Coach and Economy

August 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Illinois football head coach, Tim Beckman, was just fired after a ton of evidence showed that he forced Fighting Illini scholar-athletes to play hurt.

[A] player, Simon Cvijanovic, alleged that Beckman and his staff pushed the athlete into playing with an injured shoulder and knee and lied to him about how long his recovery would take. He said that the coaching staff frequently berated injured players, threatening to take away their scholarships if they did not return to practice quickly after an injury.

Cvijanovic tweeted that athletic medical staff withheld information from him regarding the extent of his knee injury, and that he now faces a “lifetime of surgery” related to the deterioration of an injured muscle that was largely left untreated. The staff called hurt players derogatory names and dressed them in a rival team's colors during practices in an attempt to shame them, the former player said. [Source: Inside Higher Ed.

In response, Coach Beckman said,

The health and well-being of our student athletes is of paramount importance to me, and any statement made to the contrary is utterly false.

You can’t blame the coach for lying. What else could he have said?

The problem is not that the coach is a liar or that he callously ignores the risk of lifelong debilitating injury to his players. Beckman is surely not the only coach who pressures players this way, and it’s not because the coaches all lack moral character. Nor will firing one coach have much effect. Coaches “act like our bodies are just disposable” (as Cvijanovic tweeted) not because coaches are moral monsters but because the entire system of Division I football is focused on winning.

Deep Throat was right: follow the money. Winning teams at big schools can bring in big money – media deals, tchotchke sales, alumni donations, etc. That multi-million dollar contract that Illinois gave Beckman wasn’t for improving the health and well-being of the players. It was for winning.

As long as the team’s won-lost record was improving,* university officials were not concerned about what Beckman was doing. Or if they knew, they probably assumed, correctly, that this is how coaches coach. When the news first reported Cvijanovic’s accusations back in May, Coach Beckman’s boss, the Athletic Director, said that Beckman “has put the welfare of this young man above all else.” It was only after the investigation – triggered by the young man’s tweets – that the Athletic Director was shocked, shocked to discover that Beckman made footballers play hurt.

Will the NCAA now impose new rules on the treatment of injured players? If so, my guess is that the reason will not be an overriding concern with the health and well-being of players. I’m going with Deep Throat. The IHE story doesn’t mention it, but Cvijanovic has filed a lawsuit against the university. As with concussions in the NFL, a few successful lawsuits might lead to changes. Failing that, it will be the Humanitarian Impulses of the coaching staff versus the economic pressure on Winning. In that contest, Humanitarian Impulses is a big underdog. My advice: go with Winning and give the points.

* When Beckman took over in 2012, the team went 2-10 and 0-8 in their Big Ten division. Two years later, they were 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the division.   

There’s a Place for Us

August 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival offers free screenings of operas in the large plaza at Lincoln Center- a different opera each night. Tonight it’s Carmen, and the operas to come are nearly as well known – La Traviata, Don Giovanni, Tales of Hoffman, etc.

For the opener last night the Met chose West Side Story – the 1961 movie.

The great irony is that we were sitting in what had been the setting for the story – a neighborhood known as San Juan Hill. Back then it was a “slum”; today it would be called a low-income, predominantly minority community. It was San Juan Hill even in the 1940s, when it was still nearly all Black, as it had been since the turn of the century. In the 1950s, Puerto Ricans began arriving, and some Blacks moved uptown or to Brooklyn. Gang violence was rife – fights between the Black (and later Puerto Rican) gangs of San Juan Hill and Irish gangs from Hell’s Kitchen just to the south.

DIESEL:  What do you say, Riff?
RIFF:  I say this turf is small, but it's all we got, huh? I want to hold it like we always held it.

In the 1950s, however, the real turf battle was not between the Jets and the Sharks. It was between the residents of San Juan Hill and a gang led by Robert Moses and John D. Rockefeller III – not exactly an even match. It wasn’t much of a rumble.The winning side demolished the slum and build Lincoln Center.

I wondered whether many of my fellow moviegoers knew this West Side history, but then the speaker who introduced the film mentioned it. Some of the film was shot right here on location, he said, and in fact the film’s producers (or was it Jerome Robbins, the choreographer?) asked the city to delay part of the demolition so they could complete some of the dance scenes. The speaker related these as interesting factoids, as if to say, “You’re sitting where Maria and Tony’s balcony scene might have taken place,” and expecting us to feel a Washington-slept-here sense of connection to history. 

