What Never? No, Never.

January 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

A survey question is only as good as its choices. Sometimes an important choice has been left off the menu.

I was Gallup polled once, long ago. I’ve always felt that they didn’t get my real opinion.
“What’d they ask?” said my brother when I mentioned it to him.
“You know, they asked whether I approved of the way the President was doing his job.”  Nixon - this was in 1969.
“What’d you say?”
“I said I disapproved of his entire existential being.”

I was exaggerating my opinion, and I didn’t actually say that to the pollster.  But even if I had, my opinion would have been coded as “disapprove.” 

For many years the American National Election Study (ANES),  has asked
How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right – just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?
The trouble with these choices at that they exclude the truly disaffected. The worst you can say about the federal government is that it can be trusted “only some of the time.”  A few ornery souls say they don’t trust the federal at all. But because that view is a write-in candidate, it usually gets only one or two percent of the vote. 

This year the ANES included “Never” in the options read to respondents.  Putting “No-way, no-how” right there on the ballot makes a big difference. And as you’d expect, there were party differences:

Over half of Republicans say that the federal government can NEVER be trusted.

The graph appears in this Monkey Cage post by Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph. Of course, some of those “never” Republicans don’t really mean “never ever.”  If a Republican becomes president, they’ll become more trusting, and the “never-trust” Democrat tide will rise.  Here’s the Hetherington-Rudolph graph tracking changes in the percent of people who do trust Washington during different administrations.

This one seems to show three things:
  1. Trust took a dive in the 1960s and 70s and never really recovered.
  2. Republican trust is much more volatile, with greater fluctuations depending on which party is in the White House.
  3. Republicans really, really hate President Obama.

“A Pony Here Someplace”

January 29, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Great Recession has brought out all the pessimists with their hand-wringing complaints about economic hardship.  We need a few more optimists pointing out the silver linings.  Like this
When people can’t keep up the payments, their cars get repossessed.  But many people appear to be developing an appreciation for public transit and just plain walking.  The silver lining in this financial pain is a healthier life style.  Without cars, people produce less carbon emissions. That’s good for the health of their neighborhoods, their cities, and the planet. It’s also good for them as they will enjoy the many health benefits of walking. 

As Herman Schmidt of Moline, IL told the Moline Sentinel, “After they repo-ed my Explorer, it took me a while to get used to walking that two miles to the Wal-Mart [there’s no local bus route he could take], what with my bad knee and all, and in this weather lately I got a touch of frostbite, but I don’t buy as much ’cause I can’t carry it. Since 2009 when I got laid off, I’ve lost four pounds.”

No doubt some of these people, if their incomes rebound, will get another car. But some of them just might use part of that money to buy a treadmill.
OK, it’s just my snarky spoof.  The template for it is Bradley Wilcox’s various writings (here for example) about the wonderful effects the recession has supposedly had on marriage. Wilcox seems think that any marriage is better than divorce.  So if divorce rates fall in hard times, well, hey, that means that more people are staying married.  Wilcox says things like,
But there may be a silver lining in all this financial pain. . . .The divorce rate is actually falling.
the Great Recession is leading some spouses to develop a renewed appreciation for the social and economic solidarity engendered by marriage and family life
For evidence, he offers this:
But anecdotal evidence suggests that other couples have responded to the recession by rededicating themselves to their marriages. “I had one couple who started to file for divorce but put the proceedings on hold because the husband lost his job," Florida family attorney J.J. Dahl told the Orlando Sentinel. Eventually, the couple decided to remain married. "They said, 'We made it through this tough time, and we learned how to compromise, so we've decided to stick it out.'”
Wilcox’s rosy view extends to other virtues. Do people have less money to buy stuff?
The recession has encouraged Americans to rediscover the virtue of thrift.
Wilcox seems to assume that the foregone purchases were frivolities rather than things like clothes for children. 

When households had two people working, time constraints forced them to grab meals at restaurants.  But now
They are also eating at home more often.
Where others might be looking at the reality of families at or below the margin, the families in Wilcox’s vision seem to be something out of TV – sure, there’s been some economic setbacks, but we’re all gathered round the dinner table, pulling together happily to overcome it.

Philip Cohen at his Family Inequality blog has been taking issue with some of these claims, and he is far less less sanguine.
With marriages in a recession, more are miserable, yet the bar for divorcing is raised (or lowered) by the costs relative to income. So there are more miserable marriages not ending in divorce.
He is also more honest in his use of data and more modest in his claims about what the data can allow us to conclude:
It is very common, yet wholly unjustified, to always assume falling divorce rates are good. As I argued before: We simply do not know what is the best level of divorce to maximize the benefits of good marriage while mitigating the harms caused by bad marriage.

