GOP Economics - Jobs and Government Spending

August 31, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

A post inspired by the speeches at the Republican convention last night.

America is the greatest country on earth. State and local government budget reductions have meant the layoff of more than 700,000 people who used to work in the public sector. You didn’t hear much about that at the convention.

I love America.  Of course, we already have too much government, and public sector jobs  – teachers, cops, firefighters, and many others – those are government jobs, so we’re better off without them.

God loves America.  The idea that government spending affects employment is one of those discredited Keynsian ideas that just gets in the way of tax cuts. 

I really, really, really love America. I thought I had finally understood the conservative economic idea that government spending does not create jobs and that cutting government spending in a recession does not eliminate jobs or delay job creation.

I believe in America. But then Mitt Romney said this to me last night.  “His trillion-dollar cuts to our military will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs.”*

“His” referred to the President of the United States, who apparently does not think that America is the greatest country on earth, does not believe in America, and does not love America.

Oh, and did I forget to mention - America is the greatest country in the world.

* UPDATE, Sept. 10:  I’ve just learned that years ago, Barney Frank coined a term for people who, like Romney, claim that government spending weakens the economy, except for military spending, which creates jobs: “weaponized Keynesians.”  As Rep. Frank put it, they believe
that the government does not create jobs when it funds the building of bridges or important research or retrains workers, but when it builds airplanes that are never going to be used in combat, that is of course economic salvation.

An Old Stand-by

August 30, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post about Ann Romney’s speech, I left out something important.  I had remembered a 1978 sociology article, but there was something else in the speech, something familiar that I couldn’t quite bring to the surface.  Then I read Amanda Marcotte’s Slate article, “Ann Romney Acknowledges, Embraces Sexism.”  Says Marcotte, Ann Romney
offered up a . . . list of the very injustices feminists have worked, with some success, to eliminate. . . .There Ann Romney was, acknowledging that even conservative women know it to be true: Women work harder for less pay and less respect. She described sexism in fairly blunt terms.
But while Mrs. Romney aptly described the sexist inequality,
she framed it not as a problem to be fixed but a trial that women have to endure. . . . Instead of demanding equality, she encouraged her female audience instead to take their payment in martyrdom.
Then I remembered. Not a 1978 article but a 1968 hit song. 

Yes, just as Mrs. Romney says, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. 

I blogged this song several years ago, making essentially the same point that Marcotte is making.  On the surface, the woman is offering support for the status quo.  But the text is actually a critique of the system.  (My post, including the full lyric, is here,)

The contradiction is clearer if we imagine a Saudi version
Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,
Sharing your man with three co-wives,
And knowin’ that you ladies
Get lashed if you drive the Mercedes
And wearin’ clothes that only show your eyes.
Stand by your man, . . .
When I’ve mentioned “Stand by Your Man” to students, I get only blank stares.  But it might be big this week at the False Consciousness karaoke bar in Tampa. 

Ordinary People

August 29, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ann Romney’s speech last night – the Andy Borowitz headline had it about right
Romney Hailed as Regular Guy by Woman with Horse in Olympics 
Mrs. Romney has taken on the task of persuading people that, regardless of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the rich really are just like you and me.

The speech reminded me of “Jackie!” the article by Carol Lopate that first appeared  in 1978,* when magazines were running Jackie O cover stories about every two or three minutes.  Newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek, middle-class magazines like The Ladies’ Home Journal, and fan mags like Photoplay – each had a Jackie whose concerns resembled those of their audience.  The middle-class Jackie was an active mom who took her children to school, looked for a new job and new relationships.

(Apologies for the camera angle. This is what I could find on e-bay.

The working-class Jackie was more passive; she coped with trouble – heartbreak, illness, overpowering emotions, and other things she could not control.

Ann Romney’s speech used the same strategy to deliver the same message:  Pay no attention to the wealth. I’m just like you. 

So she emphasized ascribed roles common to all women.
We're the mothers, we're the wives, we're the grandmothers, we're the big sisters, we're the little sisters, we're the daughters.
From her opening line, she played up women’s socio-emotional roles:
I want to talk to you from my heart about our hearts.
 and on through the  “you know” section.
You know what those late night phone calls with an elderly parent are like . . . You know the fastest route to the local emergency room.
“You know” here is a way of saying “We know – we women.”  Ann knows that you know these things because good middle-class Ladies’ Home Journal mom/daughter/sister that she is, she’s been there too. She’s just like you. 

There’s also a Photoplay aspect to the Ann Romney that spoke last night.  She tells us she  was powerless over love. It overwhelmed reason.
There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know? We just didn't care.
She even takes the powerless, fatalistic view that women have no control over their own fertility,
Then our first son came along.
as though the stork had delivered a surprise package.

But the Protestant Ethic (hard work plus frugality) and love would conquer all.
We got married and moved into a basement apartment. We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, and ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days.
This struggling-students section of the speech is a bit disingenuous. In fact, the Romneys paid for the pasta by selling stock given to Mitt by his family – stock whose value at the time was $60,000, about $375,000 in today’s dollars. 

