Don Draper and The Pursuit of Loneliness

May 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston
Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.       (Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1)
The ending of Mad Men was brilliant. It was like a good mystery novel: once you know the solution – Don Draper creating one of the greatest ads in Madison Avenue history – you see that the clues were there all along.  You just didn’t realize what was important and what wasn’t. Neither did the characters. This was a game played between Matt Weiner and the audience.

The ending, like the entire series, was also a sociological commentary on American culture. Or rather, it was an illustration of such a commentary. The particular sociological commentary I have in mind is Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970, the same year that this episode takes place. It’s almost as if Slater had Don Draper in mind when he wrote the book, or as if Matt Weiner had the book in mind when he wrote this episode.

In the first chapter, “I Only Work Here,” Slater outlines

three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture
(1) the desire for community – the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one.
(2) the desire for engagement – the wish to come to grips directly with one’s social and physical environment.
(3) the desire for dependence – the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.
The fundamental principle that gives rise to these frustrations is, of course, individualism.

Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in America is to “free” us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people. Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this, the more we have felt disconnected, bored, lonely, unprotected, unnecessary, and unsafe.

Most of those adjectives could apply to Don Draper at this point. In earlier episodes, we have seen Don, without explanation, walk out of an important meeting at work and, like other American heroes, light out for the territory, albeit in a new Cadillac. He is estranged from his family. He is searching for something – at first a woman, who turns out to be unattainable, and then for . . . he doesn’t really know what. He winds up at Esalen, where revelation comes from an unlikely source, a nebbishy man named Leonard. In a group session, Leonard says:

I've never been interesting to anybody. I, um –  I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down. . . .
I had a dream. I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.

People are silent, but Don gets up, slowly moves towards Leonard and tearfully, silently, embraces him.

On the surface, the two men could not be more different. Don is interesting. And successful. People  notice him. But he shares Leonard’s sense that his pursuit – of a new identity, of career success, of unattainable women - has left him feeling inauthentic, disconnected, and alone. “I’ve messed everything up,” he tells his sometime co-worker Peggy in a phone conversation. “I’m not the man you think I am.”

The next time we see him, he is watching from a distance as people do tai-chi on a hilltop.

And then he himself is sitting on a hilltop, chanting “om” in unison with a group of people. At last he is sharing something with others rather than searching for ego gratifications.

And then the punch line. We cut to the Coke hilltop ad with its steadily expanding group of happy people singing in perfect harmony.

A simple product brings universal community (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”). It also brings authenticity. “It’s the real thing.”

Esalen and Coca-Cola. Both are offering solutions to the frustrated needs Slater identifies. But both solutions suffer from the same flaw – they are personal rather than social. A few days of spiritual healing and hot springs bring no more social change than does a bottle of sugar water.

It’s not that real change is impossible, Slater says, and in the final chapter of the book, he hopes that the strands in the fabric of American culture can be rewoven.  But optimism is difficult.

So many healthy new growths in our society are at some point blocked by the overwhelming force and rigidity of economic inequality. . . . There’s a . . . ceiling of concentrated economic power that holds us back, frustrates change, locks in flexibility.

The Mad Men finale makes the same point, though with greater irony (the episode title is “Person to Person”). When we see the Coke mountaintop ad, we realize that Don Draper has bundled up his Esalen epiphany, brought it back to a huge ad agency in New York, and turned it into a commercial for one of the largest corporations in the world.

Privilege (Twice!), Class, and Collectivism

May 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Privilege* is the title of Shamus Khan’s 2011 study of St. Paul’s, an elite New England prep school where he had been a student. The difference between the new elite and the old is the difference between “entitlement” and “privilege.”

Whereas elites of the past were entitled – building their worlds around the “right” breeding, connection, and culture – new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them. The old entitled elites constituted a class that worked to construct moats and walls around the resources that advantaged them. The new elite think of themselves as far more individualized, supposing that their position is a product of what they have done.

Privilege** is also the title of Ross Douthat’s 2005 memoir of Harvard, an elite New England university where he had been a student. He sees the same evolution from the old entitlement (the “right to rule”) to the new privilege.

Ruling classes have always believed in their own right to rule, but it once was understood ... that their place in the social order was arbitrary, an accident of birth and breeding, rather than a matter of cosmic justice. Ideals of noblesse oblige grew from just this sense: the knowledge that God (or blind chance) had given the elite much that was not necessarily deserved.