Instead, I was thinking of class and politics. I was thinking of The Urban Villagers and Boston’s urban renewal destruction of the West End; I was thinking of other Robert Moses projects in New York. Working-class and lower-class people displaced for buildings or highways that benefit middle class people, promoted and partly financed by upper-class people. The audience at the free movie last night had few Marias or Bernardos, Riffs or Diesels. Or Blacks. The paying customers coming from the ballet at the New York State Theater David H. Koch Theater just to our left were even Whiter and older.

As Lincoln Center was being built, some critics like Paul Goodman suggested that major arts centers should be dispersed to different places in the city, maybe even different boroughs. Why put the buildings for the opera, the ballet, and the symphony together in one place? (I was reminded of this when the noisy crowd coming out from the ballet next door made it hard for us movie watchers to hear what was happening on screen.)

But these grandiose projects of megalomaniacs sometimes work. And once they are in place, it’s hard to imagine the city without them – Paris without the Haussmann boulevards and buildings. They add to the greatness of the city, though thinking about a city in terms of its greatness essentially cedes the argument to the megalomaniacs. The other question to ask is whether they make life better for the residents of the city – and not just residents who like opera.

Charlie Parker

August 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

He died in 1955 at age 34. He would have been 95 today.

I’m sure that there is much sociological to be said about Bird and birth of bebop. As Howie Becker has taught us, art is collective enterprise. That’s especially true of jazz, and Becker’s ideas about art in general originated in his own experiences working as a jazz pianist. But individual artists are important, and Charlie Parker remains one of the great figures in American music. 

“Man, you gotta go up to Minton’s and hear the way this cat plays ‘Cherokee,’” musicians would tell one another. As you can hear in these two studio takes, Parker decided to dispense with the melody of ‘Cherokee’ (a standard from the big band era). In the first take, after the 32-bar intro (unusually long for bebop), Bird and Miles play the melody for a few bars. Then Bird calls a halt. In the second take – the one that was issued – after the intro, he just starts soloing on the changes.  The tune was listed on the record as “Ko-Ko,’ and that’s the way Parker played it from then on.

The drum solo is by Max Roach. Curley Russell was on bass. The pianist was supposed to have been Bud Powell, but he didn’t make the session, so Dizzy Gillespie was called on to comp on piano.

Killing Gun Legislation

August 27, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to passing law,s do the gunslingers always win?

The father of one of the victims and the governor of the state have called for stricter gun laws. I’m sure they are sincere, but it all seems so familiar, part of usual post-massacre minuet.  The stylized and mannered sequence of steps: We need stronger gun laws. Now is a time for prayer not politics. Gun-death rates in the US are several times higher than in other countries. Second Amendment. And so on.

Laws are proposed. Then the gun manufacturers and their minions (NRA, et al.) get legislators to dilute the proposals or defeat them entirely.

Here’s a headline from eight months ago.

But the gun lobby does not get its way all the time. Yes, they win at the federal level. Yesterday’s on-air killings will not lead to any tightening of federal laws. By the time a bill is written and goes to committee, those shootings will be a vague memory. And although shootings hold the attention of the public, the grind of legislation does not.

But at the state level, gun-law advocates can sometimes make some headway. The anti-gun sentiments raised by the killings do not fade as quickly in places nearer to where the killing happened. Of course, in Texas or Wyoming, no amount of gun killing will budge the legislature. But in less absolutist states, a local massacre may enable gun law proponents to pass new laws. After Sandy Hook – an assault rifle massacre of twenty schoolchildren and six teachers – all newly proposed federal laws were killed by pro-gun US Senators. But Connecticut, where the crime happened, and neighboring New York passed stronger limitations or an outright ban on assault weapons.

The news media may also be a key element, and yesterday’s shooting expands the part they usually play. First, the shooting was broadcast live.  That immediacy may heighten people’s awareness of just how dangerous and deadly guns are. Seeing someone actually shot to death is far more powerful than seeing a reporter doing a stand-up against a background of yellow tape and parked police cars.  Second, because the victims were TV reporters, they were far better known than victims in other shootings, and local people may feel more of a tie to them. That closeness too may make people more sensitive to the danger of guns. Third, it’s also possible that the media themselves – now that two of their own have been killed – will be more sympathetic to anti-gun groups. If the armed and dangerous disgruntled employee might be not just a postal worker somewhere out there in America but a guy in the newsroom, the news editor might decide to give more coverage to the threat of guns.

