that “current architecture” article as a control.  Why not an article that was upsetting but had nothing to do with economics – something like “How Hackers Easily Get Your Phone Messages”?  Maybe any disturbing article would have the same lipstick effect, even though cell phone privacy has nothing to do with a woman’s ability to pass along her genes.  As the t-shirt says, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Maybe it doesn’t matter whether the tough-going is economic or something else.

Finally, I wonder about those guys.  If recessions make women but not men worry about their genes, asking college guys about face cream and tight polo shirts might not be the best way to operationalize the variable.  Why not ask about things that most guys think make them more attractive to women – probably consumer goods that signal cultural and economic capital?  Maybe college boys who read the recession article would shift their preference from video games to dress shirts and ties; or maybe the change would go the other way.  Whatever the outcome, I'm sure evol-psych would have an explanation. 

* I am not making this up: “The three attractiveness-enhancing products were (a) form-fitting jeans, (b) form-fitting black dress (women) / form-fitting polo shirt (men), and (c) lipstick (women) / men’s facial cream (men).”  And, as noted above, these were college girls, not all that much older than sweet little sixteen.

The Criminal Mind

June 26, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Decades ago, when I was reading up on car theft for a section in my crim text, I discovered that some proportion of thefts are for the very modest purpose of transportation – a sort of precursor of the Zip Car.  Can’t afford to buy a car?  Just take one, drive to your destination, and leave the car. 

I remembered this when reading Jody Rosen’s story (at Slate) about finding his stolen bicycle – stolen in Brooklyn, and then found barely four-and-a-half hours later near Union Square in Manhattan, five miles away.

Rosen focuses on the essential role of Twitter in the search. But what struck me was not the Twitterpolice procedural; it was the epilogue, where we discover the criminal’s deep and devious motivation.
The police told me they would hang out for a while in case the thief materialized. “Where do you think he is?” I asked. “In there, probably,” said one of the cops, motioning to the entrance of the building we were standing in front of. It was a Department of Social Services facility, home to the New York City Job Center, the New York City Residential Center, and the New York City Food Stamp Office. Times are tough.

Comedians Breaking Definitions

June 26, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Martha Plimpton’s brief bio on Twitter:
I put dead people’s hair on my head and talk loudly in front of strangers for money.
In a previous post (here) I noted that actors and magicians share with their audience an unusual and self-contradictory definition of the situation. The performer makes every effort to convince the audience that he is something he is not – the possessor of supernatural powers, a prince of Denmark, etc.  But he must also convey the idea that he is really just an ordinary person and that he is fully aware that he is not what he is claiming to be.  As long as everyone shares this definition of the situation, the show can go on. Without that definition, the professional actor, as Ms. Plimpton suggests, sounds absurd if not deranged.

Comedians and their audiences have a similar tacit agreement.  It’s most obvious with the old-style, joke-telling stand-up comedians.  The rabbi, the priest, and the kangaroo did not really walk into a bar.  Newer-style “observational” comedians blur the line slightly, calling our attention to real absurdities we might not have noticed.  Elayne Boosler asks her audience, “Ever notice that Soup for One is eight aisles away from Party Mix?”  But we know she does not really think that supermarkets are trying to segregate the shoppers – one aisle for the lonely, another for the socially successful.  And when Seinfeld asks what’s the deal with automobiles or airlines or whatever, we know that he is not really puzzled and that he understands them the same way that we do.

But some comedians break the agreement. The Times yesterday had an article about comedian Tig Notaro seeming to forget her own routine.*
Time passed slowly. Ms. Notaro spotted a familiar face in the crowd and asked for help. Her friend shouted a reminder. Ms. Notaro started the story again, froze, joked and asked for help. As this series of false starts continued, patterns emerged in expressions, gestures, cadence.
She is violating the usual definition of how comedians should perform, and the audience is puzzled.
Not all of the audience however was amused. As minutes went by, people start checking their watches and rolling their eyes. This atmosphere resembled what I imagine the first minutes of watching Andy Kaufman read the entire “Great Gatsby” onstage were like. The audience chuckled, then murmured. Was this all a stunt? And seriously, when was it going to end?
I saw Andy Kaufman a few times at The Improv long ago, and the audience reaction (or mine at least) went beyond puzzlement or boredom to places like distress or anger. 

One night, Kaufman came on stage and started to play a conga drum.  (I don’t remember if he spoke an introduction or just started playing.)   At some point, he started to sing in some indecipherable language. The audience laughed. But then he continued, long after the audience had stopped laughing.** 

In this, and in other routines, Kaufman would stay in character so long that the audience would not know what to make of him. Maybe this guy is really crazy, you would think. Maybe he doesn’t realize that the audience doesn’t think he’s funny. Maybe he’s doing this out of some schizo inability to sense the reactions of others, and he is attending only to his own internal imagined reality. 

