Endowment for the Amenities

January 29, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

When we did the college tours with my son, I was always impressed by the luxury of the facilities – the athletic center (certainly not the “gym”) that rivals the most expensive private clubs, the theaters, the dorm suites, the quality, quantity, and variety of food in the dining halls (not the “cafeteria”).  “When I went to college . . . .”  I didn’t say that, but it’s what I was thinking.

It’s a matter of demand and supply.  As the title of a recent NBER paper puts it:
College as Country Club: Do Colleges Cater to 
Students’ Preferences for Consumption?

The paper is by Brian Jacob, Brian McCall, and Kevin M. Stange, at Michigan.  Did they really need to phrase it as a question?  Here’s part of the abstract.
This paper investigates whether demand-side market pressure explains colleges’ decisions to provide consumption amenities to their students. , , , We find that most students do appear to value college consumption amenities, including spending on student activities, sports, and dormitories. While this taste for amenities is broad-based, the taste for academic quality is confined to high-achieving students. 
Ah yes, the “taste” for academic quality. Or as Perelman said, De gustibus ain’t what dey used to be.

The paper, gated, is here.

HT: Matthew E. Kahn at The Reality Based Community

Cautionary Tale Update – Crime in the UK

January 26, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Shortly after the Newtown massacre the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed claiming that Britain and Australia provided “Two Cautionary Tales of Gun Control.”  In 1998, the UK passed a very strict gun law.  The author of the WSJ piece, Joyce Lee Malcolm, concluded: 
Gun crime, not a serious problem in the past, now is.
The actual crime data on those two countries told a different, less cautionary tale (see my blog post). 

The data from 2012 (September 2011 to September 2012) are now in, and the results must be puzzling (maybe even disappointing) to Ms. Malcolm, the NRA, and other gunlovers. 
  • The murder rate was down by 10%. 
  • The murder rate was lower than in any year since 1978.
  • Gun crime was down by 17%, knife crime by 11%. 
  • Most other crimes – robbery, burglary, and vehicle-related crimes – were also down. *
* The report is based on crimes recorded by the police.  It’s possible that the actual number of crimes was unchanged or even higher but that for some reason the police in 2012 decided to be less diligent about recording them.  That seems doubtful, but we must wait for the data from the victimization survey to be sure.  The data on murder, however, are accurate.  Even the most unscrupulous precinct cannot ignore a murder or downgrade it to an assault.

The Guardian story on the crime data is here

Wall St. to Middle Class: You’ve Got It Made

January 25, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston 
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

The Wall Street Journal had an op-ed yesterday by Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry claiming that things are great for the middle class.  Here’s why:
No single measure of well-being is more informative or important than life expectancy. Happily, an American born today can expect to live approximately 79 years—a full five years longer than in 1980 and more than a decade longer than in 1950.
Yes, but.  If life-expectancy is the all-important measure of well-being, then we Americans are less well off than are people in many other countries, including Cuba.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The authors also claim that we’re better off because things are cheaper. 
spending by households on many of modern life's "basics"—food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities—fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.

Globalization probably has much to do with these lower costs.  But when I reread the list of “basics,” I noticed that a couple of items were missing, items less likely to be imported or outsourced: housing and health care.  We’re spending less on food and clothes but more on houses and the energy to heat and cool them. We’re spending much more on medical insurance and doctors, and even that sum is deceptively low since a substantial part of those costs, paid by employers or by the government, does not get counted as consumer spending.

The authors also make the argument that technology reduces the consuming gap between the rich and the middle class.  There’s not much difference between the iPhone that I can buy and the one that Mitt Romney has.  True, but it says only that products filter down through the economic strata just as they always have.  The first ball-point pens cost as much as dinner for two in a fine restaurant.  But if we look forward, not back, we know that tomorrow the wealthy will be playing with some new toy most of us cannot afford. Then, in a few years, prices will come down, everyone will have one, and by that time the wealthy will have moved on to something else for us to envy. 

The readers and editors of the Wall Street Journal may find comfort in hearing Boudreaux and Perry’s good news about the middle class.  Middle-class people themselves, however, may be a bit skeptical on being told that they’ve never had it so good. 

(The Gallup survey is here.)

Some of the people in the Gallup sample are not middle class, and they may contribute disproportionately to the pessimistic side.  (Boudreaux and Perry do not specify who they include as middle class.)  But it’s the trend in the lines that is important.  Despite the iPhones, airline tickets, laptops and other consumer goods the authors mention, fewer people feel that they have enough money to live comfortably.