I am just speculating of course.  I have to hedge with “may” (“X may have an impact”) and “it’s possible that . . .” because I do not know the published research on the connection between mass shootings* and the passage of gun laws more likely. I would expect that the variables to study include
  • the political climate of the state
  • the social position of victims – that is, the more similar that are to people who have the most influence on laws
  • the number of victims
  • the location of the shooting (public spaces or buildings vs. private)
  • the ostensible motive of the killer
*By some definitions of “mass shootings,” the minimum number of deaths is four. So yesterday’s killings, even including the shooter’s suicide, do not qualify as a mass shooting. I guess it’s just another one of your ordinary, everyday American shootings.

The Tragedy of the Comments

August 19, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

That’s all. No post. Just the title.

It’s one of those titles that says it all – like Psychobabble (1977). If you were around in the 60s and 70s (and by “around” I mean Boston or Los Angeles, not Oklahoma), you read the title, and you knew. You didn’t have to read the book. The title crystallized all those vague doubts that had been lurking in your mind off  to one side – doubts about all the books and magazine articles and maybe even about what your own therapist was saying.

Comments – seemed like a good idea at the time. A way to enhance the discussion with new ideas and information. Maybe it still is for blogs with a small or a select readership.

You’re reading this blog, so you probably also read other blogs – big blogs, maybe newspaper sites.  Places with hordes of readers.  If you’ve ever scrolled through the comments, dominated by the loonies, the angries, and the illogicals;* if you’ve ever posted your own comment only to see it lost in the sea of 496 other comments, you don’t need me to write this post. The title is enough.

 This American Life had a wonderful example last January in the episode “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS” (here - read the transcript, or better, listen to the first 2-3 minutes).

This Isn’t About Race

August 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bill Clinton, facing impeachment in the Senate, chose former Senator and fellow Arkansan Dale Bumpers to make the closing argument for the defense. The impeachment charges were perjury and obstruction of justice. As the House Managers presenting the charges had said,

This case is not about sex or private conduct. It is about multiple obstructions of justice, perjury, false and misleading statements, and witness tampering - all committed or orchestrated by the President of the United States.   

Bumpers merely pointed out what everyone in America knew:

H.L. Mencken said one time, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money.”
[Laughter, not much at first, but then building after a second or two as the Senators realize where it’s going.]
And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex,” it’s about sex.

[The video, with Bumpers looking very much like Atticus Finch, is here.]

Republican dominated states have been passing voting registration laws, both before and, in the South, after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby. For Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, the case was about federalism, especially since the South was no longer tainted by racism as it was when the Voting Rights Act was passed (“40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day"). Of course, as soon as the decision was announced, Southern states rushed to pass new voter ID laws. These laws, according to their supporters, are intended merely to reduce voter fraud. They have nothing to do with race.

Right. Where are Mencken and Bumpers when you need them? When someone says, “This isn’t about race,” it’s about race.

The current venue for denying what is in plain sight is jury selection.

Here are some reasons prosecutors have offered for excluding blacks from juries: They were young or old, single or divorced, religious or not, failed to make eye contact, lived in a poor part of town, had served in the military, had a hyphenated last name, displayed bad posture, were sullen, disrespectful or talkative, had long hair, wore a beard. [from today’s New York Times]

These facts are related to a death-penalty case that the Supreme Court will hear in the coming term. A Black defendant was convicted by an all-White jury. The question is why none of the Blacks in the jury pool were selected, or more specifically why the prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove all Black jurors.

It wasn’t about race, according to the prosecutor.

All the [Black] prospects were said to be some combination of confused, incoherent, hostile, disrespectful and nervous. Three did not make enough eye contact. A 34-year-old black woman was too close in age to the defendant, who was 19. (The prosecution did not challenge eight prospective white jurors age 35 or under.)

“All I have to do is have a race-neutral reason,” Mr. Lanier said, “and all of these reasons that I have given the court are racially neutral.”

The judge agreed. But it now turns out – surprise, surprise – that the prosecutor’s real reasons may not have been racially neutral.

Prosecutors worked hard to exclude blacks from the jury.

In notes that did not surface until decades later, they marked the names of black prospective jurors with a B. They highlighted those names in green. They circled the word “black” where potential jurors had noted their race on questionnaires.

The ball is now in the Court’s court. According to the Times, “Some legal experts said they hoped the Supreme Court would use the Georgia case to tighten the standards for peremptory challenges.”  I’m not sure what these experts are basing their hopes on. Scalia and Thomas have never met an execution they didn’t like. Alito “is probably the most pro-prosecution member of a pro-prosecution court” (Linda Greenhouse in the NYT here). Roberts, as he did in Shelby, can find lots of reasons to dance with the conservatives what brung him. That leaves Kennedy.

