Mulgrew Miller

May 31, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mulgrew Miller died on Wednesday.  He was 57 years old. 

He was a giant among piano players – a large man with large hands (he could comfortably span all the major tenths).  He was solidly in the bebop tradition.  In his twenties he was playing with Art Blakey, and he stayed in that main stream.  He recognized that bebop had become what Jenn Lena calls “a traditionalist genre,” something taught at universities, but he had little respect for avant-garde for its own sake.
A lot of people do what a friend of mine calls ‘interview music.’ You do something that’s obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. . . . Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.
And now Mulgrew himself has passed.  As I was listening to YouTube clips, I found this interview that contains a now-poignant moment.  Mulgrew relates how vibraphonist Steve Nelson reminds him that our time here is finite.

Hudson on Hudson

May 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maybe geographical names are like t-shirts.  The farther away the place, the more attractive the shirt.  Local references, not so much.  You don’t see many New Yorkers wearing I NY t-shirts, certainly not here on the banks of the Hudson.

A week ago, I got an e-mail birth announcement from a local West Side politician, Ken Biberaj (politicians have extensive contact lists).  He and his wife (a handsome young couple if ever there was) named their son Hudson.

To my ear,  Hudson doesn’t really fit with their obviously Albanian surname. Maybe the Biberajs were in a New York state of mind. We do have a city and a river by that name.  Oh well, it’s different. Or so I thought.

A few day later, I was at a street fair on upper Broadway, and near a rather desultory clown who was making balloon figures, I heard a man call, “Hudson, don’t go too far away.”  And sure enough, there was a little blond Hudson, three or four years old.  A trend?   

It turns out that we New Yorkers are way behind the Hudson curve.  The name has been on the rise for the last 15 years. 

I just hadn’t noticed because the flood of Hudsons has been taking place far from the waters of the Hudson river.  In New York, New Jersey, and other Northeastern states, Hudson hasn’t yet broken into the top 100.  But in the South, in the Plains states, and the Mountain states, Hudson is doing quite well.  He’s not up there with Ethan, Mason, and Jacob, of course.  But in Utah, for example, Hudson was slightly more popular than Jayden and Lucas.  In Kansas, he placed well ahead of Brayden and Jayden (though not Aiden).  And in most other states, he ranks in the top 100, usually  between 25 and 75.  (The exceptions, besides the Northeast, are large states – California, Illinois, Florida.)

Five years ago, I wrote about the same pattern with Brooklyn (that blog post is here). This name for girls had been on the rise, but mostly in places far from the geographical Brooklyn. That pattern continues.

Until 1990, Brooklyn was not in the top 1000.  Since then she has risen dramatically, and is now in the top 30.  But not in New York and New Jersey, where she still can’t break into the top 100.  As I said in that post, if you’re trying to find girls named Brooklyn in Brooklyn, fuhgedaboudit. Go to Utah.  But Hudson may be different.

“Frances Ha” and Those Narcissistic Millennials

May 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Frances Ha,” the new movie by Noah Baumbach is basically “Girls” in black and white.  Twenty-seven year olds in Brooklyn. They move from one relationship to the next searching for a good one and never quite finding it.  The same goes for jobs and especially for apartments.* Fluidity rules. For the girls at least, only their friendships have something suggesting permanence, importance, and intensity.

Most of the reviews of the film were favorable, but at the New York Film Critics Circle, Armond White (here) would have none of it.
It offers an obnoxiously self-satisfied portrait of a young white New Yorker–played by Greta Gerwig–running out her parent’s stipend, roommating with other New York hipsters, sometimes skipping the pond to Paris, all the time pursuing her goal to be a professional dancer, even though she demonstrates no aptitude for it.
White tears into Baumbach’s “warped values,” values that White says also permeate Baumbach’s “detestable” movie “The Squid and the Whale.”  What really galls White are the concerns and desires of the characters in the film.
Maybe you have to be a Mumblehattan elite to love this kind of self-love.
I wouldn’t pay such attention to this obscure review except that it embodies a much more widely held view of “millennials” like the characters in this movie. They are narcissistic, they won’t work hard for the things they want but instead feel entitled to them. “They really do seem to want everything, and I can't decide if it’s an inability or an unwillingness to make trade-offs.”  “Their attitude is always ‘What are you going to give me,’” says a manager of human-resource programs.  (These quotations are from a WSJ distillation (here) of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace by Ron Alsop.