The modern elite’s rule is regarded not as arbitrary but as just and right and true, at least if one follows the logic of meritocracy to its unspoken conclusion. For today’s Harvard students ... there is nothing accidental or random about their position in society. They belong exactly where they are – the standardized tests and the college admissions officers have spoken, and their word is final.

At Harvard, and at similar schools around the country, a privileged class of talented students sits atop the world, flush with pride in their own accomplishments, secure in the knowledge that they rule because they deserve to rule, because they are the best

For both authors, the new elite see themselves and the world through the lens of individualism. The old elite saw themselves as a class. For Khan, the crucial function of that class was to protect its economic and political advantages (“walls around the resources that advantaged them”). Douthat, though he uses the old Marxist term “ruling class,” emphasizes their sense of humility and social obligation (“ideals of noblesse oblige”).

The irony is that Douthat, the conservative, dislikes a system based on individual merit; he seems to prefer the more collectivist elites of the past.  (That picture of the past is necessarily romanticized and heavily edited).  This is quite a contrast with an older conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., one of Douthat’s heroes and early benefactors. Buckley’s first book was about Yale. Like Douthat’s book about Harvard, it could have been called That Really Famous College I Just Graduated From – Here’s Why It Sucks. For Buckley, the big problem was godless atheism. The actual title was God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.”  

I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.

That was then – 1951.  Three generations later, at Harvard (and presumably Yale) individualism is the only view left standing. That ascendance didn’t go the way Buckley would have wanted it. These campuses are largely liberal and godless, politically correct and feminist. But the young elites there see themselves as individuals, not as members of some class or collectivity.  To quote once more from Shamus Khan:

[The elite] have gone from seeing themselves as a coherent group, a class with particular histories and tastes, to a collection of the most talented and hardest working of our nation. They look more diverse, by which I mean that they now include members formerly excluded. They have rejected moat and fence building around particular resources and qualities that might identify then as a class and have accepted the fundamentally American story of “work hard, get ahead.” They think in terms of their individual traits, capacities, skills, talents, and qualities.    

* The full title is Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.

** The full title is Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

No, No, a Thousand Times No

May 21, 2015 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Financial Times wants me to tweet this quote from Martin Wolf, “widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics” (Wikipedia).

I admit, there is tweet temptation. But not for the reason the FT thinks.  No, what strikes me in this quote is the multiple negatives. They leave me utterly confused as to what the passage means. Here’s a simplified version.

It is impossible to believe that the government cannot find investments . . . that do not earn more than the real cost of funds. If that were not true, the UK would be finished.

The first sentence has three negatives. The next sentence not only has another negative, but it throws in a mysterious pronoun – that. If you can figure out what that is referring to, you’re a better reader than I am.

I have posted before (here most recently) about the confusion of negatives that carom about, reversing and re-reversing the direction of the sentence. Yet here we have one of the word’s most influential writers tossing one negative on top of another, and another. Personally, I find it impossible not to believe that writers can’t learn not to avoid simplifying their prose by using positive constructions.

Don Draper Meets the Chicago School

May 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the next-to-last episode of “Mad Men,” Don Draper has walked out of an important meeting at work and driven to Wisconsin searching for a waitress he had a brief affair with. Not finding her, he now continues to Kansas and Oklahoma. He is on the road.  The reference point though is not Kerouac but a much earlier book. The title of the episode is “The Milk and Honey Route.”

Nels Anderson was a “Chicago school” sociologist, a student of Park and Burgess in the 1920s. That school produced what we would now call urban ethnographies – Harvey Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side (1929) or Paul Cressey’s The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life (1932).  Perhaps the first of these ethnographies was Anderson’s The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923).

In 1931,Anderson also published a more popular treatment of the same material. He used a pen name, Dean Stiff. The book was The Milk and Honey Route.

(Older readers: if the cover art looks vaguely familiar, that’s because the illustrator,
Ernie Bushmiller, was the creator of the comic strip “Nancy,” which began in 1938.)

The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.

Substitute “Don Draper” for “hobo” in that paragraph, and you get something you might have read this week in one of the many appreciations of “Mad Men.”

Do Liberals Fail the Churches?

May 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat calls out liberals who think, and declare, that churches today are more focused on “culture war” issues like abortion and homosexuality than on poverty.       

