Decadence Anyone?

January 31, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five years ago, I borrowed Stephen Colbert’s title I’m America, and So Can You for a post on the tendency of some columnists to attribute their own views to “Americans,”  “the public,” “the country,” or some other collective mind. “The public seems to be angry about values,” wrote David Brooks at the time. So much for “I-statements.” (That blogpost is here.)

Once you become sensitive to this rhetorical tactic, you can’t help noticing it. In his New York Times column today (here), Ross Douthat writes.

What are Trumpistas and Bern-feelers rebelling against? They’re rebelling against decadence.

Is decadence really the problem that is roiling the Trump and Sanders supporters? I don't recall seeing that term on any of their signs and slogans ( “Down With Decadence,” “Trump Trumps Decadence”).
A Lexis-Nexis search for “Trump” and “Decadence” in the last seven months turned up only one article in the US press linking these two –  a Times op-ed a month ago with the title “Cracks in the Liberal Order.” It was written by Ross Douthat. 

Swap out “Trump” for “Bernie Sanders,” and you get only this same Douthat column.

There was one article (Rochester, MN Post-Bulletin, Jan. 13) referring to a “Trump-style tower in giddy display of decadence.” And an editorial in the Providence Journal by Jay Ambrose said that Sanders and progressives generally should “stop their decadent way of supposing that people are poor because others are rich.” But these were saying that Trump and his would-be emulators and Sanders and his fellow progressives were themselves decadent, not that they were responding to decadence.

Despite the months of pre-primary coverage, journalists turn up no voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, or anywhere else who complained they were troubled about decadence in America. The Obama-haters compare him to Hitler, not Caligula. The Sanders supporters are rallying against inequality, not iniquity.

Decadence is in the eye of the beholder, and the only eye that seems to be beholding it belongs to  Ross Douthat.

Too Good to Be True

January 26, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some findings that turn up in social science research look good to be true, as when a small change in inputs brings a large change in outcomes. Usually the good news comes in the form of anecdotal evidence, but systematic research too can yield wildly optimistic results.

Anecdotal evidence?  Everyone knows to be suspicious, even journalists. A Lexis-Nexis search returns about 300 news articles just in this month where someone was careful to specify that claims were based on “anecdotal evidence” and not systematic research.

Everywhere else, the anecdotal-systematic scale of credibility is reversed. As Stalin said, “The death of a million Russian soldiers – that is a statistic. The death of one Russian soldier – that is a tragedy.” He didn’t bother to add the obvious corollary: a tragedy is far more compelling and persuasive than is a statistic.

Yet here is journalist Heather Havrilesky in the paper of record reviewing Presence, a new book by social scientist Amy Cuddy:

This detailed rehashing of academic research . . . has the unintended effect of transforming her Ph.D. into something of a red flag.

Yes, you read that correctly. Systematic research supporting an idea is a bright red warning sign.

Amy Cuddy, for those who are not among the millions who have seen her TED talk, is the social psychologist (Ph.D. Princeton) at the Harvard Business School who claims that standing in the Wonder Woman “power pose” for just two minutes a day will transform the self-doubting and timid into the confident, assertive, and powerful. Power posing even changes levels of hormones like cortisol and testosterone.

Havrilesky continues.

While Cuddy’s research seems to back up her claims about the effects of power posing, even more convincing are the personal stories sent to the author by some of the 28 million people who have viewed her TED talk. Cuddy scatters their stories throughout the book. . . .

Systematic research is OK for what it is, Havrilesky is saying, but the clincher is the anecdotal evidence. Either way, the results fall into the category of “Amazing But True.”

Havrilesky was unwittingly closer to the truth with that “seems” in the first clause. “Cuddy’s research seems to back up her claims . . . ” Perhaps, but research done by people other than Cuddy and her colleagues does not.  As Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung detail in Slate, the power-pose studies have not had a Wonder Woman-like resilience in the lab. Other researchers trying to replicate Cuddy’s experiments could not get similarly positive results.

But outside the tiny world of replication studies, Cuddy’s findings have had a remarkable staying power considering how fragile* the power-pose effect was. The problem is not just that the Times reviewer takes anecdotal evidence as more valid. It’s that she is unaware that contradictory research was available. Nor is she unique in this ignorance. It pervades reporting even in serious places like the Times. “Gee whiz science,” as Gelman and Fung call it, has a seemingly irresistible attraction, much like anecdotal evidence. Journalists and the public want to believe it; scientists want to examine it further.