A Facebook friend of mine says much the same thing
 My work in HR teaches me daily that the younger generations entering the workforce are dripping with this undeserved sense of entitlement (not all, of course).        
A business researcher says,
Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents think Millennnials are lazy and uninterested in their jobs. What’s more, 55 percent of Millennials agree.
This moralistic hand-wringing about the younger generation – even when the hand-wringers are not so old themselves (my FB friend is 33) – reminds me of the song “Kids” from “Bye-bye Birdie,” a musical that opened more than a half-century ago.**

I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today! . . .
They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!

While we’re on the subject:
You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
But they still just do what they want to do!

The perception of millennials as “lazy” or “uninterested in their jobs” or doing only the things they want to do may not even be generally true of most of these twenty-somethings.  So the complaint probably tells us more about the complainers than about the objects of their contempt.  The complaint comes down to this: Frances Ha, Hannah Horvath, and their real-life counterparts are willing to forgo financial rewards in order to spend more of their time doing (or at least looking for) something personally meaningful. And for some reason, in the view of theses critics, that’s just wrong.  Those who castigate them seem to be saying, “For years, I spent forty or more hours a week at a job I disliked, making myself miserable so that I could make a lot of money. You should choose to make yourself miserable too.”


* You could even say that “Girls” and “Frances Ha” are really about the New York rental market.  In a 2007 post, I said that most American films are “about” Success in the same way that British films are “about” The Class System. Even if the characters do not discuss them explicitly, these ideas and structures (Success, Social Class) shape the actions and reactions of the characters in the way that grammar shapes their speech.The same goes for the NYC housing market.

** This post from years ago offers a more complete explanation of the moral nostalgia that this song is satirizing. 

Small-time Gamblers

May 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Someone on the Internet is wrong. I just can’t believe it’s Mark Kleiman
I made my usual argument that (in rough numbers) 80% of the users of almost any drug use it moderately, take no harm from it, and do no harm to others, but that the other 20%, who use more than is good for them, account for 80% of the consumption and an even larger fraction of damage to themselves and others. . .  Since the industry that sells the drug (or offers other potentially habit-forming services such as gambling) will always be financially dependent on dependent problem users, while the public interest is in serving the desires of non-dependent non-problem users while minimizing the number of dependent users.
Mark surely knows about drugs and alcohol.  And the distribution of other activities (serious crime, for example) may be even more skewed than 20-80.  But gambling – at least casino gambling, is different. It didn’t use to be, but it is now, and I’m not sure why it changed.

In the old days, casinos too relied on “whales” – the high rollers who gambled large amounts on table games like craps, roulette, and blackjack.  Casinos saw the slot machines as diversions for the whale wives or whoever – small-time customers dropping in their pennies, dimes, and quarters and pulling the handles. 

That was then.  Now, the larger part of casino revenue comes from not from the few but the many – the smaller-time folks playing the slot machines.  The whales still matter.  The average table brings in 15-20 times as much money as each slot machine, even when you factor in the table’s larger capacity.*  (Tables are communal; slots are a solitary vice.)

Perhaps as early as the mid-70s but certainly by the mid-80s, casinos began increasing the number of machines relative to the number of tables.

(The differences in absolute numbers are so great, I used a secondary Y-axis for the tables.  Take note of the axis scales.) 

The ratio of slots to table games increased from about 20:1 to more than 30:1.

Among casual or infrequent gamblers and in newer gambling venues like Pennsylvania, the slots account for an even larger share of the house take.  But even on the Las Vegas strip, the traditional feeding area of the whales, slot machines still account for nearly half (45%) of revenues. 

Why did casinos shift their bets from the few whales at the tables to the myriad krill at the slots?  Slots are not whale-friendly. They don’t handle large and varying bets. But aside from that, they have several advantages for the casinos. Slot machines
  • work a 24/7 shift
  • can’t cheat the house
  • can’t cheat bettors
  • don’t call in sick
  • don’t have drug and alcohol problems
  • don’t join unions
  • don’t require health benefits
  • don’t get arguments from bettors
The time-line suggests that the shift to machines had something to do with competition from other states. The first non-Nevada casino opened in New Jersey in 1978. Starting around 1990, other states started to get in on the action. Or maybe the success of these other casinos revealed a previously neglected or uncourted population – a population that the casinos could easily accommodate. 

To go back to Mark Kleiman, for whatever reasons, the gambling market does not share the inequalities of drug and alcohol markets, where the heavy users far outweigh the long tail of the distribution.  True, some of those small-time players at the slot machines may be problem users. And many of the high rollers at the tables may be problem free (as Book of Virtues whale William Bennet claims to be. But in the overall distribution of gambling revenues, things are more evenly shared between the whale and the tail.