It seemed that Mrs. Romney did a credible job in this speech, though I’ve seen no data on how the public reacted.  Nor is it clear that the magazines will co-operate in the effort to sell the Romneys as “just plain folks.”  Even if they do, Mrs. Romney may have to wait.  The media did not work this metamorphosis of Jackie until years after she had left the White House.


* Also in Hearth and Home, edited by Gaye Tuchman, Arlene Kaplan Daniels, and James Benet.  I don’t have the book with me here down the shore, and I can’t find the essay on the Internet.  My recall of the content of the article may be severely flawed.

Where to Find the Racists

August 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

About two weeks ago, Chris Hayes said, “It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other.”

The case, it turns out, is very deniable. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution denied it with data from the 2002 and 2008 GSS.  He looked at three questions
  • Favor laws against interracial marriage
  • Would vote for a Black for president
  • Blacks should not be pushy
and concludes
It is undeniable that some Americans are racist but racists split about evenly across the parties.
(Tabarrok's post, with tables, is here.)

Hayes then tweeted a retraction.

End of story?

To begin with, the sample sizes Tabarrok uses are small.  In the 2002 GSS, only 87 respondents went on record against interracial marriage, and in 2008, only 80 said they wouldn’t vote for a Black for president.  (All the tables and graphs presented here and in Tabarrok’s post are based on Whites only.)

Only about 5% of the sample takes the racist response to these items.  But I would run the table differently. Instead of asking what percent of each party is racist, I would ask where do those few racists go. 

The differences are small, but the edge goes to the Republicans.

Second, there is a difference between party identification and political ideology.  If you ask not about party but about political views, the differences become sharper.

The GSS has other questions that might stand as a proxy for racism.  For example
On the average (negroes/blacks/African-Americans) have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are:
       Because most (negroes/blacks/African-Americans) just don't have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty?

Again, the differences are small, with White Republicans slightly more likely (50% vs. 45%) to say Blacks’ economic problems are caused by lack of motivation and will power.  And again, the differences are larger when the independent variable is political ideology rather than party identification.

In that same GSS question about the cause of Black economic troubles, another choice is
Do you think these differences are:
    Mainly due to discrimination?

The differences for both Party ID and Political views are clear.  White Democrats and liberals are much more likely to see discrimination as a major cause.

But is this racist? Not necessarily. It might well be part of a general view of the causes of human behavior, one that emphasizes personal factors (ability, motivation, etc.) and downplays structural forces the individual has little power over (discrimination). Conservatives might use that same  explanation for unemployment and low income among Whites as well.  But I do not know of any GSS questions about the causes of White economic problems. (Perhaps these exist, but I am not a GSS expert.)

We do know that racists (those who say they would not vote for a Black president) are more likely to take the conservative position on the “Willpower” explanation (76% vs. 50%) and on the Discrimination explanation (78% vs. 64%) compared with those who say yes, they would vote for a Black president.  But that does not mean that the other conservatives who agree with them and who deny that racial discrimination affects the lives of Black people are also racists. People can come to the same position from different places.  But people can also hide their racism behind seemingly non-racial issues. In the 1960s ,70s, and 80s, many observers thought that the Republicans were using first school busing and then crime as a proxy for race, as Republican strategist Lee Atwater famously explained.  And some observers today (Tom Edsall, for example) argue that the Republicans are using welfare in the same way this time around.

Other bloggers have written about the questions Hayes raised – Tabarrok has links to three of these.  The most interesting I’ve come across is Will Wilkinson’s (here).  His original views apparently were individual-centered and much in line with Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no such thing as society.”  But that was “when I was a Rand-toting libertarian lad.”

He has now come to see that individuals, with their ideas and attitudes and “non-coercive” behavior, can add up to something greater than the sum of its parts, i.e, society.  But he got to this idea by walking down the left fork of the libertarian road – the road not to serfdom but to sociology.

Eventually I realised that actions that are individually non-coercive can add up to stable patterns of behaviour that are systematically or structurally coercive, depriving some individuals of their rightful liberty. In fact, rights-violating structures or patterns of behaviour are excellent examples of Hayekian spontaneous orders—of phenomena that are the product of human action, but not of human design.

Conjunction Fallacy, What’s Your Function?

August 25, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “conjunction fallacy.”  I've blogged about it before, but my beach reading yesterday was Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, who discovered the concept – I nearly said, “who invented the concept”;  I'm still not sure which verb is more accurate – and the book has a chapter on this bit of twisted logic.

As Kahneman tells it, he and Amos Tversky were trying to show that heuristics, mental shortcuts, can replace logic even when logic is called for.  They went about this in the usual way of academic psychologists – they gave a quiz to undergraduates.  The quiz item that became famous was “the Linda problem.”  Students read or heard a brief description of Linda – “single, outspoken, concerned with social justice,” among other traits – and were then asked which conclusion about Linda was more likely

    a.  Linda is a bank teller
    b.  Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement
[This was back in the 1980s.]

Nearly everyone chose “b.”

Wrong.  The conjunction of two events cannot be larger than either event.  “Feminist Bank Teller” cannot be larger (i.e., more likely) than “Bank Teller.”  Think of a Venn Diagram.