The thought that you were looking not at a comedian but at a seriously troubled mind was not at all funny. It was upsetting. 

I don’t remember how he would end this bit. My guess is that he said his, “Tank you veddy much,” and did his stiff little bows and got off stage. But whatever the ending was, it did little to convey the idea that he knew it was all just an act.

One night, I left the club – it must have been close to 2 a.m. – and out on the sidewalk, not far from the door, Kaufman and Elayne Boosler,*** who had also performed that night, were having a heated argument.  “You can’t do that,” she shouted at him. “You can’t do that to people.” 

I wish I had stayed longer to eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.  At the same time, I felt relieved to know that Kaufman was not out of touch with reality.  His ability to have an argument about his act meant that he knew it was just an act. 

* Notaro’s more typical version of the routine – a long (11-minute) anecdote involving Taylor Dayne – is here

** A video of a much less ambiguous version of the congas bit is here

*** Kaufman and Boosler were good friends, possibly romantically involved, though I certainly did not know that at the time.

Free Samples

June 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Google has nGrams for quick content analysis of words and phrases in “lots of books.”  Google also has Correlate which allows you to trace search strings across time and place and to discover correlations between search strings. 

Facebook too makes information on their users available, though their motive is not so selfless as Google’s.  The do it so that advertisers can narrow their target.  Planet Money had a story recently about a pizza joint in New Orleans that used FB’s data to select the target audience for its ads.
Their first idea was to target the friends of people who already liked Pizza Delicious on Facebook. But that wound up targeting 74 percent of people in New Orleans on Facebook — 224,000 people. They needed something narrower.

The Pizza Delicious guys really wanted to find people jonesing for real New York pizza. So they tried to target people who had other New York likes — the Jets, the Knicks, Notorious B.I.G. Making the New York connection cut the reach of the ad down to 15,000.

Seemed perfect. But 12 hours later, Michael called us. “It was all zeroes across the board,”  he said. Facebook doesn't make money till people click on the ad. If nobody clicks, Facebook turns the ad off. They'd struck out.

So they changed the target to New Orleans fans of Italian food: mozzarella, gnocchi, espresso. This time they were targeting 30,000 people.

Those ads went viral. They got twice the usual number of click-throughs, on average. The ad showed up more than 700,000 times. Basically, everyone in New Orleans on Facebook saw it. Twice.
To get the access to the data, you don’t really have to be an advertiser; you just have to play one on Facebook.  Neal Caren at UNC tells you how.  He used Facebook to compare rates of same-sex and hetero preferences across age groups and states.  His instructional post is here.

(HT: Philip Cohen)

Whose Kids Are All Right?

June 22, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Miscellaneous thoughts on the Regnerus study.

1.    Oranges and apples.  This study is not about the effects of gay marriage.  Opponents of gay marriage trying to cram it into that cubbyhole apparently have not read the title: “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” [emphasis added]

Who are these “parents who have same-sex relationships”?  They are not gay couples (there were only two of those in the sample, both female).  The image I get is the closeted homosexual trying to do the right thing, maybe even “cure” himself, by getting married.  The cure doesn’t work and he is now in an unhappy, unfulfilling marriage, but he stays because of the kids.  Eventually, he gives in to his desires, has a “same-sex relationship,” and maybe leaves his family.  

Is this scenario common in Regnerus’s sample?  I don’t know.  But to make gay parent vs. straight parent comparisons on the basis of the sample with only two gay couples is to compare these unhappily married oranges with Ozzie-and-Harriet apples.  As Regnerus’s defenders delicately put it, “This is not an ideal comparison.”

2.    Secondary deviance.  Edwin Lemert coined this term to refer to deviance that arises as a reaction to the social or legal stigma that comes with the primary deviance.   The crime is primary, the coverup is secondary.  The coverup occurs only because the original act is criminal.  The same applies to non-criminal forms of deviance and to social sanctions rather than legal ones.

Again, the Regnerus defense team: “This instability may well be an artifact of the social stigma and marginalization that often faced gay and lesbian couples during the time (extending back to the 1970s, in some cases) that many of these young adults came of age.” 

3.    Rights and Research.  As Ilana Yurkiewicz at Scientific American says, even if good, relevant research on the topic of gay marriage (which the Regnerus study is not) showed that kids from gay marriages do worse than kids from straight marriages, that’s no reason to deny people the right to marry.