Our point here is not to slam Cuddy and her collaborators. . . . And we are not really criticizing the New York Times or CBS News, either. . . . Rather, we want to highlight the yawning gap between the news media, science celebrities, and publicists on one side, and the general scientific community on the other. To one group, power posing is a scientifically established fact and an inspiring story to boot. To the other, it’s just one more amusing example of scientific overreach.

I admire Gelman and Fung’s magnanimous view. But I do think that those in the popular press who report about science should do a little skeptical fact-checking when the results seem too good to be true, for too often these results are in fact too good to be true.

* “Fragile” is the word used by Joe Simmons and Uri Simonsohn in their review and replication of Cuddy’s experiments (here).

Word Association. I Say “Focus Around Money and Media”; You Say . . .

January 15, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

What does “New York” mean?

Previously on “The West Wing,” on the first episode in fact  . . .  

“That New York sense of humor. . . . They think they’re so much smarter. They think it’s smart talk, but nobody else does,” says the character Mary Marsh. Josh’s demurral that he’s from Connecticut seems a bit disingenuous. Like everyone else in the “West Wing” White House, Josh is incredibly smart and savvy, so Toby’s explanation is more directed at the TV audience.

“She means Jewish.”

Did she? Josh derails that train of thought before Marsh has to answer. What might she have said? Maybe what Ted Cruz said.

Anyone familiar with this scene must surely have remembered it when Ted Cruz used “New York” as a similar kind of slur in last night’s debate.

What does Cruz mean by “New York values”? His initial evasion (“I think most people know exactly what New York values are”) and the laughter of the Iowa Republican audience suggest that the meaning is something everyone knows but would rather not say.

The message is that “New Yorkers” are different. They are not part of what Sarah Palin called “real America.” The next exchange amplifies that idea.  “You’re from New York? So you might not [understand].” Again the audience laughs and applauds appreciatively. The joke is that New Yorkers are so not American that they don’t even know how non-American they are. They are like some race of UFO aliens who imagine that they are successfully passing themselves off as humans. But of course the real humans know better.

Cruz then hauls out the “some of my best friends are . . .” trope.  “And listen, there are many, many wonderful, wonderful working men and women in the state of New York.” Of course, these people are not “New Yorkers.” They merely live in New York state, far away from the city.  These “wonderful working men and women” are different from New York City people, who are not wonderful and apparently don’t work.

Finally, Cruz explains: “But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.”

It reminds me of Lee Atwater’s famous quote: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can't say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

In 2016, you say stuff like “New York values” and “socially liberal” and “focus around money and the media.”

You can’t say “nigger” and you can’t say “Jew.” But you can say, as Cruz did just before Bartiromo asked him the values question, “There’s a reason, when Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer came after our right to keep and bear arms, that I led the opposition, along with millions of Americans — we defeated that gun control legislation.”

There’s Obama and his kind, and there’s Schumer and his kind. And then there are “millions of Americans.” Get it?

In the sci-fi movies, the real humans eventually expose, outwit, and triumph over the alien impersonators. So too, in Cruz-land, Americans, real Americans, will triumph over those others, the “New Yorkers.”

UPDATE January 16 

I wasn’t the only one to notice the unstated overtones in Cruz’s remarks about New York values. Maybe the performance was not all that subtle. These showed up in my Twitter feed.

Cruz, Christians, Compassion

January 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The great thing about Christianity is that it gives you two Testaments and two kinds of god. The god of the Old Testament is a wrathful god. But in the New Testament, Jesus represents a loving, caring, and forgiving god. The previous pope, Benedict XVI, who earned epithets like “the Panzer cardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler,” leaned in one direction. By contrast, the current pope, Francis, has just published a book – The Name of God is Mercy.

If you’re a Christian, you can take your pick depending on the circumstances. (An early post  in this blog was about the different responses of Protestant clergy (Dobson, Falwell) to adultery – that of Bill Clinton and that of Newt Gingrich.) If the sinner is one of your own, invoke New Testament ideals. If the sinner belongs to some other group, bring down the wrath of God.

Why does David Brooks not know this?

In today’s column (here), Brooks seems genuinely puzzled by the support Ted Cruz gets among evangelicals. Brooks begins by recounting Cruz’s efforts as Texas solicitor general to keep a man in prison far beyond what the law permitted.Would good Christians vote for such a merciless and vindictive fellow? You bet they would.

Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. . .