Ridiculous, says Douthat.  Religious organizations spend only “a few hundred million dollars” on pro-life causes and “traditional marriage” but tens of billions on charities, schools, and hospitals.  (His column “Do Churches Fail the Poor?” is here.)

Those numbers shouldn’t be surprising, especially since much of religion’s spending goes to the developing world while the culture war is being fought almost entirely within the US. Unfortunately, Douthat and his sources lump all spending together rather than separating domestic US budgets from those going to the developing world.  But even in the US and other wealthy countries, abortion and gay marriage are largely legislative and legal matters. Building schools and hospitals and then keeping them running – that takes real money.

Why then do liberals get this impression about the priorities of religious organizations? Douthat blames the media. He doesn’t do a full O’Reilly and accuse the media (liberal, it goes without saying) and others of ganging up in a war on religion, but that’s the subtext.*

Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months without having those issues intrude.

Actually, the media do not report on the sermons and homilies of local clergy at all, whether they are urging their flocks to live good lives, become wealthy, help the needy, or oppose gay marriage. Nor is there a data base of these Sunday texts, so we don’t know precisely how much American chuchgoers are hearing about any of these topics. Only a handful of clergy get media coverage, and that coverage focuses on their pronouncements about controversial issues.  As Douthat says, liberals are probably reacting to “religious leaders who make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts.” 

Of his own Catholic church, Douthat adds, “You can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents (true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result.” Maybe he has done this reading, and maybe he does think that his Church does not let “those issues intrude.” Or as he puts it, “The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.”

But here, thanks to the centralized and hierarchical structure of the Church, we can get data that might reveal what the Church is worried about. As Douthat implies, the previous pope (Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Ratzinger), was more concerned about culture-war issues than is the current pope. 

How concerned? I went to Lexis-Nexis. I figured that papal pronouncements on these issues would be issued in masses, in official statements, and in addresses.  For each of those three terms, I searched for “Pope Benedict” with four “culture-war” terms (Abortion, Homosexuality, Condom, and Birth control) and Poverty.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Abortion was the big winner.  Poverty was referred to in more articles than were the other individual culture-war terms.  But if those terms are combined into a single bar, its clear that poverty as a papal concern is dwarfed by the attention to these other issues. The graph below shows the data for “mass.”

This is not the best data. It might reflect the concerns of the press more than those of the Church. Also, some of those Lexis-Nexis articles are not direct hits. They might reference an “address” or “statement” by someone else. But there’s no reason to think that these off-target citations are skewed towards Abortion and away from Poverty.
.So it’s completely understandable that liberals, and perhaps non-liberals as well, have the impression that Big Religion has a big concern with matters of sex and reproduction.

* Perhaps not subtext. Douthat decries the sins of  “the Obama White House, with its . . . attempts to strong-arm religious nonprofits.”

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, But None There Vote in a Senate Race

May 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Black people in the US vote overwhelmingly Democratic. They also have, compared to Whites, much higher rates of infant mortality and lower life expectancy. Since dead people have lower rates of voting, that higher mortality rate might affect who gets elected. What would happen if Blacks and Whites had equal rates of staying alive?

The above figure is from the recent paper, “Black lives matter: Differential mortality and the racial composition of the U.S. electorate, 1970-2004,” by Javier Rodriguez, Arline Geronimus, John Bound and Danny Dorling  (here behind a paywall).  Dean Robinson at the The Monkey Cage summarizes the key finding.

between 1970 and 2004, Democrats would have won seven Senate elections and 11 gubernatorial elections were it not for excess mortality among blacks.

At Scatterplot, Dan Hirschman and others have raised some questions about the assumptions in the model. But more important than the methodological difficulties are the political and moral implications of this finding. The Monkey Cage account puts it this way

given the differences between blacks and whites in their political agendas and policy views, excess black death rates weaken overall support for policies — such as antipoverty programs, public education and job training — that affect the social status (and, therefore, health status) of blacks and many non-blacks, too.

In other words, Black people being longer-lived and less poor would be antithetical to the policy preferences of Republicans. The unspoken suggestion is that Republicans know this and will oppose programs that increase Black health and decrease Black poverty in part for the same reasons that they have favored incarceration and permanent disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies.