Hence, the conjunction fallacy.  Interesting that so many people can get it wrong, but I wonder whether it’s like some clever riddle or a joke – something with little relevance outside its own small universe. You’re never going to be having a real drink in a real bar and see, walking in through the door, an Irishman, a rabbi, and a panda.

Kahneman explains the fallacy as an instance of the more general problem of stereotyping or “representativeness.”  Linda in choice “b” fits with a plausible story, a stereotype.  She represents a more complete picture, and that picture overwhelms logical Venn-diagram reasoning.  Even when logic triumphs, it’s a struggle. Kahneman quotes Steven Jay Gould’s reaction to the problem.  Gould got the right answer, but
a little homunculus in my head continues to jump up and down shouting at me – “but she can’t just be a bank teller; read the description.”

I think Gould’s homunculus is miscommunication.  As I said in that earlier post about the conjunction fallacy (here), the question asked by researchers is sometimes not the question that people hear.  When I hear the question and the two choices, I don’t think of “a” and “b” as separate circles in a Venn diagram.  Instead, I picture a bank with its many tellers behind their counters.  One of them is wearing a large NOW button. Danny Kahneman taps me on the shoulder and whispers,”Which one is Linda?” I answer, “Most likely, she’s the feminist.”

Something else about this study bothers me.  Here’s Kahneman:
When I asked my large undergraduate class in some indignation, “Don’t you realize that you have violated an elementary logical rule?” someone in the back row shouted, “So what?”
I don’t usually have much sympathy for anti-intellectualism, especially at a university, but I have to admit that the backbencher has a point.  How might this fallacy ever come up in real life?  The scarcity of this fallacy may also be the reason it’s so difficult, even for Steven Jay Gould, to hear the literal question that the quizmaster is posing.  The other logical slips that Kahneman details in his book occur in many situations.  But what is the real-world function of the conjunction fallacy? 

Those other cognitive fallacies and shortcuts are often well-known, at least among cognitive psychologists, and Kahneman’s studies are attempts to specify the conditions under which they occur.  But the conjunction fallacy was new.  He had asked students the Linda question with something else in mind.  His assistant had gathered some of the questionnaires and left them lying in a tray
I casually glanced at them and found that all the subjects had ranked “feminist bank teller” as more probable than “bank teller.”  I was so surprised that I still retain a “flashbulb memory” of the gray color of the metal desk and of where everyone was when I made that discovery.
So the conjunction fallacy was a discovery.  But it was also an invention.  Kahneman created it, albeit unwittingly, with the Linda problem. 

At the end of each chapter of Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman offers short examples of how the ideas of the chapter might have real-world applications.  But the examples at the end of the Linda chapter are unrelated to the conjunction fallacy.  Linda seems to have no life outside of logic problems for psych students, much like the snee, the stoa, the edh, and other creatures whose existence, for most of us, is confined to crossword puzzles.

Evol-psych Goes to the Polls

August 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

National Review has long been the most important voice on the right.  When NR publishes something, I suppose they mean for us to take it seriously. 

In the Aug. 27 issue, they publish Kevin Williamson’s evolutionay-psychology view of the election and why Romney deserves to win.
Elections are not about public policy. They aren't even about the economy. Elections are tribal, and tribes are . . . ruthlessly hierarchical. Somebody has to be the top dog.
You can read the whole thing here, but (trigger warning) you may find it not just silly but deeply offensive, especially if you think that women have the power of thought and reason.
What do women want? The conventional biological wisdom is that men select mates for fertility, while women select for status.

You want off-the-charts status? Check out the curriculum vitae of one Willard M. Romney . . . boss of everything he's ever touched.
Romney is the alpha-male.  Why?  First, because he made a lot of money.  And second, because the Romney has more sons and grandsons.  I am not making this up.
It is a curious scientific fact . . . that high-status animals tend to have more male offspring than female offspring, which holds true across many species, from red deer to mink to Homo sap. The offspring of rich families are statistically biased in favor of sons — the children of the general population are 51 percent male and 49 percent female, but the children of the Forbes billionaire list are 60 percent male. Have a gander at that Romney family picture: five sons, zero daughters. Romney has 18 grandchildren, and they exceed a 2:1 ratio of grandsons to granddaughters (13:5). . . . He is basically a tribal chieftain.
And by the same reasoning, Obama is a pussy.
Professor Obama? Two daughters. May as well give the guy a cardigan. And fallopian tubes. [Professors are, by definition, wimps.  No alpha males teach Con law.]
How does this matter in the election?
From an evolutionary point of view, Mitt Romney should get 100 percent of the female vote. . . . the ladies do tend to flock to successful executives and entrepreneurs.
You can’t argue with logic like that.  The only trouble is in the evidence.  Obama consistently polls 12 points higher than Romney among women. 

Oh, those foolish women, thinking about a candidate's policies – how these might affect them, their children, and their country – rather than his wealth and the gender of his offspring. 