Research has already found such differences between other categories of people – poor vs rich, for example.  Should we deny poor people the right to marry because their kids are less likely to do well in school or more likely to have run-ins with the law?  I would not be surprised if back in the mid-20th century, research would have shown (or perhaps did show) that the children of interracial marriages did not do as well on several variables as did Ozzie-and-Harriet or Cosby-show offspring.  Would that have been a valid reason to uphold laws banning interracial marriage?

4.    Etc.  Philip Cohen is much more qualified than I am to offer criticisms and comments on the study.  You should read his as yet unpublished op-ed.

Rules of the Club

June 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Alex Stone was expelled from the Society of American Magicians.  In 2008, Stone wrote an article for Harper’s
The Magic Olympics:  With tricks explained!
Explaining tricks to the public is a no-no.  The first rule of magic is: you don’t talk about magic, at least not to laymen.* 
In this article, you blatantly exposed the secret, not only of your act but the acts of several other magicians as well.  By doing so, you have acted in opposition to the SAM’s Code of Ethics and Oath . . .We hereby ask for your resignation . . . .
But it’s not quite so simple.

Magicians make a strange deal with their audiences.  They do everything they can to convince the audience of something that is not true – that they have the power to makes things appear, disappear, levitate, or change form, that they have to power to predict the future and read minds.  Yet while they claim to have these powers, they must also convey the idea that they do not have these powers and that what they are doing is “just a trick.”

The key clause in the tacit contract between performer and audience is voluntary deception – “fooling.”  We in the audience know that we are being fooled.  We know that the coin did not really appear out of thin air, that the girl was not actually sawed in half and then restored.  The magician has fooled us into seeing it that way.**

Performers who claim actual supernatural powers, who refuse to acknowledge that they are fooling us, are no longer protected by the professional rule against exposing secrets.   Magicians like The Amazing Randi or Penn and Teller take great pleasure in exposing psychics and healers who are using standard magic-act techniques (often not very skillfully).

But what about this?

The video is from “America’s Got Talent,” but Kevin James performed it at the Magic Olympics that Stone wrote about for Harper’s.

A website devoted to optical illusions had this to say:
Kevin James . . . sawing a man in half has to be one of the best magic optical illusions I have seen in a long time. . . . At first I thought this could be done with animatronics. . . . The part that astonished me was once the patient was stapled back together he jumped up in the air and walked off stage; this is currently not possible by todays robotics. . . . . It is beyond me as of how this trick was pulled off.
Stone too was baffled when he saw this illusion at the Magic Olympics in Stockholm.  Things soon became clearer.
I board a small plane back to the States. Several of the artists and competitors are on the flight, all looking as haggard as I do, and feel. . .  . ln the first row sits the illusionist of last night's sawed-in-half routine, a meaty, florid man with triangular eyebrows and thin red lips. His trick has been gnawing at me since I saw it. No boxes. No mirrors. How? Now, suddenly, I understand. Sitting next to him, in the aisle seat, is a slender, dark-skinned man who looks normal in all respects save one: his body terminates just below the waist. No legs. No hips. Nothing.
The “America’s Got Talent” clip is edited.  The tables are wheeled offstage and back on in order to switch the half-man for a full one (the one who springs up from the table at the end).*** But the baffling stage of the routine (baffling if you hadn’t seen the guy on the airplane seat) is the sawed-in-half part. 

Maybe that is what allowed Stone to expose the secret of the trick.  The magician was not fooling us.  The man really was, in effect, sawed in half.  It isn’t magic (“Can I, too, buy a half-man at my local magic store?” Stone asks).  So exposing the secret is perhaps not such a clear violation of the norms. 

 (Stone’s new book Fooling Houdini is reviewed in the Times today, here.)

* This is the term magicians often use to refer to non-magicians.

** Stage actors and audiences make the same deal.  For example, the Times critic complained about Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman: “as a complete flesh-and-blood being, this Willy seems to emerge only fitfully.”  But suppose that Willy did emerge fully as “a complete flesh-and-blood being” and that we wept at his death.  After the final curtain, Hoffman would come out, we would applaud, and he would bow  – a ritual that says in effect that he was just fooling us.  He was not really a salesman, and he did not really die eight times a week.

***  (A video of the full 5-minute routine is here.)

Me and Him Say It That Way

June 19, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Planet Money had an excellent podcast  about the natural experiment that Oregon created when it could allow only 10,000 additional people onto Medicaid.  Many thousands more qualified but had to be turned away, thus providing a control group for researcher Katherine Baicker.  The study showed that Medicaid does work.  People on Medicaid were healthier and happier than those who were turned away from the program.