* Data on Nevada come from a UNLV site (here)

Dismissing Durkheim . . . and Sociology

May 23, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again, the rejection of sociological thinking – not because it’s wrong or because it offers no effective policies, but just because it doesn’t make people feel better. 

A Newsweek article on suicide makes the obligatory hand-wave:
Sociologists in general believe that when society robs people of self-control, individual dignity, or a connection to something larger than themselves, suicide rates rise. They are all descendants of Emile Durkheim, who helped found the field in the late-19th century, choosing to study suicide so he could prove that “social facts” explain even this “most personal act.”
That’s 58 words in a 6600-word article, not so much a shout-out as a mumble-out.   I exaggerate.  The article does cite sociologists Julie Phillips and Sherry Turkle, and it tosses around statistics about suicide rates by age, sex, race, and birth cohort.  Still, the paragraph that starts with sociology and Durkheim ends with this curt dismissal of sociology because it cannot play to people’s feelings by predicting individual cases:
But when someone’s son dies by suicide and the family cries out for an answer, “social facts” don’t begin to assuage the pain or solve the mystery. When a government health official considers how he might slow down the suicide problem, “society” is a phantom he can’t fight without another kind of theory entirely.       
That other theory, needless to say, is focused on individuals, and the center of the article is a psychologist, Thomas Joiner, whose first job was to identify– and quarantine! – those who would otherwise kill themselves. 
He got to regularly look suicidal people in the eye, only this time he did so knowingly, as a therapist, and with a decision to make: which of these people were risks to themselves? Under Texas law he was allowed to lock people up if they were.
The article gives no data on whether Joiner was actually able to pick out the truly suicidal.  I would guess that he had a Texas-size false-positive problem. That problem comes with trying to predict and change individual behavior.  It is much more socially beneficial and accurate to think in terms of predicting and changing rates of behavior.

If someone’s son dies in a car crash, it might “assuage the pain or solve the mystery” to find out who was to blame – which driver was drunk or momentarily distracted or whatever.  It’s much less comforting to look at aggregate rates.  But when you do, you just might notice that crashes are frequent on this one stretch of road or that crashes are more likely to be fatal in cars without airbags or seatbelts.  Those “social facts” lead to structural policies that can reduce the overall numbers. 

In fact, the absolute number of highway deaths in the US in 2012, despite a 5% increase over 2011, was  lower than at any time since the early 1950s.  The rate per vehicle-mile has fallen by 80% since the 50s and 60s.  Most of that decrease – tens of thousands of saved lives each year – came not from identifying fatality-prone drivers but from changing the structure of roads and cars.  We don’t know which individual lives were saved.  We just know that there were a lot of them.

Not Your Grandfather’s Anti-Fluoridation Movement

May 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Fight Mental Health.”  The gag bumper sticker from decades ago was funny because of the double-take you did to realize what it literally meant. 

Yesterday, the citizens of Portland, Oregon voted No on fluoridation (a news story is here). I had thought that questions about fluoridation had been settled long ago, and that most Americans had made their peace with water that reduced tooth decay.  But the issue never really went away.

The “fight dental health” movement is no joke.  But the constituents and ideology have changed somewhat.  Here’s what it was like back in the day.
In Seattle, Washington, in 1951, for example, the anti-fluoridation committee drew support from Christian Scientists, a few dentists, health food operators, and fervent anti-Communists.*               

Those fervent anti-Communists seemed awfully worried about boundaries – the boundaries of the nation and the boundaries of the body.  McCarthy and his followers seemed less troubled about external threats – the military might of the USSR – than about internal ones.  Actors, directors, writers, schoolteachers and others – Americans all – had to be rooted out lest they insinuate an alien ideology into our unsuspecting brains.  

The anti-Communist imagery reminds me of Animorphs, a series of books once popular among grade-school kids (or at least among the one who lived in my house).  The series premise is that aliens from outer space have come to earth, but only the Animorphs -- our quintet of teenage heroes – knows about them.  The worm-like alien creatures, Yeerks, threaten to take over the country not by force but by stealth – taking over our minds.  A Yeerk slips into the porches of a victims ear, slides inside, and swift as quicksilver wraps itself  around the victim’s brain.  To others, the victim appears unchanged, an ordinary American citizen, but he is now under the control of the evil aliens.