FWIW, in 1992, a wealthy candidate with lots of sons (four, and two daughters), with warrior credentials (a navy pilot) ran against a candidate, also a former law professor, with only a daughter, far less wealth, and no military credentials.  Maybe the Bush campaign had signs saying,  “It’s the evol-psych top dog status, stupid.”

(HT: Mark Kleiman, who notes that even from the evol-psych perspective, among male voters, Romney should be getting killed, electorally and maybe literally:  “Admiring alpha males is purely a female trait; the other males mostly want to kill them, or at least replace them.”

The Budget - Whose Benefits?

August 20, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

I mentioned Niall Ferguson in the previous post.  I had not realized that his anti-Obama essay  (“Hit the Road, Barack”)  was Newsweek’s cover story and was stirring up much dust.

No wonder. 
Welcome to Obama’s America: nearly half the population is not represented on taxable return – almost exactly the same proportion that lives in a household where at least one member receives some type of government benefit. We are becoming a 50-50 nation – half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits.
The first part of the first sentence is technically wrong – even those who do not pay taxes and who get the EITC file a return.  And it is true that 46% of earners pay no federal income tax.  That doesn’t mean they pay no taxes – there are payroll taxes and sales taxes – just no income tax.

It’s the second sentence, the applause line, that’s misleading.  Is all that tax money really going to the less wealthy half of the people?  The federal budget shows where the tax money actually goes.  Here’s the New York Times chart.  I have outlined in red the categories that benefit mostly those who pay no income tax.

The Times chose very faint colors that make the writing hard to see.  The square in the lower middle,  “Income Security,” includes unemployment insurance, retirement benefits for civilian and military, food stamps, TANF, and several programs.  The squares in the upper right are Medicaid and CHIP.
(Go to the Times, here, for an interactive version of the chart.  You can also click on“Hide Mandatory Spending” to view the parts of the budget that can actually be cut.)

Niall Ferguson is an intelligent and well-informed man, a Harvard professor, and he has lived in the US for several years now.   You would think that he’d know that most of the federal budget goes to Social Security, Medicare, and the Pentagon – programs that benefit all Americans (including Paul Ryan’s mother) and do not “benefit mostly those who pay no income tax.”  Anybody who reads a newspaper or listens to the news a couple of times a month must know this.

I can understand why Ferguson would write something like this – he obviously intended to write  a campaign screed against Obama, not a thoughtful, accurate news article.  To that end, he echoes the Romney ad, the one that says Obama
Quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work. You wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.
Not true, of course, but that’s not the point.  The point is that YOU (you hardworking, taxpaying good person) pay tax money that Obama gives to THEM (the lazy recipients of government benefits, the bad people). Neither the ad nor Ferguson says what color YOU and THEM are, but we know, don’t we?  It goes without saying.

There are many more errors and contradictions in Ferguson’s piece; that's to be expected.  But what is Newsweek’s excuse for not fact-checking it?

(For fact-checks of the Ferguson article, see, for example, Business Insider, The Atlantic, and Slate .  Other critiques should not be hard to find, Noah Smith’s, here,  for one.)


August 20, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

As I speculated years ago (here and here), it may be hard for Americans to imagine a world where the law guarantees them at least 20 paid vacation days per year. But such a world exists. It’s called Europe.* 

Americans are the lucky ones. As Mitt Romney has warned us “European-style benefits” would   “poison the very spirit of America.” Niall Ferguson, who weighs in frequently on history and economics, contrasts America’s “Protestant work ethic” with what you find in Europe – an “atheist sloth ethic.”

The graph is a bit misleading. It shows only what the law requires of employers. Americans do get vacations. But here in America, how much vacation you get, or whether you get any at all, and whether it's paid – that all depends on what you can negotiate with your employer. 

Since American vacations depend on what the boss will grant, some people get more paid vacation, some get less, and some get none. So it might be useful to ask which sectors of our economy are beehives of the work ethic and which are sloughs of sloth. (Ferguson’s employer, for example, Harvard University, probably gives him three months off in the summer, plus a week or two or more in the winter between semesters, plus spring break, and maybe a few other days. I wonder how he would react if Harvard did away with these sloth-inducing policies.)

The Wall Street Journal recently (here) published a graph of BLS data on access to paid vacations.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

Those people who are cleaning your hotel room and serving your meals while you’re on vacation – only about one in four can get any paid vacation days. And at the other end, which economic sector is most indulgent of sloth among its workforce? Wall Street. Four out of five there get paid vacation. 

How much paid vacation do we get? That depends on sector, but it also depends on length of service.  As the Journal says,
Europeans also get more time off: usually a bare minimum of four weeks off a year. Most Americans have to stay in a job for 20 years to get that much, according to BLS data.
All this is by way of announcing that posts to the Socioblog for the rest of the month may not be frequent, and they may arrive faintly scented with salt air, sunscreen, and sand.

’Cause down the shore everything’s all right.**

* The graph is from five years ago, but I doubt things have changed much.  The US still has no federal or state laws requiring any paid vacation days.

** The song, though associated with Springsteen, was written by Tom Waits.

Romney’s Taxes – Gentlemen’s Games and Morbid Curiosity

August 17, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mitt Romney still refuses to make his tax returns public.  Instead, he now says that for the last ten years he’s never paid less than 13%.  The response from the Obama campaign: Prove it.