That result did not surprise me.  But one sentence from reporter Alex Blumberg did. 
It is the perfect control group that Katherine Baicker had been waiting for her entire career.  Her and her team got in touch with Oregon and went about designing a study . . .  [it comes at about 3:25 in the podcast]
Not to go all prescriptivist or anything, but “her and her team got in touch”??

I’m not sure what other stories I might have heard by Blumberg.  But him and his team are getting pretty casual with English grammar.  Are them and other reporters also the kind to say “she told Alex and I about her research”? 

I’m from the generation that was taught to use the same pronoun in a compound form that you would use if it stood alone.  If you wouldn’t say, “Her got in touch with Oregon,” then don’t say, “Her and her team got in touch with Oregon.” Ditto, mutatis mutandis, for “she told Alex and I.”  But us and our kind are out of step.

Hat tip to The Language Log for the New Yorker cartoon, which is from 2010.  But the “between you and I” world is hardly new.  It has had a resurgence in the last 20 years, but as the Log’s Arnold Zwicky pointed out (here)
it’s safe to say that the rise of “between you and I” in Late Modern English goes back at least 150 or 160 years, not 20.
He wrote that in 2005, well before the birth of Google Ngrams, which now provide further support for his history of  “between you and I.”

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)


June 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

What can I do with a Ph. D. in industrial chemistry?  Not that I have a lot of students asking me that question, but here’s one answer.  Get a job as a street sweeper in Rome.

Reuters assigned photographers to do portraits of people who are, shall we say, overqualified for the jobs they could find.  The Atlantic has posted seventeen of these. 

I was reminded of the duelling Tumblr pages.  We Are the 99 Percent, started during the early days of the Occupy movement and showed the brief biographies of people like Francesco Foglia (the streetsweeper above) except that they were all Americans.  They often mentioned their student debt, their medical costs, and other difficulties that came with unemployment or with work in low-paying jobs which provided no healthcare.

We Are the 53% was created in response.*  The typical narrative there was one of hard work leading to success, often with explicit commands to the 99% that they should stop complaining and get a job.

A regular theme underlying the 99% is a sense of having been conned.  They’d been told that if they got an education and were willing to work, they would be better off.  But now they can find only menial jobs or none. From their viewpoint, something is wrong with the system.

The 53% have jobs and presumably incomes high enough to be in the tax-paying range.  They attribute their success to their own virtue, so by implication those less successful must be less virtuous. 

If this were a round of musical chairs with ten players, the nine people who fought their way to a seat might well be attributing their seated status to their own abilities.  The tenth, looking at the whole scene from his standing position, might see lack of success as having something to do with the ratio of chairs to people.  “Nonsense,” say the seated ones. “I got my chair thanks to my own efforts, so stop complaining.” 

Of course, in musical chairs, those who are now seated will soon be chairless and get a different view of the game.  In the real world, unemployment rates do not keep rising.  Still, something like one-third of small businesses fail in the first year.  Fewer than half last four years.  I wonder if those entrepreneurs have different ideas about what makes for success or failure than do the 40-45%. 

(The chart based on SBA data, is from Small Business Trends.)

Maybe the successful ones knew more about how to run a business, unlike, say, Jessica Mazza, another in the Reuters photo exhibit, who has a degree in painting and business management from Ball State. She probably did not invest in that education thinking that she would wind up working in a diner.

*The name comes from the statistic that 47% of the population have incomes so low that they owe no federal income tax.

The Economy Is Lousy – But Where?

June 15, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

What’s familiar isn’t so bad, even if it’s bad. 

One of the things I remember from my days in the crim biz is that people’s perceptions of crime don’t have a lot to do with actual crime rates. This was back in the high-crime decades, and people were more afraid of crime than they are now.  But people felt safer in their own neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods, even when their own neighborhoods had a higher crime rate. 

These were the days when I would give someone directions to my building – “Get off the IRT* at 72nd St. . . . .” – and they would often ask, “Is it safe?” 

“Of course it’s safe.  It’s my neighborhood,” I would say, “I live here. I ought to know.” Yet when I would go to a party in the East 20s or, God forbid, Brooklyn, I would emerge from the subway and follow the directions with a certain sense of apprehension and caution. 

Apparently, the same link between far and fear holds true for people’s perceptions of economic well-being.  A recent Gallup poll asked people how the economy was in places ranging from their own city or area to the world generally.  The closer to home, the better the economy.  The farther from home, the lower the percent of people rating economic conditions as excellent or good.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

And the farther from home, the higher the percent of people rating economic conditions as “only fair” or poor.