There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them
Mercy, gentleness, and compassion may be Christian virtues, but in dealing with those who have broken the law, Christians in the US go overwhelmingly for wrath. (I assume that Brooks, focusing on polls in Iowa, is talking about White Christians. )

The GSS asks people if they think that courts are “Too Harsh,” “Not Harsh Enough,” or “About right.” On this item, people who believe in the divinity of Christ are the most likely to think that courts are too soft on criminals. About four out of five want the courts to be harsher.

Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are somewhat more punitive than other Protestants. Closer to nine in ten want the courts to visit harsher punishments on people convicted of crime.

(The data are from 2000 because that is the only year that the GSS asked about Protestant subdivisions.)

This pattern holds for the death penalty as well. Protestants are the least likely to oppose the death penalty. 

Except for self-identified “liberal Protestants,” the people most likely respond with mercy and compassion are those who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus.

This Protestant penchant for punitiveness turns up in other places as well. On the GSS item that says “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard, spanking,” Christians – especially Protestants and especially Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants – are most likely to agree (40%) and agree strongly (another 50%). As usual, it’s the non-Christians, Jews especially, who disagree.

As Brooks and others have noted, Ted Cruz has many unpleasant qualities.* But his lack of compassion and mercy are not going to lose him any votes among White conservative Christians.

* Brooks is not alone among Republicans in disliking Cruz. As Frank Bruni wrote last month in the Times, “A Bush 2000 alumnus said to me: ‘Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.’”

A Gun Is Not a Swimming Pool

January 11, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The trouble with us liberals is that we worry about guns being dangerous.  If we can’t get rid of guns, we think, then at least let’s make them safer. But arguments and policies based on safety are not going to get much support from the gunslingers.

Charles Blow makes the safety argument in today’s New York Times (here). He draws the rough parallel between guns and cars.

People, including the president in his speech and town hall meeting last week, like to compare increasing gun regulations to the way cars are regulated. . . . Furthermore, cars are required to be licensed, registered, insured and periodically inspected.

Usually, it’s the the gunlovers who bring up cars, almost always in the same paragraph as swimming pools. Why all the fuss about guns, they argue, when these other ordinary things pose far greater danger.  In the National Review in 2013 (here), John Lott asked, “Should you ask your neighbors if they own a gun before your child plays at their house?” Here’s how he answered his own question:

If you are going to worry about your child’s safety you should check into other, perhaps less obvious dangers lurking in the playmate’s house: swimming pools, bathtubs, water buckets. . . Drownings alone claimed 609 deaths. . . .And don’t forget to ask about the playmate’s parents’ car and their driving records if your child will ride with them: After all, motor-vehicle accidents killed 923 children younger than 10.

All of those are far outnumber the 36 children who died in shooting accidents.

Lott doesn’t say what would happen if we looked not at absolute numbers but at risks. To do that properly, we’d have to know how many children played at houses where there were pools; or how many children rode in cars. We’d have to find out what proportion of car trips or swimming-pool play dates were fatal. Then we’d have to make the same comparison for children who played at homes equipped with guns.

Both sides leave out the crucial difference between swimming pools and cars on the one hand and guns on the other: The purpose of a swimming pool is recreation; the purpose of a car is transportation. Neither is intended to kill. But guns are for killing.

Suppose we could design a totally safe car – a car that absolutely could not kill anyone in the car or outside it. Many people would buy such a car. Insurance companies would give discounts to owners. Our elected officials might even require that all cars be equipped with this life-saving technology. And similarly for swimming pools.

Now imagine a gun that was guaranteed incapable of killing people.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. It happened. Or rather, it didn’t happen. Just the threat of such a disaster – a safer gun – was enough to mobilize the gunslingers to prevent it.

In 2000 the Clinton administration reached an agreement with Smith & Wesson, to end federal and state lawsuits, in exchange for marketing and design changes by the company. Some of the items Smith & Wesson agreed to were: to sell guns with locks; to build the locks in the weapons within two years; implement smart gun technology; and take ballistic fingerprints of its guns. [Wikipedia]

The NRA went ballistic. They organized a boycott. In the next year, Smith & Wesson sales fell by 40%.

This time around S&W has said nothing about Obama’s proposal but has been content to silently watch the price of their shares rise.
Smith and Wesson
Learned its lesson:
Forget the prez;
Do what NRA says.
We liberals fail to understand the gunlovers’ reaction because when we think about the ability to kill a lot of people, we don’t think of that as a good thing. When we think about guns, we think about danger and safety. We make the mistake of thinking about guns the way we think about swimming pools and cars – that each step we can make towards greater safety will be welcomed by manufacturers and consumers.