The Romneyites are in high dudgeon about this request.  To ask to see the actual returns rather than accept Mitt’s word, why, it’s so uncouth, so ill-mannered. Such curiosity is ungentlemanly; it borders on the morbid.

W.C. Fields fans will no doubt remember the scene in “My Little Chickadee,” set in the old West, where Fields (Cuthbert J. Twillie) approaches a stranger in a saloon. He offers to play a game: cut the cards, high card wins. They agree to play for $100. The stranger accepts and cuts a king.

Don't show me the cards. A gentleman's game. 
I don't want to look at it.

Fields then cuts.  The camera can see that the card is a two, but the stranger cannot.
“Ace,” Fields announces and puts the cards back on the deck.

I didn't see it.

[He turns the deck face up and thumbs through it 
till he finds an ace, which he holds up for the stranger to see.]
Very well, here you are, Nosy Parker. Ace. 
I hope that satisfies your morbid curiosity.

(For full effect, this  should be seen, not transcribed, but alas, I cannot find an embeddable clip. You can watch the scene here. It’s less than 2 minutes.)

There are good reasons to have some morbid curiosity about those tax returns.  Thirteen percent sounds reasonable, though it’s far less than what you pay if you earn a salary of $75,000.  But thirteen percent of what? As Jonathan Zasloff says,
If Romney’s income (mostly from capital gains) was, say, $10 million a year, but $9 million of it is in a tax shelter in the Cayman Islands,  Romney could pay $130,000 on the $1 million and call it $13%.  But in fact, he would be paying on his real income only 1.3%. 

And that’s just a simple version.  Given the complexities of the tax code, Romney could have done much more creative accounting.  Another law professor, Victor Fliescher, has a slightly more complicated scenario (here).  Fleischer’s specialty is tax law, especially carried interest, so he knows that this is not a gentleman’s game.  To Romney’s 13% claim, he says in a most ungentlemanly fashion, “I call bullshit.”

Cream and Charters

August 16, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

A couple of weeks ago, NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein was waving around test scores for all to see as irrefutable evidence that charter schools do a better job than traditional public schools. I voiced some reservations (here).

Not all poor schoolchildren are alike, and there’s good reason to expect systematic differences between charter school kids and others. The charter school kids have parents who, while they may be poor, are more involved in their education.  The traditional public schools get the kids who are left behind. The cumulative effect of this selection makes for vastly different kinds of learning environments – differences that have much more to do with kinds of parents and children than with kinds of school organization or the presence or absence of unions.

The charter cheerers like Klein deny any such effect.  (Klein is not just a championr of charters, He puts the taxpayers’ money where his mouth is. He used his position as NYC schools chancellor to give every advantage to charters – especially all four of Eve Moskowitz’s Success Network schools – sometimes at the expense of traditional public schools.)

The latest issue of Educational Policy has some research on this very topic by Yongmei Ni (Ni is too polite to call it “creaming” and uses the low-fat term “sorting.”): “The Sorting Effect of Charter Schools on Student Composition in Traditional Public Schools.” (here gated – I found it thanks to a tweet by Shankar Vedantam)

From the abstract:
the dynamic student transfers between charter schools and TPSs are analyzed through a series of hierarchical generalized linear models. The two-way transfer analysis shows that the student sorting under the charter school program tends to intensify the isolation of disadvantaged students in less effective urban schools serving a high concentration of similarly disadvantaged students. [emphasis added]
The problem has no easy solution.  The solution for the individual is clear – get your kid into the best school possible.  But for the system, this creaming solution makes the most disadvantaged schools more chaotic, more hopeless.

Screen Gems

August 15, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The film is “Staten Island.”  I pushed the “Info” button on the Verizon FIOS remote to see what it was about.

I actually checked a review at MRQE to make sure that the character was not some speechless but nevertheless supercool dude.

It makes me wonder where Verizon get its little film blurbs anyway. Someone has to be writing these things. 

There are those who will wring their hands and see this as yet a further debasement of the language, a creeping illiteracy, and the end of civilization as we know it.  But surely there is some more interesting linguistic relevance.  Does it show the pervasive influence of hip-hop diction? 

Anyway, it has inspired me to begin work on my novella – a tale of an aging but blocked writer who goes to Italy.  He hangs out in the Piazza San Marco, falls in love with the youthful hip-hop culture there, and winds up freestyling in local trattorie.  The title – and I call first dibs on it – “Def in Venice.” 

Oh, Those Europeans – Supporting Single Parents

August 14, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston 

Planet Money is airing segments on the Eurozone problems that arise when you try to have a unified economy but separate sovereign states. If a citizen of France is working in Germany, which country’s laws apply?

I hope this audio clip works, because you really need to hear the bemused bafflement of the American reporters trying to wrap their American minds around the concept of European assistance for single parents. Oh, those wacky Europeans. It’s the same kind of incredulous reaction Europeans might have in learning about, say, Florida’s gun laws.