Republicans were the most pessimistic about the economy, regardless of location.  Democrats were the most sanguine, with Independents in between. The graph shows the percent who rated the economy positively minus the percent who rated it Poor.

This obviously has nothing to do with familiarity but with contempt.  Apparently, for Republicans, a Democrat – especially a Kenyan socialist Democrat – in the White House means that the economy must be bad everywhere.

* These old subway line designations – IRT, BMT, IND – are no longer in official use.  But when did the MTA jettison them?  If you know the answer, please tell me.

UPDATE, June 22 Andrew Gelman has formatted the data as line graphs, making the comparisons and trends clearer.  He has also added his own observations – things I wish I had known or thought of.

The Kids Are All Right – But Where?

June 14, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Philip Cohen was on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” last week (listen here) talking about research showing the advantages of two-parent families.
childcare . . . security, health insurance, stable housing. These are among the things that are transferred from married parents to their children in terms of benefits, and those are the things where we should try to focus our energies rather than worrying about the marital status of the parents.
The rate of unmarried parenthood continues to rise despite much government effort to prevent it, not to mention the messages from church, school, and other institutions.  Philip’s point was that rather than try to fix marriage (or non-marriage), we should try to fix the problems that arise from it.  In the US, about 40% of children are born to unmarried mothers.  But in other countries, Scandinavian countries especially,  the rate is even higher – ranging from 46% in Denmark to 66% in Iceland.  Even countries lower down the list have seen an increase.  In Italy, the rate in 1980 was 4%; in 2007, 21%

But if we look at the lives of children in the wealthy countries, the US does not compare favorably.
The website Good News (here) offers the graphic “Where Are the Best (and Worst) Countries to Be a Child?”  It gives the overall rating and the six dimensions that scale is based on. For the full picture, go to their site.  Meanwhile, here are some screen grabs.  Click on an image for a larger view.  [Warning:  if you think of the US (or the UK) as an ideal place for kids, maybe you should stop reading now.]

Here is the overall rating.

These indicators are based on aggregate data for each country.  The US and UK have the greatest degree of economic inequality, and this inequality probably also enters into the data on the welfare of children.  The US may be an excellent place for children in the top ranges of the income distribution, especially on dimensions like material well-being, but children from poor and even middle-income families in the US are worse off than their counterparts in these other countries, so much so that they drag the US average down to the low end of the scale.  In countries like Sweden, with less inequality and more support for families and children, the differences among children are smaller, and consequently, the average outcomes are better. 

Drawing the Negative Space

June 14, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

My roommate in grad school enrolled in a life drawing class. I’m not sure why; he was probably not much more talented at drawing than I was (he couldn’t have been less so). The sexual revolution was in full swing – you didn’t have to take classes to see naked women. He certainly didn’t. He just wanted to learn to draw.

One evening he came home and reported that the teacher had given a brilliant instruction that allowed him to make a real breakthrough.  What the teacher had said was this: 
Don’t draw the figure, draw what’s not there.  Draw the negative space around the subject.
In social science too, the solution to a problem sometimes starts with thinking about the part that isn’t there.

For a simple example, the first assignment in my intro class for majors asks them to look at a map showing the distribution of some variable, their choice, among the 50 states and explain what’s going on. One student chose Older People – the percentage of people 65 and up. We were using 2000 Census data. This map of 2010 is not much different.

The student was puzzled. She guessed correctly that Florida would be number one. But what were these other states doing in the top ten – West Virginia, the Dakotas, Arkansas?  Were old people retiring to these places and not telling anyone? And if so, why? I showed the map to the entire class, and they too couldn’t come up with an explanation.

So I reminded them that there’s more than one way for a state to have a relatively high rate of older people. The retirees can move in. That accounts for Florida. But what if all the young people move out? The map title doesn’t say “Young Adults Leaving,” or “Youth Deserts,” but maybe that’s what it’s showing. When students turned their attention to this “negative space” around the variable – the behavior of the young rather than the old –  the map made sense. They could come up with lots of reasons for the why people their age might not want to stay in those states.

A similar idea occurred to me yesterday when I read a brief report in Le Figaro about preferred sex positions among Europeans.* It was the last paragraph that reminded me of the life-drawing lesson. 
One third of women who earn 2500 euros a month or more practice The Andromache  [woman on top], twice as many as women who earn less than 2500 euros a month.  [In dollars, that dividing point is about $40,000 a year.]
How do you explain this difference? (Forget for the moment that the survey, done for a dating website, has methodological problems and take the finding at face value.) My first thought was that higher-income women might be more independent and thus less willing to be weighed down by a man. They would be more assertive, less subservient – the cliche carryover from boardroom to bedroom.  