Boudreaux and Perry insist that the middle-class stagnation is a myth, though they also say that
The average hourly wage in real dollars has remained largely unchanged from at least 1964—when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started reporting it. 
You might have thought that “largely unchanged” sounds a lot like “stagnation.”  But, according to Boudreaux and Perry, the former is fact, the latter a myth.  In any case, not all incomes have stagnated.  As even the mainstream media have reported, some incomes have changed quite a bit.

(The graph is from this EPI report.)

The top 10% and especially the top 1% have done well since the turn of the century.  The 90%, not so much. You don’t have to be too much of a Marxist to think that maybe the Wall Street Journal crowd has some ulterior motive in telling the middle class that all is well and getting better all the time.

And You Will Be Happy Too

January 23, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston   

Giving money away makes you happier. 

Michael Norton has done research that shows that money, even small amounts, can indeed buy happiness  . . .  if you spend it on others rather than on yourself.  His supporting data come not just from the US or other wealthy countries but from all over the world.  The question is why?

At the Society for Personality and Social Psychology meetings in New Orleans, Norton called on “signaling.”*
One of the ways people signal they are wealthy is to give money away.
I’m not sure when the economists came up with signaling.  It seems to accompany their realization that a lot of important things people do cannot not be explained by simple economic self-interest.  Other social sciences – notably sociology – have long assumed the existence of social motives.  We didn’t even bother to come up with a single word for it. The entire basis of “symbolic interaction”– from the Mead-Cooley-James models of a the early 20th century to Goffman’s Presentation of Self –  is the assumption that we are always signaling things about ourselves, signaling both to others and to ourselves.

The signaling Norton uses seems fairly close to “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined a century ago by another economist. What’s being signaled is still wealth, not other aspects of who the person is.

Norton does acknowledge another set of sociological concepts, relative satisfaction (or deprivation) and social comparison –  the idea that what matters is not the absolute amount you have as measured on some objective scale, but how you feel about that amount.  And that feeling depends on comparing yourself with others.
We suggest that acts of generosity can also signal wealth to the givers themselves, making them feel subjectively wealthier even as money leaves their pockets,
It’s still all about money.  But is having a lot of money or feeling that you have a lot of money the only explanation? 

There are other possibilities.  For one, people feel better about themselves when they live up to the ideals of their society (or smaller social groups), and most societies preach that altruism is a virtue.  Apparently, most of us take this lesson to heart, which is why economists have such a hard time convincing the unenlightened that greed, for lack of a better word, is good and that society will be better off if we all try to maximize our own self-interest.

The rewards for altruism are not financial, they are human.  In some cases they are direct – a sincere and joyful “Thank you” or some other indication that  you like me, you really like me.  But often, it just makes us feel good to know that we have done something nice for someone else.**

Given all the evolutionary reasons for social motives, I don’t know why economists keep being surprised when people behave in unselfish ways. 


* I have not been able to find Norton’s presentation.  I am relying on this report.    Norton summarizes his earlier research on giving and happiness in his TED talk (which I highly recommend).

** I hate websites that unbidden start playing music when you open them, but I was tempted to add auto-start background music of “Make Someone Happy” (“and you will be happy too”) to this post – a Bill Evans version, of course.

Facing Off on Fascism

January 19, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston   

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey got himself in the news by calling Obamacare “fascism.” NPR asked him about his earlier view that it was socialism.
Technically speaking, it's more like fascism. Socialism is where the government owns the means of production. In fascism, the government doesn't own the means of production but they do control it. And that's what's happening with our health care program with these reforms.
In a way, it’s refreshing to hear “fascism” used by someone on the right.  That term has usually been a favorite of the left.  LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Bush – if you dwelt among the left, it was commonplace to hear them and their policies labeled as fascist.  The right seems to prefer “Nazi.”  Or Obama and his jackbooted thugs (why are conservatives so concerned with footwear?). 

Mackey, as the excerpt shows, was not name-calling or shouting the epithet in some irrational, emotional way.  Instead, he was being “technical,” giving a calm, reasoned definition and categorization.  If the government makes a company do something, that’s fascism.  Social Security contributions, minimum wage, non-lethal working conditions, etc., and now health care* – all fascism.