In Miller-El ten years ago, Kennedy sided with the defense. That case was egregious but instructive.

In support of his claim of systematic discrimination, Miller-El offered evidence that for decades, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office had used written discriminatory policies, including a 1963 treatise on jury selection prepared by a top aide to then-Dallas County District Attorney, which warned prosecutors to avoid “Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans, or a member of any minority race [from sitting] on a jury no matter how rich or how well educated,” and a treatise written in 1969 but included in all training manuals for prosecutors until at least the early 1980s, which stated that minority jurors were undesirable because they “empathize with the accused.”

The Court found this evidence to be persuasive, noting that “the prosecutors’ own notes proclaim that the [jury selection] Manual’s emphasis on race was on their minds when they considered every potential juror.” [source]

Just as the politicians writing and passing voter ID laws today know not to mention race, the writers of jury-selection manuals today know better than to specify race, and prosecutors today know better than to speak about it out loud. Like the lead prosecutor in this year’s case, they claim that their peremptories are based on the person being too young, or too old, or not making eye contact, etc. Yes, say the prosecutors in effect, “We use peremptories three times as often for Black jurors as for Whites. But racial intent? How could you even think such a thing? And yes, you may see lots of juries that are all-White. But who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?”


August 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yet another article about microaggressions and trigger warnings and the like, this one in the Atlantic, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Oh dear, college students are demanding to be treated like toddlers. Worse, colleges and universities are giving in to those demands.

“The Coddling of the the American Mind” (here) follows the standard template for these articles. It grabs you by the lapels with news of egregious examples
  • “law students asking . . . professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress”
  • “by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American ‘Where were you born?,’ because this implies that he or she is not a real American.”
Never mind that it was one law student asking one professor, not students (plural) asking professors (plural), and never mind that the professor apparently did not accommodate the request. (The New Yorker article they cite is here) Never mind that the “Where were you born?” notice is part of “guidelines,” not a formal regulation.

What these examples most remind me of is the song “Trouble” from “The Music Man.”

Well, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community. [You can see and hear the entire song here.]

But the problem isn’t pool.

Well, you got trouble my friend, right here in Campus City. With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Political Correctness.

Trouble indeed. But how much trouble? Usually, if you want to know how big a problem something is, you try to measure how much of it there is. The you-got-trouble forces will usually provide numbers, and while these can and often do fall into the category of “making shit up” (“50,000 children kidnapped each year!”), at least the moral entrepreneurs recognize the obligation to estimate the size of the problem. But the people decrying the microaggression mentality don’t even bother to make up numbers.  Haidt is a social scientist, so I assume that if statistical estimates existed, he would have included them. Instead, he and his co-author are left with anecdotes, probably from the files of Lukianoff’s organization FIRE.

We’ve been here before. The title of the Lukianoff-Haidt article alludes to a book of thirty years ago, The Closing of the American Mind, by Alan Bloom.* Bloom too told us we got trouble. Universities had abandoned the Western canon, putting materials from other traditions into the curriculum, and all for political purposes. The required non-Western course “in every case I have seen . . . has a demagogic intention.” It was all part of the liberal agenda, “the imperative to promote equality, stamp out racism, sexism and elitism (the peculiar crimes of our democratic society), as well as war.” And just as Prof. Harold Hill the music man railed about “ragtime – shameless music,” Bloom warned that “Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire –  not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.”

Lukianoff and Haidt are not bothered by sex, drugs, and rock & roll (or if they are, they keep their misgivings to themselves). But like Prof. Harold Hill, they want to arouse our concern about what will happen to the children – “the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves.” 

What are those effects? Well, you got trouble my friends. 

It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

The problem is that Lukianoff and Haidt provide not one bit of evidence to substantiate their claims that four years at a PC university has any of these long-range effects on the graduates.

So Lukianoff and Haidt provide no measure of the independent variables, nor do they offer even anecdotal evidence about the outcome variables.**

Instead, the article is about the horrors of trigger warnings, guidelines, regulations, etc. – certainly a legitimate concern. But mostly the article is about cognitive styles – different ways of thinking, some more useful than others. More specifically it is a critique of the cognitive styles that provide the basis for the protectiveness mentality. On this, Lukianoff and Haidt have much worthwhile to say, and I hope to get to it in a later post.