That’s a bit extreme.  More stringent requirements for registration and felon disenfranchisement are, like the poll taxes of an earlier era, directly aimed at making it harder for poor and Black people to vote.*  But Republican opposition to policies that would  increase the health and well-being of Black people is probably not motivated by a desire for high rates of Black mortality and thus fewer Black voters. After all, Republicans also generally oppose abortion. But, purely in electoral terms, reducing mortality, like reducing incarceration, would not be good for Republicans.

* Republicans never —well, hardly ever — say that these measures are intended to suppress Democratic votes. Instead they talk about voter fraud or justice. I would guess that most people, maybe even most Republicans, recognize these justifications for the fictions they are.

Still Giving It Away

May 14, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Back in 2001, Joel Best published an essay called “Giving It Away” (American Sociologist, .pdf here).  Written in the key of Rodney Dangerfield, the essay bemoans sociology’s “modest standing in the academy.”  Worse, we let the ideas and practitioners that might bring us more respect slip off to other disciplines with barely a word of protest. The study of organizations became “management” and went to business schools. Public opinion and survey research blossomed elsewhere as marketing and polling. “Every time sociologists develop something that looks like it could turn a buck, we get rid of it.”

What brought the essay to mind was economist Noah Smith’s recent blog post  aboutFreakonomics, one of the most successful social science books ever. It’s become a franchise with radio shows, podcasts, sequels, and probably t-shirts.  But as Smith says, “there's very little actual economics in it!”

The quantitative empirical work is mostly reduced-form regressions with natural experiments. That's a fine and good research technique, but it's not really special to econ - it doesn't include anything about market design, structural estimation of supply and demand, game theory, search, prices, general equilibrium...nada!   

Here’s the kicker.

So this book has sociology, history, stats, and some general empirical techniques that could be used by any social scientist. . . .  An empirical sociologist could easily taken Levitt's place as the technical co-author of the book, alongside journalist Dubner.

But it was an economist Dubner got, and Freakonomics was billed as a pop econ book, not a pop sociology book. Why? It seems to me that it's because economists are respected as all-purpose sages. Like I said in my previous post, economists get taken seriously on any topic imaginable. [emphasis added]

I tell ya, we don’t get no respect.

Is Sensitivity a Plague?

May 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I begin my Foundations of Sociological Inquiry course with Durkheim, specifically the stability of suicide rates.* Last year, after that first class, one of the students asked to speak with me for a minute. He was, a burly-looking man of about 30, with heavily tattooed arms and legs (warm September, shorts).  He said he’d recently gotten out of the military. He knew guys who had committed suicide, including a good friend who had killed himself only a few months earlier. “So some of this stuff can be kind of rough for me.”

I assured him that we were going to be talking about suicide rates, not cases, but that I would keep in mind what he’d just told me.  And I did.

“Are we living through a plague of hypersensitivity?” asks Todd Gitlin in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (here, behind a paywall). He’s referring to demands by some students that assigned material that might upset them be prefaced by “trigger warnings.” That plus speech codes and talk of “microaggressions.”

 “Is fragility the new normal?” Gitlin asks.

He doesn’t really answer the question as to whether the plague is real.  He seems to assume that the answer is yes and offers some data that might explain “Why should so many skins be so thin nowadays?”

The data Gitlin digs up shows that students today report more stress, anxiety, depression, and less “self-rated emotional health” than did their counterparts of decades past. They see therapists more often and take more meds. They also work more at non-academic jobs.

But Gitlin never explains why these factors would lead to more demands for trigger warnings, perhaps because there’s no good evidence of that cause-effect connection. Instead, he moves to “the realm of higher, perhaps airier speculation.” I’m all for speculation, but what puzzles me is that although Gitlin is a sociologist, his speculations omit three important sociological dimensions: class, gender, and power.

I get the impression that the principle movers and speakers for what Gitlin calls fragility are women at elite schools. I repeat, that’s my impression, not data, and it might be just me, or it might be where the media like to focus their attention.  But that’s sort of the point. I teach at a university, but it is not an elite school, and I know of these sensitivity issues only via the media. Even my ex-soldier student was making a personal statement, not pushing a policy. I haven’t heard any calls for trigger warnings here. Neither have friends at similarly second- and third-tier schools. I would also guess that when there are such demands at non-elite schools – UC Santa Barbara has gotten some press – the students demanding more sensitivity come from privilege.