* And, if you’re Newt Gingrich, restrictions on child labor.

More Guns, Less Data

January 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

As part of his new policy on guns, President Obama signed a directive allowing more research on gun violence and death.  For nearly twenty years, the gun lobby has shut down federally funded research on their favorite objects.   What seems to have gotten them upset was a study that concluded that a gun in the home was far more likely to kill a family member than to prevent a crime (a NY Times story from two years ago is here). 

Brad Plumer at the WaPo WonkBlog posted this chart showing how these Congressional restrictions have affected research at the National Institute of Justice.

Still, sometimes data leaks out.  Peter Norlander on his Academic Envy, Thoughtful Rage blog, posted this county analysis of gun ownership and gun deaths in New York state.

What was true for homes was true for counties. Should it come as a surprise that where there are more guns there are also more gun deaths?  Oh, right.  Guns don’t kill people. More guns, less crime and all that.

No wonder the gunslingers have tried to stop access to this kind of information. Maybe, with this new directive, more data will be coming out of the closet.

Butt Rising

January 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
“I nipped that in the butt.” 
“Don’t you mean bud?”
“I’ve been saying butt my whole life.”
A friend posted that conversation with her husband on her Facebook page.  The original metaphor is clear - you nip the bud before the problem can grow any larger.  But the husband’s version also makes sense – you give the problem a little bite in the ass as a warning to stop.*

The Easy Aces, in their 1930s radio show, specialized in this sort of  logical malapropism.  “You could’ve knocked me over with a fender,” and “They’re having trouble making ends neat,” were two that my mother remembered. 

Butt seems to be growing more acceptable, so it’s not surprising that it’s displacing similar-sounding words in these idioms.  The one I’ve noticed most is “butt naked” displacing “buck naked.”  What the hell does “buck naked” mean anyway?  By contrast, “butt naked” evokes an image you can immediately visualize.

(Click on the graph for a larger, clearer view.)

N-grams shows that buck is still kicking butt, at least in books.  But even there, the trend is buck down and butt up. 


* Many years ago, a student in my class wrote that someone was “cool, calm, and collective.”  I chuckled, but the meaning of the “correct” word, collected, isn’t readily obvious.   I still think of this phrase when I read people like George Will fretting about Obama (a much-mocked example is here).

“This is 40" – Guilty Pleasures

January 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In “This is 40,” the recent Judd Apatow movie, Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), married with two daughters, run off to a luxury hotel in Laguna for a romantic weekend. Stoned on a marijuana-laced cookie, they have room service bring them, among other things, a tableful of pastries. 

The sight of the couple stuffing their mouths with pastries reminded me of a similar scene from the 1975 French comedy “Cousin Cousine.”  In both films, the overload of desserts is a guilty pleasure, but in the French movie the emphasis is almost entirely on the pleasure, while the American film focuses on the guilt. The French lovers slowly feed each other one dessert after another; the scene is almost erotic. But Pete and Debbie seem like children, giggling and trying to eat as much as they can before they get caught. Both scenes mingle sex and pastry, but in the French movie the common theme is sensuality; “This is 40” plays both for laughs. (See the entire scene here.)

Pete and Debbie have other guilty pleasures that the movie grinds into laughs.  Pete sneaks off to the bathroom when he wants to play games on his iPad.  Debbie sneaks outside for a few desperate puffs of a cigarette.  Pete secretly eats the cupcakes he’s ostensibly throwing into the garbage.  Debbie browbeats and humiliates a thirteen-year-old boy to the point of tears.  All these scenes revolve around the question of guilt – will they get away with it? – rather than pleasure.  Add to that their Protestant Ethic regimes – Pete on his bicycle, Debbie with her demanding trainer – and the soundtrack might as well be a repeated loop of “I can’t get no satisfaction.” 

Married people in American movies and TV rarely have sex.  In the old days, married people were portrayed as asexual beings; they lived in a world swept free of sexual urges. In “This is 40,” sex makes frequent appearances, but something always happens to spoil the pleasure. Kids interrupt, or one of the two adults does something to deflate the other’s mood. The film begins with Pete and Debbie having passionate birthday sex in the shower until Pete reveals that he had taken Viagra for the occasion. Debbie stops and gets out of the shower.

PETE:  What’s the matter?

DEBBIE: You just took a Viagra to have sex with me?

I thought it would make it better. It was better. It takes some of the pressure off.