Dating a Stereotype (Getting to Know You – Not)

January 26, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The useful thing about cultural stereotypes is that to some degree, they’re often accurate – a convenient shorthand.

(Sorry about the lousy sound, but this was the best clip I could find, and it does have subtitles.)

The Woody Allen character learns her name, her thesis topic . . . and all the rest follows. Note also that Allison (my neighbor Carol Kane) doesn’t say that Woody is incorrect.  

What reminded me of “Annie Hall” (the Annie character too is a cultural stereotype) was this:

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

 The three axes are percentages: 
  • Width - seeking a one-night stand 
  • Depth - had same-gender sex
  • Height - say God is important to them)
The graph is a typology of women – women on OK Cupid, the dating site founded by four Harvard math majors.*  The graph appears in this Wired article about Chris McKinlay, a 35-year old guy who took nerditude to the n+1th  degree, creating bots to Hoover up data on responses to the hundreds of questions OK Cupidians can answer.** Eventually, he had six million answers from 20,000 women.  But how to analyze the big data?
A modified Bell Labs algorithm called K-Modes. First used in 1998 to analyze diseased soybean crops, it takes categorical data and clumps it like the colored wax swimming in a Lava Lamp. With some fine-tuning he could adjust the viscosity of the results, thinning it into a slick or coagulating it into a single, solid glob.

He played with the dial and found a natural resting point where the 20,000 women clumped into seven statistically distinct clusters based on their questions and answers.
The names of the clusters –Tattoo, Dog, etc. – are basically cultural stereotypes. 
In the younger cluster, the women invariably had two or more tattoos and lived on the east side of Los Angeles. In the other, a disproportionate number owned midsize dogs that they adored.
The article also has graphics on how the seven stereotypes differed from one another in four areas. (The “Green” tag is not political; Greens are merely recent arrivals at OK Cupid. They are also the most sexually adventurous. As the placement of the green ball on the graph shows, 50-60% would be comfortable with a one-night hook-up, and 40-50% have had same gender sex. Not surprisingly, they do not find God to be an important part of their lives.)

The stereotypes, based on clusters, were very useful for finding, well, clusters. McKinlay tailored his two OK Cupid profiles to maximize his chances of getting a response  so he would do better than the six OK Cupid dates he’d managed to get in the previous nine months. He did.  His scientifically customized profile was getting 400 hits a day.

Cultural stereotypes may get you into the right room (and save you a lot of time wandering into wrong rooms), but they’re no guarantee of compatibility with an actual person. McKinlay went on more than 50 first dates – a big improvement over six in nine months – but only a handful of these led to a second date, and none went further. 

Given this data, most of us would figure that it was time to start thinking about our interpersonal skills or perhaps our grooming and hygeine. Wired says merely that McKinlay “had to question his calculations.” 

But finally, something clicked, and the story seems to be heading towards a happy ending – a year-long relationship, some of it long-distance since the woman is on a one-year fellowship in Qatar.
on one of their daily Skype calls . . . McKinlay pulls out a diamond ring and holds it up to the webcam. She says yes.
* Previous posts on OK Cupid are here and here

** The technical details:
he set up 12 fake OkCupid accounts and wrote a Python script to manage them. The script would search his target demographic (heterosexual and bisexual women between the ages of 25 and 45), visit their pages, and scrape their profiles for every scrap of available information: ethnicity, height, smoker or nonsmoker, astrological sign—“all that crap,” he says.
The phrase “Python script” of course poses a tremendous challenge for me to avoid the obvious joke – surely one made so often that it has long been an ex-joke. 

Another Opening, Another Show

January 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

My first class of the semester is tomorrow.  I’ll begin, as usual, with Durkheim and suicide and rates of behavior as social facts.  Rates, I’ll remind the students, are made up of individual cases.  That’s basic skills math.  But those rates, unlike the individual cases, have a strange constancy. If 42,000 people in the US killed themselves last year, the number for this year will be close to 42,000.  Why?   It can’t be the same people.

I’ve been teaching this for years, yet I still find it eerie.

More important, I will tell the class, the ideas that explain individual cases don’t work so well in explaining the rate that those cases add up to. It’s very likely that people who commit suicide are less happy than those who don’t. But does happiness explain suicide rates?

International suicide rates are not hard to find.  Now, fortunately, we have international data on happiness – The World Happiness Report.