* Every few years a conservative will publish a liberals-are-ruining-the-universities book – Cultural Literacy, Illiberal Education, Tenured Radicals, even back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.  Conservatives often have the Presidency, usually dominate at least one house of Congress, have had the majority in the Supreme Court for nearly half a century, control most state governments, business, the military. You’d think that liberal influence at few dozen college campuses wouldn’t be such a big irritant. But you’d be wrong. Can you say “hegemony”?

** Lukianoff and Haidt do provide statistics showing that psychological and emotional problems are more frequent on campuses now than in the past. But they offer no comparisons between campuses that are more PC and those that are less so, or between students who have more of the protective mentality and those who have less. They don’t even provide comparative data on kids who didn’t go to college. And they caution, “We do not mean to imply simple causation,” the academic’s version of “Just sayin.’”

Trickling Down in the UK

August 12, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

An essential tenet of the creed of free-market economics is that the success of capitalists benefits everyone. The wealth created eventually flows through the entire society. Some nonbelievers scoff at this notion. They see not a flow but a trickle.  And sometimes even the trickle doesn’t trickle all the way down.

Tom Forth tweeted this graph showing how inequality and the income of the poor in the UK changed under the different governments since 1964. Each dot represents a year. To trace the chronology year by year, connect the dots. Years of the Conservative government are in blue, Labour in red (a reversal of the US color convention). 

(Click on the graph for a slightly larger and perhaps clearer view.)

In the Thatcher years, inequality as measured by the Gini index increased greatly increased, from about 0.26 to 0.34.  No surprise there given the Conservative ideology of Less government spending, more tax cuts. As Wikipedia says, “Thatcherism claims to promote low inflation, the small state, and free markets through tight control of the money supply, privatisation and constraints on the labour movement. It is often compared with Reaganomics in the United States. . . .” 

The UK economy as measured by GDP grew, though on the whole, the growth in the Conservative Thatcher years was no greater than it had been under the Labour governments of Harold Wilson. 

Clearly, the Thatcher years were very good for those at the top. But did the rising tide lift the boats of the UK’s poorest, the bottom 10%? Barely, according to Forth’s graph. Their annual income went from about £6100 in 1979 to about £6300 a decade later.The line on the graph moves upward vertically (the Gini co-efficient), but on the Income axis, it moves hardly at all.

By contrast, under the Labour government of Tony Blair, the Gini index of inequality changed little – a little up, then a little down – and the income of the poorest 10% grew from £6600 to about £8500 (adjusted for inflation). When inequality stopped increasing, the poor did much better.

The Donald and The Women

August 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s so much to say about Donald Trump and about the reaction to Donald Trump. So it seems trivial to focus on one little word – “the.” But I found Clyde Haberman’s tweet fascinating.

The word Trump used was not “great” but “phenomenal.” [Added, 8/12: And the preposition he used was to, not for.] Either way, the point is that “I’d be phenomenal for to the women” is different from “I’d be phenomenal for to women.” But why? Why is that definite article so important? In many languages this distinction would never arise.

In English, “for the women” has always been the less common, at least according to Google n-grams.

In 1850 the “for women” appeared about twice as frequently as “for the women.” By 1965 that ratio had increased to about 8:1. Then came the resurgence of feminism. In 2000, that ratio had risen to more than 20:1.  True, the women’s movement did pay attention to language, but it focused on nouns – firefighter instead of fireman, for example – and honorifics (it’s Ms., not Mrs. or Miss).  I doubt that anyone was writing articles about articles.

What Haberman is suggesting, I think, is that when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.  Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.*

I don’t know why. But that’s the way it sounds to my ears.

UPDATE, August 12:  At Language Log Mark Liberman, who is a real linguist, agrees with me about the use of “the” here, but points out that I ignored the larger context of Trump's comments, which he provides in both audio and transcript. True. I was not interested in how Trump actually feels about women. I was not interested in whether or not he would in fact be phenomenal for them.  I was interested only in the linguistic question of how “phenomenal for women” differs from “phenomenal for the women.” 

The comments on Liberman’s post are worth reading.


* Among Jews of earlier generations, the cardinal question that might be asked of any issue was “Ist gut fuer yiddin?”  Translated as “Is it good for the Jews?” it suggests a lesser degree of integration and assimilation. There are “the Jews,” and there are the others (“the goyim”).  But “Is it good for Jews?” reduces the barrier. They are people who happen to be Jewish, not a special and separate group.