As with Animorphs, so with fervent 1950s anti-Comnunists. Three months ago (here), I quoted Gen. Jack Ripper of “Dr. Strangelove”:
It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.
 Gen. Ripper and the Animorphs are fictional.  But they’re not far-fetched.
During the 1950s, Golda Franzen, a San Francisco housewife, became the leading exponent of the idea that fluoridation was a “Red conspiracy.” She predicted that fluoridation would produce “moronic, atheistic slaves” who would end up “praying to the Communists.” Franzen's warnings, echoed by such groups as the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan acquired particular salience during the anti-communist fevers of !he McCarthy era. For his part, C. Leon de Aryan, editor of an antiSemitic publication in San Diego, described the spread of fluoridation as a plot to “weaken the Aryan race” by “paralyzing the functions of the frontal lobes.”
 Maybe the Yeerks too wrapped themselves around the frontal lobes.

The mood of the anti-fluoridation forces today in Portland seems different, at least according to the WSJ account, more lighthearted (they have a film called “An Inconvenient Tooth”) and perhaps more concerned with filtration than with infiltration.  Rock musicians, not usually known for rigid boundary maintenance, participated. Local bands – the Dandy Warhols, the Guantanamo Baywatch – were part of the opposition.  On the other side, the Decemberists, who rock globally, were acting locally in favor of  fluoridation. 

The purity-of-essence argument still has exponents, but they do not look at all like the anti-Communist Jack Rippers of the 1950s.  Their quest is not for freedom from insidious foreign influence but for what is “natural.” (A major organic food vendor was on board.)  I would guess that they prefer acupuncture and herbal remedies and don’t want their children inoculated.  I would also guess that even with Portland’s water still uncontaminated by fluoride, they drink only bottled natural spring water.

But the dominant non-medical theme seems to have been “choice.”  The government should not force you to do things without your consent, even if those things are good for your health.

* From Donald R. McNeil (1985) “America's Longest War: The Fight over Fluoridation, 1950 —” (full text behind a paywall here.

Abortion and Infanticide

May 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

Does “the abortion culture” cause infanticide?  Does legalizing the aborting of a fetus in the womb create a cultural, moral climate where people feel free to kill newborn babies?

It’s not a new argument.  I recall a Peggy Noonan op-ed in the Times in 1998, “Abortion’s Children,”* arguing that kids who grew up in the abortion culture are “confused and morally dulled.”  Earlier this week, USA Today ran an op-ed by Mark Rienzi repeating this argument in connection with the Gosnell murder conviction. 

Rienzi argues that the problem is not one depraved doctor.  As the subhead says:
The killers are not who you think. They’re moms.

Worse, he warns, infanticide has skyrocketed.
While murder rates for almost every group in society have plummeted in recent decades, there's one group where murder rates have doubled, according to CDC and National Center for Health Statistics data — babies less than a year old.
Really? The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports has a different picture.

Many of these victims were not newborns, and Rienzi is talking about day-of-birth homicides – the type of killing Dr. Gosnell was convicted of – a substitute for abortion.  Most of these, as Rienzi says are committed not by doctors but by mothers.  I make the assumption that the method in most of these cases is smothering.  These smothering deaths show an even steeper decline since 1998.

Where did Rienzi get his data that rates had doubled?  By going back to 1950.

The data on infanticide fit with his idea that legalizing abortion increased rates of infanticide.  The rate rises after Roe v. Wade (1973) and continues upward till 2000.

But that hardly settles the issue. Yes, as Rienzi says, “The law can be a potent moral teacher.”  But many other factors could have been affecting the increase in infanticide, factors much closer to the actual killing of a child by its mother – the mother’s age, education, economic and family circumstances, blood lead levels, etc. 

If Roe changed the culture, then that change should be reflected not just in the very small number of infanticides but in attitudes in the general population. Unfortunately, the GSS did not ask about abortion till 1977, but since that year, attitudes on abortion have changed very little.  Nor does this measure of “abortion culture” have any relation to rates of infanticide.

If there is a relation between infanticide and general attitudes about abortion, then we would expect to see higher rates of infanticide in areas where attitudes on abortion are more tolerant. 

The South and Midwest are most strongly anti-abortion, the West Coast and Northeast the most liberal.  Do these cultural difference affect rates of infanticide?

The actual rates of infanticide** are precisely the opposite of what the cultural explanation would predict.  Regions that are more anti-abortion have higher rates of infanticide. Regions that are more accepting of abortion rights have lower rates of infanticide.  The abortion culture does not seem to work the way Rienzi and Noonan claim.