So I put together a simple scatterplot of European countries (I added the US since I thought the locals here might be curious to see where we stand.)

The overall correlation is about –0.24. More happiness, less suicide, but only slightly less. Sad and suicidal Hungary is the hero for the happiness hypothesis.  Remove Hungary and the correlation drops to –0.15. As for the rest, those northern, social-democratic countries (Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, in addition to the ones identified in the chart) may be the happiest, but their rates of suicide are not noticeably lower than those of less happy countries like Bulgaria.  (What’s up with Bulgaria anyway?)

OK. Now that we’ve put those individual-level ideas in their place, let’s spend the next couple of months doing sociology.

Correlation and Causation: Marriage, Poverty, and Teeth

January 15, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is dentistry destiny?

A couple of days ago, I commented (here) on the idea that marriage was the solution to poverty.  Or as the Heritage Foundation (and Sen. Rubio) put it,
Being raised in a married family reduced  child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.
The evidence for this assertion was a comparison of two-parent and single-parent families. Sure enough, a higher percent of single-parent families were poor. That was enough for PolitiFact to give Rubio a “Mostly True.” And now The Wall Street Journal has given Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer space to repeat this idea (“How to Fight Income Inequality: Get Married” - here).

Rubio, Heritage, Fleischer, and PolitiFact are committing a fallacy most undergraduates would see through in two seconds – mistaking correlation for causation. 

Here’s an analogy that comes via the Christian Science Monitor (here – it first appeared in October, but I discovered only yesterday):

“What is your social class? Take our quiz to find out!”

The quiz has thirty items, including this one

16. Have you visited a dentist in the past year?

A “Yes” answer counted towards the upper end of the social class scale. 
people with more than a high school education were twice as likely to have visited the dentist in the past year. Those living below the poverty line or without a high school education were also twice as likely to be edentulous, or toothless.
Or as Heritage-Rubio would put it, “Visiting the dentist once a year reduced a person’s probability of being poor by 50%.” 

Using the same conservative perspective, we can easily see the logic of the dentistry-poverty connection and its implication for policy.  People with bad teeth or no teeth wind up with bad jobs or no jobs. They are not attractive as potential employees. Because of their poor personal decisions regarding dental care, they suffer economically. If only they would visit the dentist annually, they would almost certainly rise from poverty. Needless to say, the government should not do anything directly to alleviate their poverty or dental care.  These are matters of personal virtue, and the government’s role should be only to exhort them to visit the dentist regularly.

That almost sounds reasonable. But the reverse causation is so much more likely. It’s not that having bad teeth causes poverty. It’s that taking yourself and your kids to the dentist regularly costs money – something poor people don’t have a lot of.

The dentistry-marriage analogy isn’t perfect, but it does illustrate the fallacy of assuming causation. It also points to something in the real world. The correlation between single parenthood and poverty is not automatic. It depends on government policies. In countries that provide low-cost childcare, medical care, and other benefits and services, single parents and their children will not suffer economically as they might under more punitive policies. Many countries have seen large increases in unwed parenthood – much greater than in the US – and their rates of single parenthood are greater.  (The graph is part of this CDC report.)

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

But how are children in these countries faring?  The comparison of poverty rates shows a negative correlation – the higher the rate of unwed parenthood, the lower the rate of child poverty.*

(Child poverty data are from this OECD report.)

The question is not whether marriage and regular dental check-ups and other matters of personal virtue enhance economic prospects for parents and their children.**  The question is what governments should do for children who made the mistake of choosing parents who were not financially well-off, educated, healthy, and virtuous. 

* The OECD measure of poverty is relative rather than absolute – the percentage of children in families with incomes less than 50% of the national median.  The measure could more accurately be termed a measure of inequality. However, in surveys in the US, when people are asked what they think the poverty line should be – i.e., what’s the minimum amount a family around here needs to just get by – the answer is usually a number that is about 50-55% of the median income.  So the OECD number does reflect widely-held ideas about poverty.

** The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative consisted of “federally-funded relationship skills training programs to promote marriage among unmarried parents.”   Philip Cohen at the Family Inequality blog outsourced the analysis of the Intiative to Kristi Williams, who writes (here) of these programs: “The conclusion: They have failed spectacularly.”

Location, Location, Location

January 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a much more important story than Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge. But it’s the Bridge that’s getting far more attention in the media. 