Or was I looking at the wrong part of the picture?  It takes two to make The Andromache, and maybe we should be thinking not about the women but about the people who Le Figaro left out of that sentence – men.  Assuming that higher-income women have partners who are also educated and better off, maybe we’re looking the desires of upscale men.  (The phrasing of the sentence in Le Figaro is curious. The earlier parts of the article are about what women prefer, and this paragraph starts out referring to women’s “favorite” position, but this sentence uses the verb pratiquer rather than préférer.  And I have not been able to find the actual results of the survey.)  Perhaps as you go up the social class ladder, men are less bound by stereotypical male-dominant gender roles and more willing to suggest and try a greater variety of positions and practices.**  

That’s pure speculation on my part.  I don’t know the research on social class and sexual preferences and practices. 

Are there other cases where a problem becomes clearer when we turn our attention to the negative space? In a sense, this is what sociology often does. Where conventional thinking focuses on the behavior of the individual, sociology turns its attention to the external forces of the situations those people inhabit. Most of the time, just as our eyes shift naturally to something that is moving, our attention goes to the behavior of the individual. That is the figure we focus on. It’s much harder to turn our attention to the space around that figure. 

In life drawing, once we have the insight and shift our gaze, drawing the background is not much different from drawing the figure. But art is visual. Social science is more verbal. We have a rich vocabulary for describing people’s actions. But when it comes to describing situational pressures, we’re often at a loss for words. 


 * HT: Xavier Molénat, whose tweet took me to this story.

** There’s also the idea of the boardroom-bedroom antithesis – that men in positions of power find release by becoming the powerless one in bed (“Mad Men” went in for this idea at the start of Season 4).  Both explanations locate cause in the workplace.  One says that for women, assertive at work leads to assertive in bed; the other says that for men, on top at work leads to on the bottom in bed.  I’m skeptical of both, though I do not know of the research in this area.

College Costs - The International Perspective

June 11, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

American students grumble when their universities raise tuition fees.  But in France and the UK, students take to the streets.  The lesson, I suppose, is that we compare ourselves to what we know, and while students know what their tuition was last year, they have no idea about tuition in other countries. 

Business Insider has some data to correct that ignorance.  As in so many other the USA is number one in absolute terms, with an average cost of nearly $14,000.  Relative to median income, two countries – Japan and Mexico – have college costs that are less affordable.  (As Business Insider points out, there’s a huge difference in the US between public and private universities.)

In 2008, French students protested Sarkozy’s proposed cuts to education.  I’m not sure they framed the issue as a return on what they were paying – $585.

Of course, they did have to suffer the hardship of living in cities like Paris and eating French food.
The protests in the UK are more understandable.  When the Conservative government proposed a tuition increase, 50,000 demonstrators took to the streets of London.

The increase would have put UK costs on a par with the US average (though much less than the costs of private universities in the US ).  

For the Business Insider snapshots of education costs in sixteen countries, go here. No doubt, the simple numbers obscure some other variables that might be considered in assessing the real costs of college.   But the numbers do give a rough idea.

Public Goods and Individual Mandates

June 10, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

My son and his girlfriend arrived in Beijing ten days ago.  The got-here-safely e-mail ended with this:
was blown away by the pollution! I know people
talk about it all the time, but it really is crazy.

And it is.  Here’s a photo I grabbed from the Internet.

At about the same time, I came upon a this link to photos of my home town Pittsburgh in 1940.  Here are two of them.

Today in downtown Pittsburgh, the streetcars and overhead trolleys are gone.  So are the fedoras.  And so is the smoke.  

The air became cleaner in the years following the end of the War.  It didn’t become clean all by itself, and it didn’t become clean because of free-market forces.  It got clean because of government – legislation and regulation, including an individual mandate. 

The smoke was caused by the burning of coal, and while the steel mills accounted for some of the smoke, much of the it came from coal-burning furnaces in Pittsburghers’ houses.  If the city was to have cleaner air, the government would have to force people change the way they heated their homes.  And that is exactly what the law did. To create a public good – clean air – the law required individuals to purchase something – either non-polluting fuel (oil, gas, or smokeless coal) or smokeless equipment.* 

Initially, not everyone favored smoke control, but as Pittsburgh became cleaner and lost its “Smoky City” label, approval of the regulations increased, and there was a fairly rapid transition to gas heating.  By the 1950s, nobody longed for the unregulated air of 1940.  Smoke control was a great success.**  Of course, it may have helped that Pittsburgh did not have a major opposition party railing against this government takeover of home heating or claiming that smoke control was a jobs-killing assault on freedom.

