Free At Last – To Do What?

June 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I haven’t read most of the reactions to Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court decision that eviscerates the Voting Rights Act.  But I would guess that for pure offensiveness, adding insult to injury, it would be hard to top the WSJ op-ed by Abigail Thernstrom.

What Shelby was all about was the ability of Republican-controlled states to ensure Republican dominance by making it harder for poor and minority citizens, who lean to the Democratic party, to vote.*  In case that wasn’t clear, immediately following the decision, six states reintroduced voter restrictions that VRA pre-clearance had previously not allowed.  Texas moved ahead with redistricting designed to reduce the number of minority and Democratic districts. 

Democrats and especially Black politicians and commentators were dismayed by the Court’s decision. But Thernstrom assures them that the ruling “will benefit black America.”  Here’s how. In a state with sharp racial divisions, the only way a Black politician can get elected is to have a district where Blacks are in the majority.  If a state divides those Black voters up among two or three other districts, they will be minority in all districts and thus have no office holders. 

But such dilution of voting strength is a good thing, says Thernstrom
The black candidates who ran in such enclaves [i.e., Black-majority districts] never acquired the skills to venture into the world of competitive politics in majority-white settings . . . . In this sense, the law [that prevented that dilution] became a brake on minority political aspirations.”**
Like Chief Justice Roberts and Steven Colbert, Thernstrom doesn’t see race.  We are in the era of post-racial politics.  Poll taxes and literacy tests – that’s all history.  Even the impulses that gave rise to them have long since disappeared.  “Times have changed,” says Thernstrom, “and whites now vote for black candidates at every level of government.”  That’s right.  In Alabama, Obama did get the votes of some White people.  Unfortunately, neither of them would speak on the record.  (I exaggerate.  There were more than two.  In fact, a whopping 16% of Whites in Alabama voted for Obama, which is more than in Mississippi, 11%.) **

The message of Thernstrom’s piece is patronizing in the extreme.  Basically, she is saying, “Oh you ignorant Black people. You don’t know what’s good for you. The five Republicans on the Supreme Court (four White men plus the unfailingly loyal Justice Thomas) do know what’s good for you.  That’s why they’re giving the White Republicans in the South free rein to rewrite their voting laws.  You’ll be so much better off now. Trust me.”

As if that weren’t enough, she says that the decision to make the VRA nearly unenforceable “is a celebration of the Voting Rights Act.” 

And the crowning insult: 
With the courts decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the “covered” jurisdictions (mostly in the South) are free at last to exercise their constitutional prerogative to regulate their own elections.
That “free at last” bit surely was no accident.  Does anyone really wonder what the Republicans in Alabamac Georgia, etc. will do their with new-found freedom, or what effect that prerogative will have on minority representation?  And does anyone really wonder which side of Shelby would have had the support of Rev. King?

* They legislators never come right out and say this.  Well, hardly ever.  There was that GOP leader in Pennsylvania, who crowed about “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.”
**I wonder how Thernstrom and the SCOTUS majority would react if the colors were reversed – if Whites were a minority, and Blacks were making the voting laws.

*** I do not have data on Whites voting for Black candidates in state and local elections in Alabama and the other states designated by the VRA.  Thernstrom, needless to say, does not provide any data.

“Mad Men” – Speaking at the Wrong Time

June 26, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Mad Men” season closer on Sunday night sang reprises of its hit numbers –  liquor, cigarettes, adultery, politics (national and office), and even a bit of advertising.  Those plus that other “Mad Men” staple – language anachronisms.

The show is so careful about authenticity – every hat and hairdo, every dress and lipstick shade, suit and necktie, every piece of furniture (home and office), and of course the assumptions and ideas that were part of the culture of the 1960s.* It seems as though Matt Weiner, the show’s creator, has hired experts to fact check everything we see on the screen.  Why does this pursuit of historical accuracy not extend to language? 