But with guns, as we clearly see in the reaction to Clinton’s and Obama’s proposals, the NRA, et al., see each step towards safety as a threat. Guns are for killing. Making guns safer, limiting magazines to “only” ten or fifteen rounds, limiting guns to firing “only” three rounds per second, making guns usable only by the owner – all bad.  The gunlovers do not want anything that might reduce their ability to kill people. Lots of people.

Loitering With Intent

January 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

At a blog called The Beautiful Sentence, I came across this quote from Frederick Wiseman

The only point of view I start off with is that if I hang around long enough, I'll find a movie

My first reaction was: if I sit in a Freddie Wiseman film long enough, eventually it will be over. [His latest, “Jackson Heights,” runs three hours ten minutes. “Belfast, Maine,” with a population 1/20 that of Jackson Heights, was over four hours long.]

But my next, and less cynical, thought was something that I heard William H. Whyte say at an ESS convention in the early 1980s.

I know that if I look at something nobody’s ever looked at before, and if I look long enough, I’m going to find something that nobody’s ever found before

It’s the ethnographer’s creed – hanging around, and then hanging around systematically, will lead to some insightful combination of observation and ideas. Whyte makes his ideas explicit. In Wiseman’s films, the ideas are hidden in the editing – the selection and juxtapositions.No voiceover narration, no interviews, no evident filmmaker presence at all. The filmmaker is seemingly invisible, indifferent, off somewhere paring his fingernails, though what he is really doing is paring and pasting thousands of feet of film.

The similarity in their work goes further.Wiseman’s documentaries are sociological. Whyte’s sociology is cinematic. Wiseman’s films are about social contexts, usually institutions. His first, “Titicut Follies,” explored (exposed really) a prison for the criminally insane. His next-to-most recent, documents London’s National Gallery. In between are flims like “High School,” “Zoo,” “Boxing Gym,” “La Comédie-Française ou L'amour joué,” and many more.

After his best-seller, The Organization Man (1956), Whyte turned to more visual kinds of research, not so much listening to what people say but watching what they do, especially in public places. He and his researchers were, like Wiseman, “hanging around,” but they were also filming and photographing and analyzing that evidence all with the goal of discovering what makes a space attractive. Attractive not in the sense of nice-looking, but literally: a space is attractive if it attracts people.    

Places to sit, sunlight, water (touchable, splashable), street characters (entertainers) – all these attract people. 

That leads to the greatest insight.

(A film of Whyte’s city observations is here . You can find a shorter 3-minute version here.)

B is for Beauty Bias

January 6, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The headlines make it pretty clear.
Attractive Students Get Higher Grades, Researchers Say

That’s from NewsweekSlate copied Scott Jaschik’s piece, “Graded on Looks,” at Inside Higher Ed and gave it the title, “Better-Looking Female Students Get Better Grades.”

But how much higher, how much better?

For female students, an increase of one standard deviation in attractiveness was associated with a 0.024 increase in grade (on a 4.0 scale).

The story is based on a paper by Rey Hernández-Julián and Christina Peters presented at the American Economic Association meetings. 

You can read the IHE article for the methodology. I assume it’s solid. But for me the problem is that I don’t know if the difference is a lot or if it’s a mere speck of dust – statistically significant dust, but a speck nevertheless. It’s like the 2007 Price-Wolfers research on fouls in the NBA. White refs were more likely to call fouls on Black players than on Whites. Andrew Gelman (here), who is to statistics what Steph Curry is to the 3-pointer, liked the paper, so I have reservations about my reservations. But the degree of bias it found came to this: if an all-Black NBA team played a very hypothetical all-White NBA team in a game refereed by Whites, the refs’ unconscious bias would result in one extra foul called against the all-Blacks. 

I have the same problem with this beauty-bias paper. Imagine a really good-looking girl, one whose beauty is 2½ standard deviations above the mean – the beauty equivalent of an IQ of 137. Her average-looking counterpart with similar performance in the course gets a 3.00 – a B. But the stunningly attractive girl winds up with a 3.06 – a B.

The more serious bias reported in the paper is the bias against unattractive girls.

The least attractive third of women, the average course grade was 0.067 grade points below those earned by others.

It’s still not enough to lower a grade from B to B-, but perhaps the bias is greater against girls who are in the lower end of that lower third. The report doesn’t say.

Both these papers, basketball and beauty, get at something dear to the liberal heart – bias based on physical characteristics that the person has little power to change. And like the Implicit Association Test, they reveal that the evil may lurk even in the hearts and minds of those who think they are without bias. But if one foul in a game or one-sixth of a + or - appended to your letter grade on your GPA is all we had to worry about, I’d feel pretty good about the amount of bias in our world.