The data instead support a different explanation of infanticide, an explanation that looks at laws and policies and how these shape individual decisions. Some state laws make it harder for a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.  Under those conditions, more women will resort to infanticide.  By contrast, where abortion is safe, legal, and available, women will terminate unwanted pregnancies well before parturition. 

The absolutist pro-lifers will dismiss the data by insisting that there is really no difference between abortion and infanticide and  that infanticide is just a very late-term abortion. As Rienzi puts it,
As a society, we could agree that there really is little difference between killing a being inside and outside the womb.
In fact, very few Americans could agree with this proposition. Instead, they do distinguish between a cluster of a few fertilized cells and a newborn baby. I know of no polls that ask about infanticide, but I would guess that a large majority would say that it is wrong under all circumstances.  But only perhaps 20% of the population thinks that abortion is wrong under all circumstances.

Whether the acceptance of abortion in a society makes people “confused and morally dulled” depends on how you define and measure those concepts.  But the data do strongly suggest that whatever “the abortion culture” might be, it lowers the rate of infanticide rather than increasing it.

* I had trouble finding Noonan’s op-ed at the Times Website.  Fortunately, then-Rep. Talent (R-MO) entered it into the Congressional Record.

** The data are from the CDC.  In earlier version of this post, I used data based on the CDC’s more inclusive “external causes” codes which include accidents.   

Goffman in the Lunch Room

May 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

One of my favorite quotes from Goffman’s Asylums (on my syllabus this semester) appears early on in the section on The Staff World
This contradiction, between what the institution does and what its officials must say it does, forms the basic context of the staff’s daily activity.
The semester is over, but I was reminded of that passage when I read a New York Times online article about school lunches.  An 11-year old kid had surreptitiously taken videos of what was actually served and compared these with the official menus
there is a disconnect between the wholesome meals described on school menus and the soggy, deep-fried nuggets frequently dished up in the lunchrooms.
Apparently, the contradiction Goffman mentions goes all the way down the staff hierarchy, even to the people dishing out school lunches.
On a day advertising “cheesy lasagna rolls with tomato basil sauce, roasted spinach with garlic and herbs,” for instance, Zachary is handed a plastic-wrapped grilled cheese sandwich on an otherwise bare plastic foam tray.

Salads devised by the Food Network chefs Rachael Ray and Ellie Krieger are similarly plagued by missing ingredients. On the day Ms. Ray’s “Yum-O! Marinated Tomato Salad” is listed, Zachary is served a slice of pizza accompanied by a wisp of lettuce.

The filmmaker, Zachary Maxwell (that’s a nom-de-vid) has edited his clips into a 20-minute documentary: “Yuck.”

You can read the Times story and see an excerpt here

And the Prize Goes To . . .

May 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
When you hustle you keep score real simple. At the end of the game you count up your money. That’s how you find out who’s best. 
        “The Hustler,” screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen
I missed this Freakonomics post by Dave Berri back in February* – the one arguing that the Oscar award for best picture should follow the money.  Why would a presumably intelligent economist make such an argument?  I have a guess. Read on.

According to Berri, box office receipts reveal the opinion of a different but more important set of judges – “people who actually spend money to go to the movies.” 
According to that group, Marvel’s the Avengers was the “best” picture in 2012. With domestic revenues in excess of $600 million, this filmed earned nearly $200 million more than any other picture. And when we look at world-wide revenues, this film brought in more than $1.5 billion.
To rule out The Avengers is an insult to moviegoers around the world
Essentially the Oscars are an industry statement to their customers that says: “We don’t think our customers are smart enough to tell us which of our products are good. So we created a ceremony to correct our customers.”
The only reason the Oscars are of any use at all, says Berri, is that the they get people interested in the nominated films, and this interest “generates value.”  See, it’s still about the money.

OK, it’s a really stupid argument. (Some readers may have thought that Dave Berri was a typo and that the author was Dave Barry.)  The 50+ comments on the post were not kind.  Many of the comments criticised Berri’s economics, noting that many factors besides the quality of the movie can influence gross sales –  advertising budgets, production costs, barriers to entry, etc.

But I think everyone overlooked the real point of the post.  It’s not about movies.  Consider that it was posted on Freakonomics.  Consider also that the Freakomics blog, books, and movie have far more viewers than do most other economic works, even widely used economics textbooks.  The implication couldn’t be clearer: when it comes time to give out the prizes in economics – the Nobel and lesser awards – the judges should factor in book sales, blog hits, movie tickets, and TV appearances.. 