Anne Marie Cox has a good piece in the Guardian (here) about “how it came to be that Bridgegate continues to attract punditry while West Virginia only generates the kind of sympathetic-if-distant coverage we usually grant far-off and not too devastating natural disasters.”
In West Virginia, there are 300,000 people without useable water, and an unknown number who may fall ill because the warning to avoid the tainted supply came seven hours after the leak was discovered – and perhaps weeks after it happened. (Neighbors of the plant have told reporters they detected the chemical’s odor in December.)
Surely, that’s more important than four days of traffic jams, which, truth be told, are hardly a strange and new horror for New York and New Jersey drivers.

Cox has several explanations for the disproportionate weight given to the Christie story. Not only might Christie be president in a couple of years, but he’s known. He’s a political celebrity.* And for some reason, stories about the personal deeds and misdeeds of celebrities are newsworthy. Apparently we prefer a story about personalities rather than about policy (especially policy that involves science, especially environmental science). 

Cox lists other reasons, but the one I think is most telling is geography.**
It is taking place in the literal backyard of most national political reporters. It has very little to do with policy, or numbers, or science.
In the old days – with no satellite transmission, with no Internet –  stories from New York, Washington, and perhaps a few other places dominated the news because that’s where the news business was located. Stories from other places were more expensive to produce and transmit.  Film would have to be flown from the hinterlands to production studios in New York. 

Today, remote stories do not run up costs. And in many ways the chemical spill should make for better news – the visuals are potential more striking, the potential interviews with the plain folks who are affected, the corporate baddies (it doesn’t get much better than “Freedom Industries”), the political influence, etc.

But it’s not just the cost. The sophisticated, cosmopolitan people who bring us the news turn out to be just as provincial in their own way as are the rubes they tacitly disdain.  If the 4-methylcyclohexane-methanol had been polluting the Hudson or the Potomac, it would have been a national story.  As it is, the unstated message in the media coverage is, “Forget it; it’s only West Virginia.”

* Christie’s celebrity status is not an accident. One of the nuggets that the investigation has unearthed is that in choosing an ad campaign for the state to show its miraculous post-Sandy recovery, Christie chose a $4.7 million ad campaign over one that cost about half that much.  The pricier PR job Christie chose gave much greater prominence to Christie himself.

** Social scientists and media experts who know more than I do about how news is made must have written about this, but I have not come across any posts on these two stories.

Get a Spouse (sha-na-na-na. . . )

January 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

A bumper sticker I used to occasionally see said, “I fight poverty. I work.”

In this fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, we should remember the difference between individual solutions to individual problems and societal or governmental solutions to social problems.  Yes, you’re less likely to be poor if you have a job. But exhorting the unemployed to go out and get a job is unlikely to have much effect on overall rates of poverty. 

The same can be said of marriage. In a recent speech, Sen. Marco Rubio offered the conservative approach to poverty.  The Rubio bumper sticker would say, “I fight poverty. I have a spouse.”  Here’s what he said:
 the greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn't a government program. It's called marriage.
His evidence was drawn from a Heritage Foundation paper by Robert Rector.  Rector used Census data showing that poverty rates among single-parent families were much higher than among two-parent families – 37.1% vs. 6.8%.  “Being raised in a married family reduced child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.”

As Philip Cohen (here) pointed out, the same logic applies even more so to employment.
The median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.
Philip apparently thought that this analogy would make the fallacy of the Rubio-Rector claim obvious, for he didn’t bother to spell it out. The point is that singling out marriage or employment as a cause ignores all the reasons why people don’t have jobs or spouses. It also implies that a job is a job and a spouse is a spouse, and that there is no difference between those of the middle-class and those of the poor.  (Philip should have spelled out the obvious. These logical problems did not bother PolitiFact , which rated Rubio’s claim as “mostly true.”)

According to Rubio, Rector, and PolitiFact, if all poor women with children got married, the child-poverty rate in the US would decrease by 82%.  Or at the individual level, if a poor single woman got married, her children would be nearly certain (93.2% likely) to be un-poor.

To illustrate the society-wide impact of marriage on poverty, Rubio-Rector look at the increase in out-of-wedlock births.  Here is a graph from Rector’s article.

The rate rises from about 7% in 1959 to 40-41% today.  If Rubio is right, rates of child poverty should have risen steadily right along with this increase (almost invariably  referred to as “the alarming” increase) in out-of-wedlock births.  The graph below shows poverty rates for families with children under 18.