(If the clip doesn’t work, go to Planet Money and start at that point. The relevant segment goes for about 1:22. I’ve also added an abbreviated transcript at the end of this post.)

The good old American view of welfare is that it should be provided sparingly if at all because it saps people’s industriousness. As we speak, Romney and Ryan are taking Obama to task for letting welfare recipients get off without working. (The Republicans are factually wrong about Obama, of course, but it’s the principle that’s important.) That kind of easy welfare is the way to moral and economic disaster for the individuals and the country at large. Charles Murray takes a similar view of single parenthood. If the government subsidizes single parenthood, single parenthood will increase,* and it has, bringing with it the economic and moral debasement of the White working class.

Surely, France and Germany, with their generous support of single parents, must be disaster zones. But no, they are among the strongest economies in Europe – Germany is surely the strongest. The unemployment rate in Germany is 5.4%, well below that of the US.

It is possible that support for single parents has taken the lock out wedlock, allowing mothers to escape bad marriages, and allowing pregnant women to avoid being forced into bad marriages.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The proportion of children born out of wedlock has increased generally. But Germany, with its generous benefits, has seen a much lower increase than has the US. The rate in some other countries, the Netherlands or Norway, for example, has increased greatly.  (I cannot quickly find information on how support for single parents has changed in any of these countries.)  As for the impact of single-parent benefits on the economy, that requires much more complex analysis, controlling for a host of other variables. But at first glance at charts like this, the connection is hard to see.  Low-rate countries like Spain and Italy are not in such great shape economically.  And Japan, even before the current financial crisis, had experienced its economic “lost decade.” 

 * Conservatives take a similar view of unemployment benefits, which they label “paying people not to work.”

Edited transcript.  The Planet Money reporters are Zoe Chace and Robert Smith

ZOE CHACE:  There was also this totally European but really fascinating story they told us about the French single mother.  She’s living in France and working in Germany.
ROBERT SMITH: In France, when you have a kid, as a single parent, you get help from the state till the kid turns eighteen.  In Germany though, a single mom gets state assistance until the child is [slowly, for emphasis] twenty-five years old.  That’s not even a kid any more [laughing], he’s a full adult, but that’s the way Germany works.  You get assistance till your child is 25 years old.
The legal question was whether the woman should get benefits under the French system or the German.
I, I know it’s confusing, believe me – the court thought it was confusing too –but what it boiled down to is this:  Germany is paying a French woman German money because the French law wasn’t good enough.  It didn’t provide enough benefits.

Charting the Climb

August 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Isabella was the second most popular name for baby girls last year.  She had been number one for two years but was edged out by Sohpia.  Twenty-five years ago Isabella was not in the top thousand. 

How does popularity happen?  Gabriel Rossman’s new book Climbing the Charts: What Radio Airplay Tells Us about the Diffusion of Innovation offers two models.*   People’s decisions – what to name the baby, what songs to put on your station’s playlist (if your job is station programmer), what movie to go see, what style of pants to buy –  can be affected by others in the same position.  Popularity can spread seemingly on its own, affected only by the consumers themselves communicating with one another person-to-person by word of mouth.  But our decisions can also be influenced by people outside those consumer networks – the corporations or people who produce and promote the stuff they want us to pay attention to.

These outside “exogenous” forces tend to exert themselves suddenly, as when a movie studio releases its big movie on a specified date, often after a big advertising campaign.  The film does huge business in its opening week or two but adds much smaller amounts to its total box office receipts in the following weeks.   The graph of this kind of popularity is a concave curve.  Here, for example, is the first  “Twilight” movie.

Most movies are like that, but not all.  A few build their popularity by word of mouth.  The studio may do some advertising, but only after the film shows signs of having legs (“The surprise hit of the year!”).  The flow of information about the film is mostly from viewer to viewer, not from the outside. 

This diffusion path is “endogenous”; it branches out among the people who are making the choices.  The rise in popularity starts slowly – person #1 tells a few friends, then each of those people tells a few friends.  As a proportion of the entire population, each person has a relatively small number of friends.  But at some point, the growth can accelerate rapidly.  Suppose each person has five friends.  At the first stage, only six people are involved (1 + 5); stage two adds another 25, and stage three another 125, and so on.  The movie “catches on.” 

The endogenous process is like contagion, which is why the term “viral” is so appropriate for what can happen on the Internet with videos or viruses.   The graph of endogenous popularity growth has a different shape, an S-curve, like this one for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

By looking at the shape of a curve, tracing how rapidly an idea or behavior spreads, you can make a much better guess as to whether you’re seeing exogenous or endogenous forces.  (I’ve thought that the title of Gabriel’s book might equally be Charting the Climb: What Graphs of Diffusion Tell Us About Who’s Picking the Hits.)

But what about names, names like Isabella?  With consumer items  – movies, songs, clothing, etc. – the manufacturers and sellers, for reasons of self-interest, try hard to exert their exogenous influence on our decisions.  But nobody makes money from baby names.  Still, those names can be subject to exogenous effects, though the outside influence is usually unintentional and brings no economic benefit.  For example, from 1931 to 1933, the first name Roosevelt jumped more than 100 places in rank. (That was in an era when the popularity of names was more stable. Now, names are more volatile. Nowadays, 50 or more boys names may jump 100 places or more in a single year.)