DEBBIE: Because you can’t get hard without a Viagra? Is it because you don’t think I’m sexy?

PETE: I thought you’d think it was fun for me to supersize it for once.

DEBBIE: That is the worst birthday present you could ever give someone.

There’s much more to be said about “This is 40” and about the popularity of Judd Apatow films – the scarcity of real grown-ups, for example, and the general ambivalence about being a grown-up.  This movie is about becoming forty, but Pete especially seems like an 18-year-old who has awakened to find himself in the body of a forty year old man.  But today’s post is not about aging; it’s about pleasure, and “This is 40" does have one unconflicted pleasure – laughter. The film is a comedy, and as the hotel scene makes clear, Pete and Debbie’s real pleasure is not sex or food or music but laughter. What holds them together is their shared humor, their ability to laugh at themselves.     

Where Are the Sociology Music Videos?

January 8, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why should the economists have all the good music videos?

Sociologists do have a sense of humor, don’t they? At least some do.  But it’s the economists who dominate the supply side of social science music videos.  The Keynes-Hayek rap https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0nERTFo-Sk goes back a few years and now has sequels.  And for an academic video, it has impressive production values. 

Eventhe Harvard Econ department went public with their version of  “Call Me Maybe”  (do they really want you to call even if you’re not offering them a consulting job?).  Greg Mankiw looks like he’s never heard the song before (is that even possible?) and is having trouble reading the words off the cue card.  Which is pretty funny if unintentionally so.

The Stand-up Economist has no counterparts from sociology.  I guess we’re taking this one sitting down. 

And now the Akon - Lonely Island  parody (Mankiw has makes a cameo appearance).

(If you are not familiar with the template, it’s here.)

A couple of weeks before Christmas, an economist sent me  this, a seasonally adjusted economic video.  He added, “When I posted it on Facebook, an economics researcher wrote “how can something so clever be so wrong.”

We sociologists may not make videos, but when we’re clever, we also get it right.

Good News, Bad News, Same News

January 5, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The headlines in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have the same fact – the first Friday jobs report and the unemployment rate.  They both mention “worry.” 

The WSJ headline frames the story as bad news. We should be worried about worry.  The Times is more “don’t worry, be happy.”  The WSJ’s subhead “unemployment rate hits 7.8%” makes it sound as though the rate is going up.  The Times (second graf, not shown here) notes that this rate was “steady.” 

After the headlines and ledes, the two stories are similarly pessimistic. 


January 4, 2013       
Posted by Jay Livingston

What kind of prerequisites do we need for sociology courses? 

I’ve been wondering about that because the administration here has told us to stick prerequisites on all our courses except entry-level courses.  Students who want to take a sociology course numbered in the 400s must have taken a 300-level course – the department gets to specify which courses will serve.  Similarly, 200-level courses must have 100-level prerequisites.

This makes sense for sequential courses.  If you haven’t mastered basic Spanish grammar and vocabulary of Spanish I, you shouldn’t take Spanish II.  In some math and science courses too, students may need specific knowledge from other courses.  But in sociology, we have very few sequential courses.  Even with more technical courses like Statistics and Methods, some departments sequence them with Methods first, other schools put Statistics first. But for topic courses, will students do better in Mass Media (SOCI 407) if they have had Urban (SOCI 311)? 

We have a 200-level course called Sociology of Rich and Poor Nations (SOCI 220).  It fulfills a General Education requirement, and we’ve always let in students regardless of what other courses they have or haven’t taken.  Under the new rules, we’re supposed to add a prerequisite – some 100-level sociology course.

I wondered whether prior sociology courses actually make a difference so I looked at the grades of the 300 or so students who took the course in the eight sections we offered in two semesters last year.  If prerequisites make sense, then students with no prior sociology courses should get lower grades.  Students with more sociology courses should do better – the more prior sociology, higher the grade in 220.  Here are the results.

The groups are all the same except for the two-prior group (there were only 11 of them, so a couple of high scorers could skew the average).  The average grade for the others - no priors, one prior, three or more priors – was the same: B-minus. 

Prior courses or prerequisites are not a good predictor of  performance in the course.  They make no difference. 

What does make a difference?  Being a good student.  Overall GPA was the best predictor of the grade in SOCI 220 (r = .3).  The correlation with prior sociology courses was effectively zero.

This is just one course in one department.  Does anyone have other data on the efficacy of prerequisites?