Blood, Danger, and Power

August 9, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a post “Trainwreck and Taboo” about Amy Schumer’s humor (here), I mentioned that some conservative men have a taboo-like reaction of disgust at her jokes about menstruation. Of course, the anthropology literature documents that such a reaction is widespread, especially in pre-industrial, agrarian and pastoral societies.

The Gopcanda observe powerful menstrual taboos.  Women’s menstrual blood is thought to have much dangerous power. A women in her menstrual period, according to Gopcanda thinking, can become deranged and especially likely to direct her fury at males.

Therefore women may not speak publicly of the menstrual blood. And men may not speak of it at all. If a man overhears a woman mention it, he runs in embarrassment to his fellows, and together they initiate the ritual of shaming the woman.  As for the men, they may freely denigrate women – and they often do – and they strictly enforce the constraints on women. But if a Gopcanda man even utters the taboo word referring to menstrual blood, he may be seen as unfit for responsible roles in the tribe.

        — Alvin St. Joigny, “Taboo and Power Among the Gopcanda” JPMS, 2002.

Compare that with today’s newspaper

Donald J. Trump’s suggestion that a Fox News journalist had questioned him forcefully at the Republican presidential debate because she was menstruating cost him a speaking slot Saturday night at an influential gathering of conservatives in Atlanta. It also raised new questions about how much longer Republican Party leaders would have to contend with Mr. Trump’s disruptive presence in the primary field.

        — Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman. “Hand-Wringing in G.O.P. After Donald Trump’s Remarks on Megyn Kelly,” New York Times,  Aug. 8, 2015 

Covers and Cover-ups

August 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The title of Martin Haskell Smith’s new book pretty much tells you what it’s going to be about: Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World. The blurb on the author’s website adds:

Naked at Lunch is equal parts cultural history and gonzo participatory journalism. Coated in multiple layers of high SPF sunblock, Haskell Smith dives into the nudist world today. He publicly disrobes for the first time in Palm Springs, observes the culture of family nudism in a clothing-free Spanish town, and travels to the largest nudist resort in the world, a hedonist’s paradise in the south of France. He reports on San Francisco’s controversial ban on public nudity, participates in a week of naked hiking in the Austrian Alps, and caps off his adventures with a week on the Big Nude Boat, a Caribbean cruise full of nudists.

Note that the author is “Haskell Smith,” not “Smith” as he would be in the US (for example, see this LA Times story).  In American sociological writing, C. Wright Mills is “Mills.” In the UK, he’s “Wright Mills.”

But there’s another interesting cultural difference – the book jacket.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The US edition lets us peer through the letters to see the author – yes, that’s really Smith, or Haskell Smith (his head is in the “A”) – sitting on a beach chair, perhaps poolside on that Caribbean cruise, wearing only his glasses, his laptop atop his lap covering what Brits might call his willie, which in any case would be covered by the white space between the “L” and “U.” 

The UK and Australia editions are even more circumspect.

Michael Bywater in The Literary Review  compares the UK and US covers.

So that's the naked author, with his whacker and his Mac, and this is his book about nudists and what they’re like and what the hell they think they’re doing. So, not unreasonably, the book is categorised as social science. In the USA.

But not here. Here in Britain, there’s no nude author. The cover is whimsical, cartoony: there are little pink blobby people, sunbeds, a swimming pool and a very tanned woman with a poodle and a tent. And here in Britain, the category is travel writing.

And what of Australia? No hint of nudity. Without the title, the cover would be completely misleading. Perhaps the Aussie graphics designers thought that since the title conveyed so much information, they were free to go for an adolescent, Freudian joke.

(Other SocioBlog posts on covers and culture are here and here, and for the messages that covers convey, go here for a post on a child guessing the content of literary classics just from their covers.)

Are Things Bad Just Because People Think They’re Bad?

August 5, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the Republican debate tomorrow, race relations may be one of the topics. If so, someone will surely point to the recent polls that have been announced in headlines like these

Poll Finds Most in U.S. Hold Dim View of Race Relations

Here’s another sign that race relations in America
have gotten really bad


The first headline is from The New York Times, the second from the blog Townhall. Both are based on a CBS poll from late July. The third is from another right-wing blog, Breitbart, though it refers to a CBS poll from two months earlier.

The headlines seem to be saying the same thing. The Times headline is about what people think about race relations. The other two make claims as to the actual state of race relations. This difference raises an important question: Is the perception of race relations the same as the reality of race relations?

The Times headline –  about perceptions – is the most accurate. The survey asked, “Do you think race relations in the United States are generally good or generally bad?” The other two headlines assume that the perception is the reality.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

The timeline shows clearly one important factor influencing the answer to this question – front-page news. 