On Sunday, one of the characters says that something “sounds like a plan.”  It may sound like a plan, but it does not at all sound like 1968. That phrase is very recent.  The script might as well have had a character pushing the envelope or throwing someone under the bus

Then, Don Draper changes his mind about moving to Los Angeles, after his wife has already arranged to continue her acting career there. Now Don tells her that he’ll stay in New York while she works in Hollywood.  “We’ll be bi-coastal,” he says.

Not in 1968, you won’t.  To check, I ran “bi-coastal” through Lexis-Nexis – all English language publications for the year 1968.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Lexis-Nexis doesn’t turn up bi-coastal until more than a decade after Draper uses it, when, in January 1980, the New York Times comments on the “new breed” of transcontinental commuters.  The Washington Post doesn’t have bi-coastal until mid-1982. 

I went to hear Matt Weiner speak two months ago.  In the Q & A, I was going to ask, “Do you deliberately put a couple of linguistic anachronisms in each episode just to drive old guys like me up the wall?”  But I didn’t.  It was right after the episode where Joan has a dinner reservation for Le Cirque six years before it existed, so Weiner already had enough troubles with time travel.  (Or as we say these days, he already “had enough on his plate.”  Funny, but one of the “Mad Men” characters used that same phrase back in the 1960s.**)

It turns out that Weiner does have a staff who check for historical authenticity.  It’s headed by Kathryn Allison Mann.  According to the LA Times,

Mann reviews each and every completed script to ensure that all language is period-appropriate. Any suspect words or phrases are checked against the Oxford English Dictionary, slang reference books and printed material from the era.
I wonder if anyone on Ms. Mann’s staff is old enough to have been an adult in the 1960s. 

* The characters are, of course, oblivious to the sexism and other attitudes that they take for granted but that practically leap off the screen to 21st century viewers.  See this earlier post.

** My first post about the language of “Mad Men” is here .


June 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

America is the global leader in broadband, with high speeds and great service. And it’s all because the government restrained “onerous” regulation and let companies like Verizon do what they want and charge what they want.  So says an op-ed in Friday’s Times.

It was written by the CEO of Verizon, Lowell McAdam.

I pay Mr. McAdam’s company about $115 each month for my land line, wi-fi, and cable (all FIOS).  Mr. McAdam compares the US favorably with Europe, “where innovation and investment in advanced networks have stagnated under an onerous regulatory regime.”  I asked a friend who lives in Paris what he pays for his FIOS phone, wi-fi, and cable.  The monthly bill:  39.90€ ($52) or half of what I pay Verizon.  Maybe there’s an upside to stagnant and onerous. 

There’s nothing wrong with getting what you can afford, and it occurred to me that US broadband is the best because we can afford more.  Onerous regulations or no, most other countries are not as rich as the US.  What if you looked at broadband and per capita GDP? 

The OECD did just that with data from June 2012, and here’s what they found.  (Their several spreadsheets on this are here.

(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

As of a year ago, France had greater broadband penetration despite a lower per capita GDP ($35,133 vs. $46,588)  – 25% more broadband on 33% less income, and at half the cost to consumers.  If you re-rank the OECD countries factoring in per capita GDP, the line-up changes.  Wealthy countries – notably the US and Luxembourg, drop well below the OECD average.

Of course, not all broadbands are equally broad.  Verizon sold me on fibre optical with their assurance that it was dazzlingly faster than their DSL that I had been clunking along on.* This graph breaks down broadband into its various incarnations.

The US is slightly above average on all broadband, but when it comes to a high fibre-optical diet (the dark blue part of the bars), we are ahead of several other countries that have greater total penetration.  On the other hand, the Scandinavian countries are ahead of us, as are, impressively, the Asian countries. 