Levitt, Dubner, and contributors like, oh, maybe Dave Berri would be shoo-ins . . . if it weren’t for competitors like Suze Orman and Jim Cramer.  As for Ostrom, Sen, Diamond, Schelling, Kahneman, et al. – nice try you guys, but really?


*Andrew Gelman dusted it off recently on his blog (here).

Rich and Happy

May 11, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted (in edited form) at Sociological Images
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, yet it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.
    DeTocqueville, Democracy In America, Book II, Chapter 13 
Mo money, mo problems  
    Notorious B.I.G.
Forty years ago Richard Easterlin proposed the paradox that people in wealthier countries were no happier than those in less wealthy countries.  Subsequent research on money and happiness brought modifications and variations, notably that within a single country, while for the poor, more money meant fewer problems, for the wealthier people – those with enough or a bit more – enough is enough.  Increasing your income from $100,000 to $200,000 isn’t going to make you happier.  

It was nice to hear researchers singing the same lyrics we’ll soon be hearing in commencement speeches and that you hear in Sunday sermons and pop songs, both the earnest (“The best things in life are free”) or ironic (“Money, it's a gas / Grab that cash with both hands / And make a stash” sounds anything but joyful).  But this moral has a sour-grapes taste; it’s a comforting fable we nonwealthy tell ourselves all the while suspecting that it probably isn’t true.

A recent Brookings paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (here) confirms that suspicion.  Looking at comparisons among countries and within countries, they find that when it comes to happiness, you can never be too rich.

Stevenson and Wolfers also find no “satiation point,” some amount where happiness levels off despite increases in income.  They provide US data from a 2007 Gallup survey.

The data are pretty convincing.  Even as you go from rich to very rich, the proportion of “very satisfied” keeps increasing.* 

Did Biggie and Alexis get it wrong? 

Around the time that the Stevenson-Wolfers study was getting attention in the world beyond Brookings, I was having lunch with a friend who sometimes chats with higher ups at places like hedge funds and Goldman Sachs.  He hears wheeler dealers complaining about their bonuses. “I only got ten bucks.”  Stevenson and Wolfers would predict that this guy’s happiness would be off the charts given the extra $10 million.  But he does not sound like a happy master of the universe.** 

I haven’t read Robert Frank’s Richistan, but the New York Times review had this to say: “If  Richistan is travel journalism, then . . . do we want to go there? Not much. The people sound dreadful and not very happy, to boot.”

I think that the difference is more than just the clash of anecdotal and systematic evidence.  It’s about defining and measuring happiness.  The Stevenson-Wolfers paper uses measures of “life satisfaction.”  Some surveys ask people to place themselves on a ladder according to “how you feel about your life.”  Others ask
All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?
The GSS uses happy instead of satisfied, but the effect is the same.
Taken all together, how would you say things are these days - would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?
When people hear these questions, they may think about their lives in a broader context and compare themselves to a wider segment of humanity.  I imagine that Goldman trader griping about his “ten bucks.”  He was probably thinking of the guy down the hall who got twelve.  But when the survey researcher asks him where he is on that ladder, he may take a more global view and recognize that he has little cause for complaint.  Yet moment to moment during the day, he may look anything but happy.  There’s a difference between “affect” and life satisfaction. 

Measuring affect is much more difficult – one method requires that people log in several times a day to report how they’re feeling at that moment – but the correlation with income is weaker. 

In any case, it’s nice to know that the rich are benefiting from getting richer.  We can stop worrying about their being sad even in their wealthy pleasure and turn our attention elsewhere.  We got 99 problems, but the rich ain’t one.


* Sample size in the income stratosphere might be a problem.  As the authors footnote, “While 100 percent of those reporting annual incomes over $500,000 are in the top bucket of ‘very happy’, there are only 8 individuals in this category.” I suspect that bucket is a Cupertino and that they intended it to be bracket.  But bucket is a much more colorful metaphor.

** In Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), the yuppie bond traders appropriated the Mattel action figure title to refer to themselves.  And they were not being entirely facetious.  Wolfe does research for his fiction – he was a first a journalist, then a novelist – and I suspect that in this use of MOTU he was reporting, not inventing. 

More Certain About Uncertainty

May 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s nice to have your hunches confirmed by real data.