When people see a lot of footage of White cops beating and sometimes killing unarmed Black people, and when people see footage of Black people protesting and rioting in response, they think that race relations in the country as are generally bad. That’s what happened in 1992 with Rodney King and most recently with the killing by police of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. When people see the country elect its first Black president, perceptions about race relations improve. (However, the Gallup poll showed almost no change in early 2009.)   

The historical pattern is the same for Whites and Blacks, though Blacks are usually about ten percentage points more pessimistic.

(Because of the small number of Blacks in the sample, the margin of error is larger, and the changes from poll to poll may appear greater than they actually were.)

Big news events affect how people perceive race relations in the country as a whole. But does that response reflect the actual goodness or badness of race relations for most people? Someone might argue that in this case, perception is reality. If I think that race relations are bad – i.e., that Blacks don’t like me because I’m White – and if Blacks think the same way, then the mutual distrust or fear does constitute bad race relations.  

Two other questions in the same survey suggest that what people think about race relations generally in the US is not at all the same as the way they experience race relations in their own lives.  One question asks whether race relations in the person’s own community are good or bad. 

Two things are clear. First, people feel much better about their own communities than about the US. Typically, five times as many people choose “Good” rather than “Bad.” Even among Blacks, on average twice as many choose Good over Bad. (The ratio is more than double, closer to 2.5 - 1).

Second, those big news stories don’t seem to have a big impact on perceptions about things close to home. In March 2014 – before Ferguson, before Eric Garner, before Baltimore – 26% of Blacks said that race relations in their community were “Bad.” When the same question was asked after those events (December 2014, March and July 2015), that percent had risen by only 2 or 3 points, well within the margin of error.

Finally, there’s the question of progress on the race front. Here is the way the survey asks it:

“Some people say that since the 1960s there has been a lot of real progress in getting rid of racial discrimination against blacks. Others say that there hasn't been much real progress for blacks over that time. Which do you agree with more? Would you say there's been a lot of real progress getting rid of racial discrimination or hasn't there been much real progress?”

For both races, optimists outnumber pessimists, except in May 1992, two months after the Rodney King beating, when 68% of Blacks saw no real progress. But other national events, including Obama’s victory in 2008, caused no sudden changes in the overall assessment of progress. Instead, perceptions of progress show a steady but real increase in the 1990s, with only small changes in this century.

I can understand how someone looking at the CBS poll can conclude that race relations are worse (especially someone who wants to think that in Obama’s presidency everything has gotten worse).  With jobs or GDP or taxes or the number of people without health insurance, we can measure the increase or decrease. We have no similarly clear measures of the quality of race relations. So we are left with perceptions. And after all, perceptions of race relations and race relations themselves are both mostly about people’s reactions – their ideas and feelings.So why not equate the perception with the reality?

The trouble is that a person’s perceptions about what seems to be the same subject, race relations, can be very different depending on the frame of reference – the US as a whole or the person’s own circumstances, recent events or a longer sweep of history.

The Waning of Taboo (or Gratitude, UVA Style)

August 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Female sexuality is losing its taboo, and cultural conservatives are dreading the change. That was the gist of my post about the conservative reaction to the Amy Schumer movie “Trainwreck” (here). I quoted a National Review article that reacted to the movie with words like shamelessness, distortion, degradation, and smut.

Taboo combines great power and great danger as well as elements of impurity and uncleanliness (smut still retains overtones of its earlier meaning – dirt). People and things that are taboo must be suppressed or controlled, surrounded with ceremony and restrictions. To allow them as part of the ordinary world threatens the social, moral, and cognitive order.

Shortly after I wrote that post, I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind and came upon this anecdote.

I was recently eating lunch at a UVA dining hall. At a table next to me two young women were talking. One of them was very grateful for something the other had agreed to do for her. To express her gratitude, she exclaimed, “Oh my God! If you were a guy, I’d be so on your dick right now.” I felt a mixture of amusement and revulsion, but how could I criticize her from an ethic of autonomy?

Sex here, both for men and women, is no longer confined to some secret, sacred realm. It’s just another everyday enjoyable experience,even a way of saying, “Thanks.” She might just as well have said, “I’d spend an hour in the kitchen making you my special brownies-avec-weed.” 