This is not to deny US advances.  TechCrunch summarizes more recent data from Akamai on these changes:  
the U.S. is currently second in the price of broadband for entry-level users. The nation is also third in network-based competition, second in the fiber-optic installation rate, first in the adoption of next-generation LTE, ahead of Europe in broadband adoption, and doing quite well in Internet-based services.   
Still, the US lags behind other, less wealthy countries.  InnovationFiles, using Akamai data for different variables, has a less congratulatory view.
  • The U. S. has picked up one place in the “Average Peak Connection Speed” that’s the best measurement of network capacity, rising from 14th to 13th as the measured peak connection speed increased from 29.6 Mbps to 31.5 Mbps.
  • In terms of the “Average Connection Speed,” widely cited by analysts who don’t know what it means, the U. S. remains in 8th place world-wide. but we’re no longer tied for it as we were in the previous quarter; Sweden is right behind us on this one.
  • In terms of “High Speed Broadband Adoption”, the proportion of IP addresses with an Average Connection Speed greater than 10 Mbps, we remain in 7th place, but now we’re tied with  Sweden.    [emphasis added]
The title of CEO McAdam’s op-ed is “How the US Got Broadband Right.”  Given the content, I  guess “We’re Number 13” wouldn’t have been appropriate.  Even “We’re Number Seven (Tied With Socialist Sweden)” doesn’t quite have that affirmative zing.

* The most noticeable improvement was that our land line phone.  Previously it had been all but unusable because of static that Verizon could not figure out how to fix. Now it works.  

Pop Goes the Linguist

June 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the Pittsburgh of my youth, soft drinks were “pop” or sometimes “soda pop.”  In college, I found myself among New Yorkers, who ordered a “soda” and made fun of the native Bostonians who called it “tonic” (pronounced “tawnic”)

A few weeks ago, this linguistic map* was making the rounds of the Internet.  It confirms my own impression (though it omits the tonic). 

Today I went to the Yankees-Rays** game, where I saw this.

“Pop” in the Bronx?  I am at a loss to even guess how this word choice might have happened. The mad men with the Pepsi account are probably New Yorkers.  The audience, even if this was today’s national TV game, would be heavily from New York and Florida, both in soda territory. Frankly, I'm puzzled.


* The map is from a set created by Joshua Katz   from survey data gathered Bert Vaux. You can see all 22 maps here.

** The team was originally the Devil Rays.  I can find no confirmation for the idea that the cause of this casting out of devils was pressure from religious conservatives.  The owner, Stuart Sternberg, explained the new name “We are now the ‘Rays’ – a beacon that radiates throughout Tampa Bay and across the entire state of Florida.”  To my own ear, a team of Rays suggests not a beacon but instead a line-up might with stars like Bradbury, Kurzweil, Charles, and others.

Murky Research, Monkey Research

June 19, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marc Hauser left his professorship at Harvard after an investigation found that he had committed scientific misconduct. Basically, he made up the data for some of his published articles. 

It wasn’t the irony that got me – Hauser’s research focused on morality.  It was this brief passage in a Nation article* (here) about the scandal:
Marc Hauser has worked at the exciting interface of cognition, evolution and development . . . Hauser has worked primarily with rhesus monkeys,
That took me back to my first disillusioning dip into the murky waters of scientific research, waters I had imagined to be clear and pure.

As a teenager in the early sixties, I worked one summer in a psych lab where the principal investigators were doing experiments on rhesus monkeys. 

“Communication of Affect in ‘Cooperative Conditioning’ of Rhesus Monkeys.”  That was the title of the article that appeared not long after, though it was probably not till years later that I came across it and was appalled.  The abstract begins:
Rhesus monkeys in primate chairs were conditioned to bar press within 6 seconds of presentation of a light in order to avoid electric shock.

First of all, those “primate chairs.”  The chairs were plexiglass contraptions that isolated the monkey’s head from his arms, and his arms from his lower body.  Clearly, the chairs were uncomfortable, to say the least.

For the first stage of the experiment, you put a chaired monkey in front of a TV screen – black and white, maybe 9" diagonal.  His hand can reach a bar. When the green circle comes on the screen, he has six seconds to press the bar or he gets an electric shock. You train two monkeys.  It doesn’t take them too long to learn the drill.

Following acquisition of this avoidance response two animals were placed facing each other and the bar was removed from the chair of one monkey and the stimulus light from the chair of the other. In order for either monkey to avoid shock a communication was necessary since neither animal had access to all elements of the problem.