Both show a large decrease in poverty in the first decade or so of the War on Poverty – between 1959 and 1974, the rate for all families was cut in half.  Since then the rate has remained between 9% and 12%.  The line for unmarried mothers shows something else that Rubio and Rector ignore: the effects of forces that individuals have no power over, things like the overall economy.  In the good years of 1990s, the chance that a single mother would be below the poverty line fell from nearly half (47%) to one-third.  Her marital status did not change, but her chances of being in poverty did.  The number of families in poverty fell from 6.7 million to 5.1 million – despite the increase in population and despite the increase in percentage of children born out of wedlock. There were more single mothers, but fewer of them were in poverty.

Addendum, January 12:  The title of this post refers to the classic oldie “Get a Job” (Silhouettes, 1957). The final lines of that song could, with only some slight editing, apply to Sen. Rubio and his colleagues:

In the Senate and the House
I hear the right-wing mouths,
Preachin’ and a cryin’
Tell me that I’m lyin’
’Bout a spouse
That I never could find.
(Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na.)

Negative to Positive

January 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Orwell disliked the “not un-” formation because it tried to make the banal sound profound. It’s a not unjustifiable complaint, and when Orwell says that, I couldn’t fail to disagree with him less.

I, too, try to avoid the “not un-” construction.  I’m not worried about being nailed for trying to pass off my banality as profundity. I just want to avoid double negatives. That sentence in the above paragraph has four negatives - couldn’t, fail, disagree, less – and  I’m still not sure whether it means I agree with Orwell or disagree with him. The thicker the multiple negatives, the harder it is for the reader to grope through them to the meaning of the sentence.

Even the writer can stumble. I read a recent blog post on how FDA regulations make it difficult for food companies to label their foods “Not Genetically Modified.” It linked to a WaPo story with this example:
[The FDA] told the maker of Spectrum Canola Oil that it could not use a label that included a red circle with a line through it and the words “GMO,” saying the symbol suggested that there was something wrong with genetically engineered food.
Here is what the comment* said:
it would be nice to buy products that were labeled GMO-free. I can’t buy them – not because there’s no demand for them, not because no manufacturers are unwilling to sell me products so labeled, but because the GMO industry has managed to change the rules to make that transaction impossible.
“Not because no manufacturers are unwilling to sell . . . ”  takes us into triple-negative territory. Even the person who wrote it must have been confused.  A half-hour later, the writer corrected the second part: “not because no manufacturers are WILLING. . . .” 

As an exercise in the power of positive thinking, I tried converting the negatives into affirmatives.
I can’t buy them, but why not?  The demand is there. The manufacturers are willing to sell me products so labeled. But the GMO  industry has managed to change the rules to make that transaction impossible.
It may sound less profound, but I think it’s clearer.

* I use this example only because it happened to be close at hand.  It’s a casual comment, probably written in haste and not proofread. But I’ve run across the same kind of writing in more formal venues. 

(An earlier post on a more common version of this – “cannot be underestimated” – is here .)

I Keek a Touchdown

January 4, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two observations on the NFL playoffs this weekend.

1.  Longer, Better.  Field goals are important. The line on the Saints-Eagles game today and on the 49ers-Packers game tomorrow is three points – a field goal. That was the margin in 15% of all NFL games this season. (I think that the usual percentage is closer to 10%, but it’s still the most frequent margin.)

The Saints just cut Garret Hartley, the place kicker they’ve had all season. He hit only 73% of his attempts, the second worst percentage in the NFL. Twenty years ago, that percentage would have put him ahead of one-third of all kickers.  In 1965, with 73% he would have been at the top. The best field goal percentage that year was 67%.

Gin and Tacos  has a nice discussion on how and why kicking has increased in distance and accuracy. And don’t miss the link to his companion piece on the first wave of European kickers in the NFL. (I had always thought that “I keek a touchdown! I keek a touchdown!” was an apocryphal comedy bit that started with Alex Karras and wound up on Johnny Carson.  But apparently Garo Yepremian actually said it.)

2. The Wisdom of Crowds.  Occasional posts here dating back to 2006 have looked at the match-up between The Wisdom of Crowds and The Smart Money.  Today offers another example.  The Chiefs started as a 2½-point underdog to the Colts. The crowd has been all over the Chiefs, and as we approach game time, the books have made KC the favorite by two or even three points.  The smart money was betting the Colts earlier in the week despite having to lay a point or two.

UPDATE, January 5: The Colts pulled off an incredible comeback to win 45-44. The crowd (i.e., Chiefs backers), who mostly bet on Sunday or late in the week and gave up points, lost. But the smart guys, who bet earlier in the week and gave up 1½-2½ points also lost. Looks like this was a very good game for the bookies.