In movies like “Trainwreck” and TV shows like “Girls,” women’s sexuality and women’s bodies are not so imbued with mystery. They are what they are. Along with this waning of sacredness goes a parallel decline in the association of sex with uncleanliness. I can remember when people talked, though usually jokingly, about “dirty books” or “feelthy pictures” or told someone to get his mind “out of the gutter” – all of these contrasted with “good, clean fun.”  You probably won’t hear those  metaphors today at UVA and similar campuses. In some places, people still see female sexuality through the mists of purity and danger. But I would predict that as with attitudes on gay sex, the untaboo view of women’s sexuality will diffuse to more and more regions of society.

ADDENDUM: Lisa Wade, who knows far more about campus sex than I do, reminds me that everything I said here about the demystification of sex describes women’s attitudes far more than men’s. “My female students are still VERY worried that men think that their vulvas/vaginas are gross, disgusting, smelly, unkempt, etc.”  They are probably right to worry. Even at enlightened, elite schools, normal adult female sexuality may trigger in men disgust and ideas of taboo and uncleanliness. Men (some? many? most?) may react with horror/fear/aversion/avoidance to vulvas, menstruation, and even pubic hair. 

Margin of Error Error

August 3, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The margin of error is getting more attention than usual in the news. That’s not saying much since it’s usually a tiny footnote, like those rapidly muttered disclaimers in TV ads (“Offer not good mumble mumble more than four hours mumble mumble and Canada.”) Recent headlines proclaim, “Trump leads Bush. . .” A paragraph or two in, the story will report that in the recent poll Trump got 18% and Bush 15%.  That difference is well within the margin of error, but you have to listen closely to hear that. Most people don’t want to know abut uncertainty and ambiguity.

What’s bringing uncertainty out of the closest now is the upcoming Republican presidential debate.  The Fox-CNN-GOP axis has decided to split the field of presidential candidates in two based on their showing in the polls. The top ten will be in the main event. All other candidates – currently Jindal, Santorum, Fiorina, et al. – will be relegated to the children’s table, i.e., a second debate a month later and at the very unprime hour of 5 p.m.

But does Rick Perry’s 4% in the a recent poll (419 likely GOP voters) really in a different class than Bobby Jindal’s 25? The margin of error that CNN announced in that survey was a confidence interval of  +/- 5.  Here’s the box score.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Jindal might argue that with a margin of error of 5 points, his 2% might actually be as high as 7%, which would put him in the top tier. 

He might argue that, but he shouldn’t.  Downplaying the margin of error makes a poll result seem more precise than it really is, but using that one-interval-fits-all number of five points understates the precision.  That’s because the margin of error depends on the percent that a candidate gets.  The confidence interval is larger for proportions near 50%, smaller for proportions at the extreme. 

Just in case you haven’t taken the basic statistics course, here is the formula.
The    (pronounced “pee hat”) is the proportion of the sample who preferred each candidate. For the candidate who polled 50%, the numerator of the fraction under the square root sign will be 0.5 (1-0.5) = .25.  That's much larger than the numerator for the 2% candidate:  0.02 (1-0.02) = .0196.*

Multiplying by the 1.96, the 50% candidate’s margin of error with a sample of 419 is +/- 4.8. That’s the figure that CNN reported. But plug in Jindal’s 2%, and  the result is much less: +/- 1.3.  So there’s a less than one in twenty chance that Jindal’s true proportion of support is more than 3.3%. 

Polls usually report their margin of error based on the 50% maximum. The media reporting the results then use the one-margin-fits-all assumption – even NPR. Here is their story from May 29 with the headline “The Math Problem Behind Ranking The Top 10 GOP Candidates.”

There’s a big problem with winnowing down the field this way: the lowest-rated people included in the debate might not deserve to be there.

The latest GOP presidential poll, from Quinnipiac, shows just how messy polling can be in a field this big. We’ve put together a chart showing how the candidates stack up against each other among Republican and Republican-leaning voters — and how much their margins of error overlap.

The NPR writer, Danielle Kurtzleben, does mention that “margins might be a little smaller at the low end of the spectrum,” but she creates a graph that ignores that reality.

The misinterpretation of presidential polls is nothing new.  But this time, that ignorance will determine whether a candidate plays to a larger or smaller TV audience.**

* There are slightly different formulas for calculating the margin of error for very low percentages.  The Agresti-Coull formula  gives a confidence interval even if there are zero Yes responses. (HT: Andrew Gelman)

** Department of Irony: Some of these GOP politicians might complain about polls determining candidates’ ability to reach the widest audience. But none of them objects to having that ability determined by money from wealthy individuals and corporations.