You put the monkeys in different rooms. One monkey sees the green circle, but he has no bar to press. The other monkey has the bar but his screen no longer shows the circle. Instead, what he can see on the screen is the other monkey.  Monkey #1 has to let Monkey #2 know when the light comes on, and Monkey #2 has to then press the bar. Otherwise they both get zapped. 

The results indicated that through nonverbal communication of affect an efficient mutual avoidance was performed.

As I recall, the article had photos of the monkeys and an analysis of the facial expressions of Monkey #1.  “Nonverbal communication of affect,”  said the journal articles. Bullshit. Or as they say on each episode of (appropriately enough) “Monk,” here’s what happened.

First, you need to know the layout of the lab.  Our domain was the narrow top floors of an otherwise  large building. 

There were a few linoleum floored rooms. One of the two large rooms was for the humans – psychologists and assistants – who hung out, drank coffee, and did the acrostics from a stash of old copies of the Saturday Review.  The other large room housed the monkey cages, about a dozen in all in two tiers – cages too low for the animal to stand up let alone run or swing or do what monkeys do. The other two or three rooms housed the subject monkeys in their primate chairs. It was our own little Gitmo. The age of animal rights lay far in the future.

When it was time to “run” the monkeys, we would check the TV hookup and other equipment, put Monkey #1 in one room, close the door, put Monkey #2 in another room, close the door. Then we humans would go to our room, close the door, and watch the monkeys on our TV monitors. 

When the light came on, Monkey #1, just as it says in the published articles, would change his facial expression. But he would also swing his head violently about. He knew he was about to get zapped with significant amperes. More to the point, he would scream. His shrieks would echo through the hall. We humans could hear him in our room, and no doubt, Monkey #2 could hear him in his room.  Nothing was soundproof. We could even hear the thump thump as Monkey #1 flailed his arms about between the two plexiglass layers of his chair. 

Often, Monkey #2 would press his bar. As the abstract eloquently says “efficient mutual avoidance was performed.” But what was Monkey #2 doing? Was he reading the “nonverbal affect” of facial expressions on a small black-and-white TV monitor and knowingly pressing the bar? Or was he just terrified by the screams, and in his terror flailing his arms about and incidentally hitting the bar? 

I don’t know how many papers the group published.  In any case, it was probably not scientific misconduct. It was not fraud. The authors did not make up the data. They reported the numbers of bar presses and trials, and they showed photographs of the monkey face on the TV monitor. They just didn’t bother to mention the soundtrack.**

One day early in that summer, when I got home, my older brother asked me about the project I was working on.  “Communication in monkeys,” I told him.

“What do they do – say ‘aba dabba dabba?’” 

That may have been closer to the truth than were those articles published in the psychology journals.


*HT Andrew Gelman, who recently blogged (here) about Chomsky’s defense of Hauser.

** This was not my only disillusioning experience in this lab. See this post from six years ago about my failure with flatworms. But don’t get me wrong – I mean, some of my best friends do psychology experiments on animals.

Useful Habits

June 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah and colleagues, published a quarter-century ago, remains a required reference in courses and discourses about American society and culture. I was reminded of its continuing usefulness today when a WaPo link took me to a review by Chrystia Freeland of The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite by Mark Mizruchi

About halfway through the 2600-word review, she writes:
When America’s postwar corporate elites were sexist, racist company men who prized conformity above originality and were intolerant of outsiders, they were also more willing to sacrifice their immediate gain for the greater good. The postwar America of declining income inequality and a corporate elite that put the community’s interest above its own was also a closed-minded, restrictive world that the left rebelled against—hence, the 1960s. It is unpleasant to consider the possibility that the personal liberation the left fought for also liberated corporate elites to become more selfish, ultimately to the detriment of us all—but that may be part of what happened.           
The authors of Habits outline four “traditions” which still, separately or in combination, provide the ideology for American’s private and public lives.  These traditions are, the authors say, rest on:
  • Biblical Religion (mostly Protestant)
  • Civic Republicanism
  • Expressive Individualism
  • Utilitarian Individualism
I don’t know whether Chrystia Freeland has read Habits of the Heart, but in the historical change she outlines in those three sentences fits perfectly into the Bellah model.  Elites once based their actions on Civic Republicanism, but Expressive Individualism lured them into Utilitarian Individualism.