When the Census Bureau announced that the top names for 2011 were Jacob and Isabella, some people (including, I think, Gabriel) suspected the influence of an exogenous factor – “Twilight.”  

 I’ve made the same assumption in saying (here) that the popularity of Madison as a girl’s name – almost unknown till the mid-1980s but in the top ten for the last 15 years – has a similar cause: the movie “Splash” (an idea first suggested to me by my brother).  I speculated that the teenage girls who saw the film in 1985 remembered Madison a few years later when they started having babies. 

Are these estimates of movie influence correct? We can make a better guess at the impact of the movies (and, in the case of Twilight, books) by looking at the shape of the graphs for the names.

Isabella was on the rise well before Twilight, and the gradual slope of the curve certainly suggests an endogenous contagion.  It’s possible that Isabella’s popularity was about to level off  but then got a boost in 2005 with the first book. And it’s possible the same thing happened in 2008 with the first movie. I doubt it, but there is no way to tell.

The curve for Madison seems a bit steeper, and it does begin just after “Splash,” which opened in 1984.  Because of the scale of the graph, it’s hard to see the proportionately large changes in the early years.  There were zero Madisons in 1983, fewer than 50 the next year, but nearly 300 in 1985.  And more than double that the next year.  Still, the curve is not concave.  So it seems that while an exogenous force was responsible for Madison first emerging from the depths, her popularity then followed the endogenous pattern.  More and more people heard the name and thought it was cool.  Even so, her rise is slightly steeper than Isabella’s, as you can see in this graph with Madison moved by six years so as to match up with Isabella.

Maybe the droplets of “Splash” were touching new parents even years after the movie had left the theaters.


* Gabriel posted a short version about these processes when he pinch hit for Megan McCardle at the Atlantic (here).

“What Do You Know?” (Information Asymmetry)

August 6, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images)

I bought a used book on Amazon, and when I opened it, I felt as though I were an unintentional eavesdropper.  I had stumbled into a triangle of information asymmetry. 

Examples of asymmetry and other information distributions usually come from games or economics.  There’s “perfect information” (chess) and “imperfect information” (card games).  The best known example of “information asymmetry” is still Akerlof’s “The Market for Lemons” (cars, not fruit). 

In all these examples, the information is about objects.  But in everyday life, information is often about people, not chess pieces or cards or Camaros.  Perfect information is rare.  I know more about myself than you do, and vice versa.  Usually.  But what if you know something about me that I don’t know? What if you have seen my hole cards, and I haven’t?* 

Last week’s  “This American Life” started with a story about that unusual arrangement.  But the information wasn’t about a man’s cards, it was about his life (or more precisely, his wife).

The man discovers that his wife is seeing another man.  Even though the couple were in the process of separating, he is devastated.  He turns, as Ira Glass says, “to someone he knows will be on his side, will help him make sense of this, tell him what to do – his lawyer.”  For a tear-filled hour, he talks to his lawyer.  Only later does he discover that the lawyer is the man his wife has been having the affair with.

The information – who knows what about who – badly lacks symmetry.  The man, talking to his lawyer, lacks a crucial piece of information, information that the lawyer could provide.  Instead, the  lawyer pretends to be ignorant and lets the man go on for an hour talking and weeping.

(This three-person asymmetric structure, save for the lawyer-client angle, is identical to that of the Salinger story, “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.”)

My own used-book story is a less dramatic version of this same asymmetry.

The book was listed as “used – like new, signed by the author.”  I considered getting a clean copy for the same price from a different seller but went with this one. It arrived – gift wrapped, for some reason – and indeed, the book was like new.  Unread.  And it was not just signed.  There was a personal message: “For Gerry,** since you’re so much a part of this.” 

I was sure I knew who Gerry was – the name (the actual name, not this nom-de-blog) is not a common one.  I remembered that Gerry, now a professor at a major university, was a student of the author’s long ago. 

They live in the same area, and I assume they have a closer relationship to one another than I have to either of them.  (I know the author slightly, Gerry not at all.)  After all, there’s that inscription in the book.  But I now have a piece of information that says something about their relationship, a fact known to only one of them – Gerry.   And neither of them knows that I am now in on this bit of information. 

I could let the author in on this information. “Hey, did you know that copy of your book you inscribed so nicely?  Gerry didn’t even read it and then went and sold it to some resale shop.”  But of course I won’t.  Still, this little incident gives me some sympathy with that lawyer.

The “This American Life” story made him out as the bad guy, and in fact, he was charged with professional misconduct.  At the disciplinary hearing, when asked why he didn’t just tell his client to find another lawyer, he says, “Well, to be honest, it was very awkward. It was one of those things I just wasn't sure how to bring up or when to bring up.” 

Neither am I.  And I’ll never have to.

* A symmetrical version of this self-ignorance is the basis for a card game that I know as One-Card Schmuck but which I can find on the Internet only as Indian Poker or Blind Man’s Bluff (here, for instance).  The Indian Poker is definitely un-PC, Blind Man’s Bluff more accurate.  But One-Card Schmuck captures the essence of the game.