Those reacting against these student demands often want to frame the issue as one of toughness. “America’s College Kids Are a Bunch of Mollycoddled Babies” says the title of a post at Politico by Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who writes a lot about education. (Finn says some other pretty stupid things in the post – here if you’re interested.) Oberlin’s trigger warning policy elicited tweets about “sniveling little Victorian misses with vapours” and “the victimization style of feminism that has become so popular with young people” (cited in a worthwhile post at  XO Jane). In other words, man up and shut up.

What seems to bother these critics is that students are asserting themselves, trying to use what power they have to bring about changes they want – in this case, protection of the vulnerable. With this “students should be seen and not heard” attitude, it’s the Chester Finns who want students to be more like Victorian misses – docile and compliant.

Where did students get this idea that they can speak up for what they want and for what they think is right? 

I’m surprised that Gitlin didn’t mention Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, a study of child-rearing and social class, one of the most widely read sociology books in recent history. Most relevant here are class differences in the lessons parents give to kids about school – lessons taught by example rather than directly articulated. Lower-class and working-class children saw their parents passively accept what the teachers and administrators did. Parents might complain among themselves, but they didn’t challenge the school’s authority. Midde-class parents, by contrast, were “very assertive.”

There were numerous conflicts during the year over matters small and large. For example, parents complained to one another and to the teachers about the amount of homework the children were assigned. A black middle-class mother whose daughters had not tested into the school’s gifted program negotiated with officials to have the girls’ (higher) results from a private testing company accepted instead. The parents of a fourth-grade boy drew the school superintendent into a battle over religious lyrics in a song scheduled to be sung as part of the holiday program. The superintendent consulted the district lawyer and ultimately “counseled” the principal to be more sensitive, and the song was dropped.

Children assimilated the lesson.

Children, too, asserted themselves at school. Examples include requesting that the classroom’s blinds be lowered so the sun wasn’t in their eyes, badgering the teacher for permission to retake a math test for a higher grade, and demanding to know why no cupcake had been saved when an absence prevented attendance at a classroom party. In these encounters, children were not simply complying with adults’ requests or asking for a repeat of an earlier experience. They were displaying an emerging sense of entitlement by urging adults to permit a customized accommodation of institutional processes to suit their preferences.

 American Sociological Review, 2002, Vol. 67 (October:747–776) (here)

Yes, as a teacher, I would prefer that students shut up and not complain about anything I do or say. I would also prefer that people inside and outside the academy stop whining that we don’t have enough conservatives on our faculty or on our commencement programs.  They should all just shut up and stop complaining. But somehow, they’ve gotten the idea that they can try to change policy. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.


* I show the annual data on US suicides since 1990. “It’s not like TV ratings,” I say.  “We know that if eight million people watched ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ this week, next week’s audience will also be about eight million. They’re the ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ fans.”  Then I point to the numbers on the suicide chart.  “But the 32,000 people who killed themselves in 2005 cannot be the same 32,000 who killed themselves in 2004.”   I add, “There aren’t very many facts in social science that we’re 100% sure of, but that’s one of them.” Sometimes it gets a laugh, sometimes it doesn’t.

Imagining the Motives of Others

May 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s been much hand-wringing about commencement speakers now that the season has begun.  The critics complain that because student protests – or hints of protest – last year caused speakers to withdraw, the fashion trend in speakers this year is toward bland rather than brazen.  (See this InsideHigherEd article.)

These alarms over university pusillanimity offer us two lessons in sociology: one is the attribution of motives; the other, the nature of rituals.
The hand-wringers, mostly sitting over on the right of the field, seem to know what’s motivating the protesters: fear. 

The unwillingness on the part of some students to allow another voice in the discussion is indicative of people who fear their minds will be contaminated just by listening to another viewpoint. 
(Christine Ravold at American Council of Trustees and Alumni.)

I think it’s the extension of the echo chamber from our personal curated Twitter feed or Facebook friends. Now students like seeing just the views they agree with, and it extends past social media onto the commencement stage. . . . “If we treat ideas we don’t agree with as barred from campus, then really what’s left are only the most inoffensive, and by extension most uninteresting, folks.
(Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at FIRE. )

We should always be just a bit suspicious when commentators attribute a motive that the person in question does not acknowledge. In this case, nothing in what the protesters have done suggests that they are afraid. They just don’t want that person to be the voice of their graduation. The leaders of the protests, far from holding their hands over their ears and eyes, have probably scanned every word the speaker has written in their search for evidence of villainy.