Two years ago, the Republicans were blaming the slow recovery on “uncertainty.”  The job creators (businesses), so their theory went, were not creating jobs because they were uncertain about regulations and taxes that might be in store.  I was skeptical. I’ve never been in business, but I suspected that the real problem in job creation was that business weren’t doing business.  It was the demand – or lack of demand – stupid.

One of my posts (this one) actually got some attention from economists. 

That post was based data from a survey of small businesses. It’s not the highest-quality evidence – business owners could be wrong about the causes of recession and even about what was affecting their businesses – but at least it was more than the single anecdote that law professor/columnist/novelist Stephen L. Carter based his views on.

Now, real evidence is available, allowing us to compare economic recovery in the different states, those laboratories of democracy and economic policy.  If the uncertaintists are right, states where businesses ranked regulation and taxes as their biggest problem should show the slowest recovery.  But in fact there was no correlation.   Owen Zidar at the New York Times Economix blog (here) summarizes the evidence from a few studies.*
Using state-level data from National Federation of Independent Businesses, however, [researchers] found almost no relationship between job growth and the share of small businesses that cite regulation and taxes as their top concern.  (Rather, they found a strong correlation between weak job growth and complaints of a lack of demand.)
So we are now more certain about the irrelevance of uncertainty.
Zidar also reports on other state-level research that adds to our certaint about  other aspects of the economic policy debate:
  • Fiscal stiumlus boosts employment.
  • Increased taxes on the wealthy have a “negligible to small impact on job creation.”
  • Cuts in government spending (e.g., sequestration) constitute a fiscal anti-stimulus and inhibit job creation

* Zidar posted his article two months ago. I found out about it today thanks to a link on Brad DeLong’s blog.

No Keynes Please, We’re Straight

May 4, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Hard money, a strong currency, Spartan-like austerity, concern that inflation will weaken the dollar.  It’s not just that the conservative analysis of the crisis has been wrong or that the conservative solutions have been disastrous (even the Austerians in Europe have had second thoughts). It’s not just that the last few years have provided much support for the Keynesian view and little for its opponents.  But until now, I never saw the connection between right-wing economics and right-wing reaction to social issues.

Then Niall Ferguson made it all clear. Never mind that the Keynesians were right and Ferguson and other conservatives wrong in predictions about inflation and interest rates.  Keynes was wrong, says Ferguson. Why? Because Keynes was gay.

According to a report in Financial Advisor,
Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated.
I think that homophobia as a term is often inaccurate.  Gay bashers don’t fear homosexuality so much just dislike it.  But Ferguson’s ad hominem (ad homo-hominem?) argument is changing my mind. Why else would he bring up poetry and ballet as at all relevant to economic theories?
Ferguson says U.S. laws and institutions have become degenerate.
It’s the classic language of a brittle machismo.

I don’t know if anyone has looked at the linguistics of economics, but I would expect that conservatives turn to this strength-vs-degeneracy language mostly for policies that bring suffering to others – the unemployed and others with little economic or political power.
Throughout his remarks, Ferguson referred to his “friends” in high places.
For policies like bank bailouts that benefit these friends – investors, traders, banksters – these same economists may choose a different set of metaphors.

UPDATE, 8:00 p.m.: Ferguson has posted a sincere “unqualified apology” (here).  Still, the thoughts he expressed and the words he used in the speech were his own.  Maybe he was drunk. He says his remarks were “of the cuff.” Whatever. It’s clear that he was not being thoughtful or careful about what he was saying. But that’s the Freudian point – and you don’t have to be much of a Freudian to see it.  It takes some effort to keep unconscious, unacceptable ideas and impulses in check.  When the conscious, the thoughtful and careful monitor, relaxes or is distracted, those untoward ideas come spilling out like an ugly oil slick. 

UPDATE 2: May 5, 8:30 a.m. Ferguson’s off-the-cuff comments came in response to a question about Keynes’s line that “in the long run, we’re all dead.”  Paul Krugman points out that Ferguson’s response, aside from its other sins, distorts the point Keynes was making when he used it.

Cute Little Shooters

May 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In any society, parents must transmit the culture to their children, and the sooner the better.  So elitist, arugula-eating, Prius-driving parents start their kids on Suzuki violins.

But this great diverse country of ours has room for other cultural traditions, so much so that some people talk about a “culture war.”  And some parents, to make sure their kids grow up on the right side of that war are arming their little ones with Suzuki rifles. 

Many of us effete urban liberals found out about these Crickett* rifles only because of the recent story in the news.
It happened in rural Kentucky.  The parents had given the boy the Crickett rifle as a present.