* Enforcement focused not on individuals but distributors.  Truckers were forbidden from delivering the wrong kind of coal.

** For a fuller account of smoke control in Pittsburgh, see Joel A. Tarr and Bill C. Lamperes, Changing Fuel Use Behavior and Energy Transitions: The Pittsburgh Smoke Control Movement, 1940-1950: A Case Study in Historical Analogy. Journal of Social History , Vol. 14, No. 4, Special Issue on Applied History (Summer, 1981), pp. 561-588.

Does Washington Weigh on Washington?

June 7, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Will Obama’s coming out for gay marriage swing a referendum in Washington state?

Gay marriage in Washington state is only four months old, but the straights-only forces are trying to nip it in the bud and at the ballot box.  They have filed petitions to let a simple majority of voters decide who has the right to marry.  This strategy has worked in the other states, where hetero majorities have consistently voted keep the gay minority out of their marriage club.

The Times story notes that in Washington it’s not clear which side is in the majority. The article cites surveys and previous voting. But then it adds,
President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage rights last month is probably the biggest new variable in a state that he won handily in 2008 and where he still had a 54 percent approval rating in a poll released last week by Strategies 360. [emphasis added]
Is Obama’s support a big variable?

Surveys taken before and after showed  Obama’s announcement of his own “evolution” having no effect on White voters. It may have had some influence among Black voters, where support for gay marriage increased by nearly 20 points – from 41% to 59%.  That shift should be interpreted cautiously since the number of African Americans in the sample was not large. Even so, African Americans are only 3.6% of the Washington state population, and their percentage among voters may be even smaller  - more reason to question the weight of the Obama variable

Also, as Nate Silver says on his FiveThirtyEight blog at the Times, that effect may dissipate over time.  

For Democrats who oppose gay marriage, the issue now becomes a classic example of “cross pressure.”* Obama’s statement may make that pressure especially felt among African Americans. As Jon Bernstein at WaPo put it,
people who are on Team Church and Team Democrat now realize that those two are in conflict and they have to choose, while before they were getting only one signal.
The beauty of the ballot measure for the ant-gay-marriage forces is that cross-pressured voters do not have to choose. They can split the issues and vote for the Democratic candidate but against gay-marriage. That option makes any possible Obama effect even more feathery and ephemeral.

* This was a topic of an early post on this blog (here), and although that post was about Republicans, Bernstein’s “Team Church” reinforces the relevance of that post’s title (one of my favorites): “The Old Rugged Cross-Pressure.”

Blaming the Media II

June 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

If a person thinks that the media are infiltrating his mind and controlling his thoughts and behavior, we consider him a nutjob, and we recommend professional help and serious meds. But if a person thinks that the media are infiltrating other people’s minds and affecting their behavior, we call him or her an astute social observer, one eminently qualified to give speeches or write op-eds.   

The previous post dwelt on economist Isabel Sawhill’s WaPo op-ed channeling Dan Quayle, particularly Quayle’s speech asserting that a TV sitcom was wielding a strong effect on people’s decisions – not just decisions like Pepsi vs. Coke, but decisions like whether to have a baby. 

That was Quayle, this is now.  Still, our current vice-president can sometimes resemble his counterpart of two decades ago.  Just last month, Joe Biden echoed the Quayle idea on the power of sitcoms.  On “Meet the Press,” in response to David Gregory’s question about gay marriage, Biden said that “this is evolving” and added:
And by the way, my measure, David, and I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes.  I think “Will and Grace” probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.
“Will and Grace” ran for eight seasons, 1998 - 2006.  Its strongest years were 2001-2005, when it was the top rated show among the 18-49 crowd. If asked for systematic evidence, Biden could have pointed to GSS data on the gay marriage question.  In 1988, ten years before “Will and Grace,” when the GSS asked about gay marriage, only 12% supported it, 73% opposed it.  In 2004, six years into the W+G era, support had more than doubled, and it continued to rise in subsequent years.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

Because the gay marriage question was asked only in those two years, 1988 and 2004, we don’t know just when in that 16-year period, 1988 - 2004, things “really began to change.”  Fortunately, the GSS more regularly asked the respondent’s view on sexual relations between same-sex partners.  Here too, tolerance grows in the “Will and Grace” period (gray on the graph).

The trouble is that graph is misleading. To see the error, all we need do is extend our sampling back a few years  Here is the same graph starting in 1973.