Rarely do those attributing the motives bother to confront that evidence or the other arguments that the protesters make. When Condoleezza Rice withdrew as speaker at the Rutgers commencement last year, critics accused the protesters of being against free speech and of being afraid to hear ideas they didn’t like. Never mentioned was the protesters’ argument that Rice had been a leader in policies that were immoral, unjustified, unwise, and disastrous for the country.

Needless to say, when people agree with the protest, they make no such attributions.When President Obama was asked to deliver the commencement speech at Notre Dame in 2009, some students protested, and 65,000 people signed a petition urging that Notre Dame disinvite the president. The right-wing became silent about free speech, and nobody accused the protesters of being afraid of hearing Obama’s words.

Commencement protesters at Rutgers 2014 and Notre Dame 2009

Instead, they correctly saw commencement as a ritual. As Durkheim said more than a century ago, a ritual, whatever its stated purpose (honoring graduates or bringing rain ) has two slightly less obvious functions – enhancing group solidarity and reflecting the group’s shared ideals and values. The protesters are up in arms because their school is honoring someone who contradicts their values – values which should be those of the school as well.  The ritual should be strengthening the connection between the graduates and the school, but for a substantial number of students, perhaps a majority, the school is doing the opposite.

What matters is who the speaker is, not what she says. In most cases, the world little notes nor long remembers the content of the speech. Neither do the graduates. But they do remember who their commencement speaker was – what he stood for and, at least at my graduation, what the students stood in protest against.

For a longer version of commencement-as-ritual, see last year’s graduation post (here).

Luigi Zingales Occupies Wall Street

May 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Just one of those coincidences. Yesterday, the Times had a story about the enormous sums that hedge funders took home last year.

Last year, the hedge fund industry had returns of only 3 percent on average. . . But the top 25 managers still managed to earn $11.62 billion in compensation in 2014

Kenneth C. Griffin of Citadel. . . $1.3 billion. . .. James H. Simons of Renaissance Technologies was second with $1.2 billion, and Raymond Dalio of Bridgewater Associates was third with $1.1 billion. William A. Ackman of Pershing Square Capital was a close fourth, earning $950 million in 2014.

I know it sounds like a lot, but 2014 was an off year. That $11.62 billion was barely half what the top 25 hauled in the year before. I guess there’ll be some belt tightening.

The point though is that in an efficient market system like ours, people get what they are worth to the economy, don’t they?

“Does Finance Benefit Society?” That is the title of a paper or talk by Luigi Zingales, an economist who has had posts at Harvard and Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The paper is from January, but by coincidence it was discovered to me (hat tip: Dan Hirschman) the same day as the hedge fund story.

Here is the short version of Zingales’s answer to the question:

At the current state of knowledge there is no theoretical reason or empirical evidence to support the notion that all the growth of the financial sector in the last forty years has been beneficial to society.

Zingales is no flaming radical. The right-wing website The Daily Caller says he is “an advocate of free market economics and limited government.” The trouble is that the hedge funders and bankers keep messing up those free market models with their rent-seeking and fraud.  (A table at the end of the paper summarizes cases of fines paid to the US Government 2012-2014. And those are just the ones where someone got caught.)

A couple of other quotes on the same theme:

If political power is disproportionately in the hands of large donors – as it is increasingly the case in the United States – why is the negative public perception of finance a problem? Rich financiers can easily buy their political protection. In fact, this is precisely the problem.

Many financial activities tend to have a private return that is much higher than the (perceived) social return.

Furthermore, I am not aware of any evidence that the creation and growth of the junk bond market, the option and futures market, or the development of over-the-counter derivatives are positively correlated with economic growth.

A pdf of the paper is here.

Baltimore Ballet

May 5, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Someone should tell David Brooks that policing is not ballet.

When I first read Brooks’s column about Baltimore,“The Nature of Povery” (here), I thought he was just singing the same personal-responsibility-and-family anthem so beloved of conservatives everywhere.  Brooks writes of
“the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” 
Objective conditions, especially the job market, are not even a grace note.*

But I didn’t realize how deliberately Brooks was ignoring important facts until I checked one of the works he cites.  Here is Brooks writing about the nature of city life.

Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.

As Philip Cohen points out (here), ballet is about the most inept a metaphor anyone might come up with. ry imagining“The Wire” in tutu and on point.