Anecdotal Evidence – One More Time

June 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Anecdotal evidence seems more convincing, I tell my students in Week One, but if you want to find out general truths, you need systematic evidence.  The New York Times today provides my example for next semester.

The Times had run an op-ed  last week about only children. The author, Lauren Sandler, referred to results from “hundreds of studies” showing that only children are generally no different from those with siblings on variables like “leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment.” Nor were they more self-involved or lonelier.  And they score higher on measures of intelligence and achievement.   

Today, the Times printed a letter challenging these conclusions.  
 Another problem with these studies is that they put families in boxes: the only-child box, the divorced-parent box, the single-mother box — all of which I am in. They oversimplify family situations. I have seen the offspring of single divorced mothers grow up happy and successful, and I have seen children of two-parent families turn out disastrously.

Regarding the precocity of only children, my granddaughter at 2, like Ms. Sandler's daughter, could tell the difference between the crayon colors magenta and pink, and she is not an only child. So much for boxes.
Or as a student will usually ask, “But doesn’t it depend on the individual?”

Yes, I say.  But scientific generalizations do not apply 100% to everyone in that box.  Are men taller than women?  Are smokers less healthy than non-smokers?   Of course. Yes, there’s Maria Sharapova and the WNBA, and there are no doubt thousand of pack-a-day octogenarians.  Does that mean we should throw categories (i.e., boxes)  like Sex and Smoking in the trash?

As the letter writer says, categories simplify. They overlook differences. But categories are inevitable. Pineapple is a category. We know that not all pineapples are alike, and yet we talk about pineapples.  And men.  And smokers. And divorced mothers and only children.

I’m not surprised that my students – 18-year old freshmen or transfers from the community colleges – need this brief reminder. But the New York Times?

In any case, the concern over the problems of only children seems to be fading, though I'm not sure how to interpret that.  The Google n-grams graph of the phrase in books looks like this: 

The first decline in the phrase only children runs parallel to the baby boom (though it starts a few years earlier) and the burgeoning of multi-child families.  But the second decline comes in a period when multi-child families are decreasing.  Perhaps there is less concern because single-child families have become frequent rather than freakish. 

Pittsburgh - My Hometahn

June 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
from Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian eastbound, somewhere near Horseshoe Curve.

The cab driver, a Black man in his forties, had a perfect Pittsburgh accent.  On the short drive from the train station to our hotel near Pitt, he talked about the transformation of the “Sahth Side” – the once industrial area just south of the Monongehela. I cannot describe in writing the other linguistic tipoffs – I’m not a linguist, and even if I were, most readers could not decipher those phonetic cryptograms – but I knew I was home.

The man who hooked up the refrigerator in our room and who was as surprised as I was that we couldn’t get the Penguins game (the TV in the bar downstairs had it) – he too was African American and spoke Pittsburghese. 

I take it as a hopeful sign of more general integration – geographic, social, economic. It bothers me when I hear a stereotypically “Black” accent rather than the regional one, not because I don’t like the sound of it, but because it tells me that even after many generations, kids are still growing up in a segregated world.

I know that a handful of brief conversations, and even the several interracial couples we saw at the arts festival in Point Park (or the interracial couple here in the train’s café car) are hardly conclusive evidence.  Still, I was surprised to find that Pittsburgh is among the twenty most segregated metro areas in the country.  On a black-white “dissimilarity” index, the Pittsburgh area scores 63.6.  (A score above 60 is considered “high.”  Chicago, New York, Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit all have scores above 75.)

Eric Fisher has mapped the 2010 census data.  Here, for example, is the New York area.  (Red dots are Whites, blue Black, orange Hispanic, green Asian.  Maps of many other cities are on Fisher’s Flikr page.) 

(Click on a map for a larger view.)

The shadings – more dots indicating more people – show density as well.  The white rectangle of Central Park is bordered by the high-density White areas of the Upper East and Upper West Sides and the high-density Black area, Harlem, to the north.