The GSS shows attitudes about homosexuality starting to change in 1990.  By the time of the first episode of “Will and Grace” in 1998, the proportion seeing nothing wrong with homosexuality had already doubled.  Like Quayle’s “Murphy Brown” effect, the “Will and Grace” effect is hard to see.

The flaw in the Quayle-Biden method is not in mistaking TV for reality.  It’s in assuming that the public’s awareness is simultaneous with their own. 

But why do our vice-presidents (and many other people) give so much credit (or blame) to a popular TV show for a change in public opinion? The error is partly a simplistic post hoc logic.  “Will and Grace” gave us TV’s first gay principal character; homosexuality became more acceptable.  Murphy Brown was TV’s first happily unwed mother, and in the following years, single motherhood increased.  Cause - Effect.  Besides, we know that these shows are watched by millions of people each week. So it must be the show that is causing the change. 

It’s also possible that our vice-presidents (and many other people) may also have been projecting their own experiences onto the general public.  Maybe Murphy Brown was the first or only unwed mother that Dan Quayle really knew – or at least she was the one he knew best. It’s possible that Joe Biden wasn’t familiar with any gay men, not in the way we feel we know TV characters.  A straight guy might have some gay acquaintances or co-workers, but it’s the fictional Will Truman whose private life he could see, if only for a half hour every week.

Does TV matter?  When we think about our own decisions, we are much more likely to focus on our experiences and on the pulls and pushes of family, work, and friends.  We generally don’t attribute much causal weight to the sitcoms we watch.  Why then are we so quick to see these shows as having a profound influence on other people’s behavior, especially behavior we don’t like?  Maybe because it’s such an easy game to play.  Is there more unwed motherhood?  Must be “Murphy Brown.”  Did obesity increase in the 1990s?  “Roseanne.”  Are twentysomethings and older delaying marriage?  “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” And of course “The Simpsons,” at least Bart and Homer, who can be held responsible for a variety of social ills.

Blaming the Media I

June 2, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Cross-posted at Sociological Images

I’m not sure what effect prime-time sitcoms have on the general public.  Very little, I suspect, but I don’t know the literature on the topic. Still, it’s surprising how many people with a similar lack of knowledge assume that the effect is large and usually for the worse.

Isabel Sawhill, is a serious researcher at Brookings; her areas are poverty and inequality.  Now, in a Washington Post article, she, says that Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown. 

Some quick history for those who were out of the room – or hadn’t yet entered the room: In 1992, Dan Quayle was vice-president under Bush I.  Murphy Brown was the title character on a popular sitcom then its fourth season – a divorced TV news anchor played by Candice Bergen.  On the show, she got pregnant.  When the father, her ex, refused to remarry her, she decided to have the baby and raise it on her own. 

Dan Quayle, in his second most famous moment,* gave a campaign speech about family values that included this:
Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong . . . . Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. . . . It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.
Sawhill, citing her own research and that of others, argues that Quayle was right about families:  children raised by married parents are better off in many ways – health, education, income, and other measures of well-being – than are children raised by unmarried parents whether single or together.** 

But Sawhill also says that Quayle was right about the more famous part of the statement – that “Murphy Brown” was partly to blame for the rise in nonmarried parenthood.
Dan Quayle was right. Unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend — bringing up baby alone — may be irreversible.  
Sawhill, following Quayle, gives pride of place to the media.  But unfortunately, she cites no evidence on the effects of sitcoms or the media in general on unwed parenthood.  I did, however, find this graph of unwed motherhood (here). It shows the percent of all babies that were born to unmarried mothers.  I have added a vertical line to indicate the Murphy Brown moment.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The “Murphy Brown” effect is, at the very least, hard to detect. The rise is general across all racial groups, including those who were probably not watching a sitcom whose characters were all white and well-off.  Also, the trend begins well before “Murphy Brown” ever saw the light of prime time.  So 1992, with Murphy Brown’s fateful decision, was no more a turning point than was 1986, for example, a year when the two top TV shows were “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties,” sitcoms with a very low rate of single parenthood and, at least for “Cosby,” a more inclusive demographic.

  * Quayle’s most remembered moment: when a schoolboy wrote “potato” on the blackboard, Quayle “corrected” him by getting him to add a final “e” – “potatoe.”  “There you go,” said the vice-president of the United States approvingly. (A 15-second video is here.) Is anyone claiming a sudden drop in the spelling competence of America subsequent to the vice-president’s gaffe?

** These results are not surprising.  Compared with other wealthy countries, the US does less to support poor children and families or to ease the deleterious effects on children who have been so foolhardy as to choose poor, unmarried parents.