For Brooks, Baltimore’s problems have arisen because, alas, the delicate pas-de-deux between cop and kid has broken down.

In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens — when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved.

“The code dissolved.”  All by itself.

If you read the Simon interview (here), you get a much better picture of the code. You won’t mistake it for “Swan Lake.” The typical arabesque consists of cops arbitrarily arresting and jailing people for a couple of days for reasons that have little to do with the law and much to do with the cop’s personal whim. As Simon says, it’s called a “humble.” The goal is humiliation.

This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’

A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner.  You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn't like somebody who's looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it.

As rotten as the code was, it did break down. But Simon leaves no doubt as to who broke it.

For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in that list in that story the Sun published last year about municipal payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernible or coherent pattern. There's no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees – and you aren’t even managing to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you’ve lost all professional ethos.

Cops “beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees” don’t find their way into Le Ballet Brooks. But Simon extends the context further, to the brass and the politicians, who, in his view, are ultimately responsible for the breakdown of decent police work . (If you’ve seen “The Wire,” you’ll know that in Simon’s view both the drug dealers the street cops have a certain integrity. The true bad guys are the more powerful and ambitious figures far removed from life on the streets.)

The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was Martin O’Malley. He destroyed police work in some real respects. . . . . But to be honest, what happened under his watch as Baltimore’s mayor was that he wanted to be governor. And at a certain point, with the crime rate high and with his promises of a reduced crime rate on the line, he put no faith in real policing.

Martin O’Malley did become governor, and as we speak he seems to be running for the Democratic nomination for president. He surely knows that, as Mr. Dooley said, politics ain’t beanbag. And Baltimore policing ain’t ballet.

* Brooks gets much wrong factually about poverty and anti-poverty programs. For details, see this corrective by Matt Breunig.

Edmund Burke on Rioting

May 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

We adjust our thoughts about rioting and looting to make those thoughts and perceptions at home with our overall ideology. That was the point of yesterday’s quote from Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush. The looting in Baghdad was clearly a result of the US invasion of Iraq, an invasion Rumsfeld promoted and planned. To see the looting as the indefensible work of immoral criminals would be to admit that his policies and thrown Baghdad into the Hobbesian chaos that David Brooks sees in Baltimore.

Instead, Rumsfeld characterized the large-scale theft of historical artifacts as a sign of “freedom” and liberation from oppression. This attention to historical and political context is rare in conservative analyses of looting, rioting, and other forms of what Rumseld called “untidiness” when these happen in the US.

Not all conservatives. Here is Edmund Burke,* much beloved of intellectual conservative, often quoted by the likes of George Will, William F. Buckley, Jr., et al. 

    If you do not carefully distinguish the feelings of the multitude from their judgments; if you do not distinguish their interests from their opinions; attending religiously to the one and utterly despising the other; if you lay down a Rule that because the people are absurd, their grievances are not to be redressed, then in plain Terms it is impossible that popular grievances should receive any redress at all, because the people when they are injured will be violent; when they are violent, they will be absurd—and their absurdity will in general be proportioned to the greatness of their Grievances.

[If one pursues the rule that grievances opposed through mob-like protest should be ignored,] the worse their [the people’s] suffering the further they will be from their remedy.

HT: I took this quote from Andrew Sabl at The Reality-Based Community. He got it from David Bromwich’s intellectual biography of Burke.

Ideology Happens

May 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Looting and violence are indefensible. The people who commit such acts are nothing more than criminals who lack basic morality.  Lacking any restraint, unable to restrain their impulses and for civilized ties, they create a Hobbesian nightmare for everyone in the area.  Or as David Brooks wrote today (here), “Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.”

That’s the view from the right today just as it was fifty years ago. Conservative writers scoff at more liberal views of rioting that try to understand it in its social and political context.

But not always.

Rumsfeld on looting: ‘Stuff happens’

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Declaring that freedom is “untidy,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday the looting... was a result of “pent-up feelings” of oppression and that it would subside...

He also asserted the looting was not as bad as some television and newspaper reports have indicated and said there was no major crisis ... The looting, he suggested, was “part of the price” for ... liberation.

“Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” Rumsfeld said. “They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here.”

Looting, he added, was not uncommon for [cities] that experience significant social upheaval. “Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld said.

The full story is here.