** Not the real name, and deliberately gender-ambiguous.

Plagiarism? Bah, Humbug

August 2, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The section on plagiarism in my syllabus is fairly short.  It lists the possible penalties, and it has a link to the University page on plagiarism – what it is and how to avoid it.  But I’ve seen some syllabi whose plagiarism sections seemed to me like a big production.  I was wrong.  If you want to see a big production, try this.  (And don’t forget to click on the CC for subtitles.)

HT: Andrew Gelman

Beyond the Gee Whiz Graph – the OMG Graph

August 1, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

How to make a 13% increase (4.6 percentage points) look like a quintupling.

I’ve blogged before about “gee-whiz graphs” (here and here ). And I’ve blogged about the inventive graphing techniques of the folks at Fox (here).  But this example may be in a class by itself.

In case the numbers are not clear:  Now = 35%, Jan. 1. 2013 = 39.6%.  The heights of the bars make a 13% increase appear as a 400% increase.

HT: I’m not sure who posted this first.  I got it thanks to Sangeeta Parashar.

School Culture and Charter Schools

August 1, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

An episode in the first season of the “The Wire” opens with Wallace, a  teenage boy who works for drug dealers, getting grade school kids ready for school. Parentless, they all live in a boarded-up building, electricity tapped from elsewhere by a long extension cord. Wallace gets the kids up, drops a juice box into each kid’s bag, and pushes them out the door. Then he too goes outside and sees the brutally murdered body of another young man involved in the drug trade.

I thought about that moment when I read Joel Klein’s op-ed (here) in the Wall Street journal crowing about recent test scores in New York City’s charter schools. Klein is the former head of New York’s public schools and a big supporter of charters.
Although the traditional public schools in the city have about the same ratio of poor children—and a significantly smaller ratio of black and Latino children—the charter schools outperformed the traditional schools by 12 points in math and five points in reading. Those are substantial differences.
Klein is overstating the case. Not all poor, minority children are alike, and there’s good reason to believe that the charter school population and the regular public school population differ in some important ways. For one thing, the charter kids all have parents who are involved in these new schools. Some charters make a considerable effort to reach these parents. The Success Network charters – the ones that Klein mentions specifically – spent $880,000 recruiting students to its four schools and another $1.3 million on “network events and community outreach." [source]

Those kids on “The Wire” will not be applying to the Success Network.

Charter test averages also benefit from the lower proportion of special-ed pupils and pupils who are not fluent in English. Perhaps most important, charter schools can and do get rid of “difficult” children – those who are discipline problems and those who do not perform well academically.  And when such a child leaves the school, the charter can just leave the seat empty rather than putting in another student. The regular public schools do not have the luxury of these options.

But let’s suppose that even controlling for these factors NYC’s charter school kids did outperform the traditional schools. The obvious question is why. Klein’s answer is all about the “culture” among the teachers. Charter teachers “thrive in a culture of excellence, rather than wallow in a culture of excuse.” 

Maybe so, but kids themselves, who far outnumber the staff, play a large part in a school’s culture.  Every school, including universities, has a “student culture” that differs from the culture the staff would prefer. The question is in what ways does it differ, and why.

The day after the Journal ran Klein’s op-ed, the Times columnist Joe Nocera  also wrote (here) about schools in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.  He quotes Dr. Pamela Cantor, a psychiatrist, who found that many of these kids showed symptoms we usually associate with trauma and high stress. 
If children are under stress, the ways they respond are remarkably similar.  They get sad, distracted, aggressive, and tune out.
Nocera summarizes what she found in high-poverty schools.
Chaos reigned. The most disruptive children dominated the schools. Teachers didn’t have control of their classrooms — in part because nothing in their training had taught them how to deal with traumatized children. Too many students had no model of what school was supposed to mean. “These were schools that were not ready to be schools.”
In a school where chaos reigns, even the good kids – the ones who entered the charter lottery but lost – will not learn as much.  

Klein attributes the success of charters – their “culture of excellence” – to the absence of “oppressive union contracts.”  But that success may have more to do with the absence of those most disruptive students – the kids whose parents are unable or unwilling to be involved in their child’s education, the kids who, if they do get into charters, are forced out. The real importance of charter selectivity is not that getting rid of some low scorers raises the average. It’s that even a small number of difficult, thuggish children can change the learning environment for all. If all those children are removed from charters and put in traditional schools, the effects can be profound.

What if this were like a football match where the teams switch sides at the half?  What if the regular public schools could recruit and select students and get rid of their most disruptive admissions mistakes, and the Success Network charters had kids like the drug-dealing Wallace and the abandoned kids living with him in the abandoned building?

* * When I said that Klein was a “big supporter” of charters, I did not mean only that he liked the idea of charters. His support was much more material. He helped Eve Moskowitz, head of Success Network, get financial help for her schools. And he pushed traditional public schools out of buildings in order to give the space to Success charters. As the Daily News story headline put it, “Eva Moskowitz has special access to Schools Chancellor Klein - and support others can only dream of.”