This is what Pittsburgh looks like.  (For those not familiar with the local geography, the lazy-Y shape in white represents the three rivers.)

African Americans are now 8% of the population, largely clustered in two areas.  Some have moved to the towns just to the east, like Monroeville, where the cab driver hails from.  But the suburbs of the South Hills (where I grew up) and North Hills, are still predominantly white.

The overall density is much lower than that of New York. Like many US cities, Pittsburgh was transformed by the suburbanization that began in the 1950s – transformed from a city into a “metro area.” After 6 p.m., downtown (“dahntahn”) is a ghost town. The outward migration began not as  “White flight” – Whites being driven from the city by fear of Blacks – but as a response to the pull of the suburbs, with government programs for housing and highway sweetening the deal.

But for decades, African Americans were excluded from that process.  In the 1950s and 60s, in the suburb where I grew up, there were no known Negroes (it was said that there were a handful of families that were “passing”).  Nobody would sell or rent to Blacks.  Even after the civil rights laws, change was slow.  Stateways can nudge folkways along, but it takes persistent work. 

Graphing Grade Inflation

June 5, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have little talent in the visual arts.  But since I started doing this blog, and especially when Sociological Images started using some of my posts, I’ve become more sensitive to graphs. and the visual presentation of quantitative data.  In the old days, when I had trouble deciphering a graph, I blamed my own visual limitations.  Now, I think about how the graph might be improved. 

A couple of days on a campus listserv, someone posted this graph to illustrate grade inflation.

The first comment on this began, “If I understand the chart correctly . . .”  Exactly.  The chart is hard to understand. When you are trying to show changes over time, lines flowing from left to right imply that time sequence, so this graphs makes it seem as though F’s were changing to D’s and then to C’s, and so on.  When I wanted to know how the percentage of B’s had changed over the three time-points, I had to keep looking at the legend to see which color dot represented each year.

Was there a better way to graph the 30 data points?  This is what I came up with.

I thought it was better.  But the first comment on it said, “I like the earlier one and actually find it easier to make comparisons across institutions.” 

Tax Expenditures

June 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
We got another reminder last week that despite complaints about federal government programs that give money to the poor, when it comes to taxes, the government is much more generous to the wealthy.

The news came in a report  from the Congressional Budget Office:

The Distribution of Major Tax Expenditures
in the Individual Income Tax System

Tax expenditures are ways that the government uses the tax system to give money to people. Some expenditures are tax credits, which can take the form of cash payments.  Others are tax breaks – giving people a discount on their income tax.  For example, if I am in the 35% tax bracket, but the government charges me only 15% on the $100,000 I made playing the stock market, the government is giving me $20,000 it could otherwise have had me pay in taxes. That’s an expense. The special rate I get on the money I made in the market costs the government $20,000.

This government largesse benefits some people more than others. 

(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

About half of all tax expenditures go to the top quintile.  The bottom 80% of earners divide the other half.  And within that richest quintile, the top 1% receive 15% of all tax expenditures (this distribution of tax breaks roughly parallels the distribution of income). Were you really expecting Sherwood Forest? 

Here is a breakdown of the costs of these different tax expenditures.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits mostly the poor, costs less than $40B.  The tab for the low tax on investment income (capital gains and dividends) is more than twice that, and nearly all of that goes to the top quintile.  More than two-thirds goes to the richest 1%.

Dylan Matthews at the WaPo WonkBlog (here) regraphed these numbers to show the total amounts overall plus the amounts in each category for each income group.

The justification for these expenditures is that they are a way the government can encourage people to do something that it wants them to do.  With tax breaks, the government is basically paying people by not charging them full tax fare – encouraging them to buy a house or give to charity or  get health insurance at their work.  Similarly with the tax credits that go mostly to the poor. We want people to hold a job and to care for their kids.  The child tax credit gives people more money to care for their children.  The Earned Income Tax Credit pays them for working, even at jobs that pay very little.  By the same logic, the government is paying me to invest my money in companies – or put another way, to play the stock market.