Andrew Gelman, in a post* tinged with irony, sees the incident as validation of Charles Murray’s assertions about “irresponsible elites.”  Murray takes the urban elite to task for practicing virtues like hard work, education, and family responsibility but refusing to preach these virtues to their White brethren lower down the social ladder.  Which is why the US is “Coming Apart.” (Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Crown, 2012)

In this case, Andrew says, it’s the conservative elite failing to preach sermons about guns and kids to their country cousins (and constituents)
 I assume the senators who voted against the recent gun control bill wouldn’t give live weapons to their kids (or live in neighborhoods in which kids have access to guns at home), but they don’t feel right about restricting the rights of others to do so.

I’m not so sure.  You don’t preach to people who are conforming to your ideas of what’s good.  And apparently, responsible grown-ups in Kentucky and elsewhere see nothing wrong with these mini-rifles.  I expect that the NRA leadership won’t coming out against kid-size guns for kindergarteners but will instead tout its own gun-safety programs.  (I hope they won’t come out with a statement that the only defense against a bad 5-year old with a gun is a good 5-year old with a gun.)

This view from the other side of the culture war is that there’s nothing wrong with guns, that guns are no more dangerous than cars** or swimming pools. You just have to be careful. Sure, sometimes children get killed, but they get killed in cars and backyard pools too.  Accidents happen.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if the some of the senators who voted against the gun bills had in fact given guns to their children or grandchildren.  If so, they probably take safety precautions.  But then again, so do the people in Kentucky. In the coming days we’ll probably hear that the parents are good parents. It’s just that the gun was left standing in the corner, somehow it had a live cartridge in it, and for some reason the mother left her kids alone for three minutes. 

*Andrew’s post has much better Crickett graphics – “The Crickett Club” (like the Mickey Mouse Club, I guess) and “My First Rifle.”   As I write, the Crickett Website is unavailable.  The news story gave them a sudden flood of publicity, and it’s possible the increased traffic crashed the site.  But they also weren’t answering their phone when the press called.  Maybe they became shy about their product.

**Of course we don’t allow 5-year olds, or even 15-year olds to drive.  And drivers must be licensed, and cars must be registered (funny that nobody sees vehicle registration as the first step in the government’s secret plan to seize all our cars). 

We Have a Winner. . . .

May 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

They came from all over, the students did – from biology and economics, from business and psychology, physics and earth science.  They unrolled their posters or polished their panel presentations – more than 300 graduate and undergraduate students at Montclair’s seventh annual student research symposium.

And when the dust had settled, and the judges had finished their rounds of the posters and oral presentations, four projects were deemed worthy of a prize. Two of these were by graduate students. One of the two undergraduate winners was a sociology major, Jessica McCabe.* 

Jessica’s project untangled several factors that might contribute differences in women’s health.  Her data came from an survey (n ≈9000) of women in India.
In recent years, the politicization of Islam has led many to make conclusions about the religion and the effect that it has on women. The health differences between Muslims and non-Muslims are often attributed to the restrictive nature of Islam. Therein lies the question, “does empowerment or context have the greater effect on Muslim and Hindu women's reproductive health and health-seeking behavior?”
She operationalized “empowerment” with a measure of private-sphere decisions (what to buy, etc.) and public sphere autonomy (going to the market or to see relatives).  At first glance, it looksas though the poorer health of Muslim women follows from their relative lack of power and autonomy.  But when Jessica controlled for the contextual effects from SES, location, age, etc, these differences washed out.  Here are the four points on her poster
1. Compared to Hindu women, Muslim women are more disadvantaged across several indicators of health and use of maternal health services.
2. For Muslim women, mobility in the public sphere does not influence health.
3. For Hindus in general, the effect of empowerment is washed away with the introduction of context variables. Location seems to have a greater effect on health.
4. Context (household socioeconomic status and locality) has a greater influence on health and use of services, although the exact pathways need to be explored further.
The other sociology poster was by Ian Callahan.  Using GSS data, Ian traced attitudes towards stigmatized groups – homosexuals, communists, anti-religionists, and militarists. Should they be allowed to teach in a university? 

Ian’s research found a strong generational effect –  less tolerant people tend to be from the pre-1950 cohort; they also tended to be less educated and more Southern.  Gender had no consistent effect. Women were more tolerant of gays and militarists, less tolerant of anti-religionists and communists. 

Here are our two poster children with their wonderful advisor Sangeeta Parashar.

*The other undergraduate award, for an oral presentation, was shared by eight co-authors -- too numerous to mention.