[Personal aside: the research I’d like to see would reverse the variables. Does a girl’s academic performance in the course affect her beauty score? Ask the instructor on day one to rate each student on physical attractiveness. Then ask him to rate them again at the end of the term. My guess is that the good students will become better looking.]

Whither America’s Youth?

January 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Kids today are just so much better than kids of a generation or two ago.”    
When’s the last time you read an op-ed or magazine article that began like that. Never is my guess. Instead, you’re much more likely to find complaints about college kids who, when they’re not whining about being victimized by trivial and unintended slights, are demanding an end to free speech. Also popular are Millennials with their sense of entitlement and their refusal to work and jobs they find unfulfilling. And of course binge drinking, gangs, “Teen Mom,” sexting, the hook-up culture, grade inflation, and probably others I can’t think of at the moment.

But in fact most of the important trends among America’s youth are in the right direction.  Crime, for example, has decreased sharply in the last 20 years.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.  Data source here.)

Arrests for non-predatory offenses like drug violations and weapons offenses have followed a similar pattern.

Since 1995, arrests for liquor and weapons offenses are down by about two-thirds, drugs by about half.

Arrests, especially for non-predatory crimes, net only the more serious offenses. But self-report surveys, which include less serious matters, also show a decrease in the use of drugs and alcohol.

The percentage of high school seniors who have ever tried any drug is slightly lower than in the peak year, 1997 (49% vs. 54%). But kids today start their explorations at a later age. Heavy drinking has declined even more sharply – a decrease of 30% for seniors and nearly 60% for eight graders. [Source: NIDA]

As for those Teen Moms, the trend on TV (more) runs directly opposite to the trend in the real world (less).

The birth rate among younger teens is half of what it was twenty years ago. [Source: HHS ]

And it’s not because kids are having more abortions.

For teens of all ages, the rate of abortions a generation ago were three times or more greater than it is today.

Part of the reason for the lower birth rates might be that teens are not as sexually active.

The small declines in sexual activity are also accompanied by an increase in the use of contraceptives.

Finally, kids are staying in school. The overall dropout rate is half what it was in 1990. [Source]

So that’s it. Drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll.  Two out of three ain’t bad (crime too, so it's three out of four). As for rock ’n roll, the #1 song of 1995 was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Far be it from me to chart that against “Hello,” “Sorry,” or Hotline Bling.” But in the other more measurable categories, to quote a song title from an even earlier era, “It’s getting better all the time.”

Pleasure and Politics

January 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here is the bio line of an op-ed in today’s Times:
Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and a former senior political writer for who is writing a book about female pleasure and politics in America.
That’s a book I want to read. It’s a book I’d want to write if I knew enough about the subject. In a few posts (some of my favorites) in this blog, I have argued that American culture and politics regard pleasure with a certain amount of suspicion. Our Protestant ethic has remarkable staying power, and it underlies cultural products as diverse as Judd Apatow comedies (here) and conservative social science (here). Where European policies may be directed towards allowing people more pleasure, America has no national laws for guaranteed paid vacation days or greater job security, or family support generous enough so that parents (mothers especially) have some free time (here). The policy connection is clear. As the most recent Republican presidential nominee put it, “European-style benefits” would  “poison the very spirit of America.”  Or as one of my colleagues inadvertently suggested, he’d feel much better if we justified discussion – a dialogue about ideas – not as a source of pleasure as the French might but as a source of value, i.e., something with a practical payoff (here).

On the American political spectrum, my colleague and Judd Apatow are liberal. But generally in the US, the Protestant-ethic arguments come from the right.  The conservative fluster about pleasure gets more acute when the pleasure is sexual, and especially when the people having that pleasure are women. Male policies to control women’s sexuality arose with agrarian societies, as did other forms of inequality.  For 200,000 years or more, as hunter-gatherers, we humans were egalitarian and sexually unconstrained. Even social scientists who should know better sometimes ignore that long past and treat the more recent past – 15,000 years or so – as the total of human history. (See this post
 on virginity.)

The advent of industrial society seems to be slowly eroding those agrarian ideas. It makes sense then that those who want to conserve these agrarian-era inequalities are our political conservatives. I have long had a hunch that underneath even the most reasoned justifications for their policy preferences, for many of these conservatives, what’s really at work is a deep uneasiness about female sexual pleasure. I’d like to write a book making that argument about politics and pleasure, but as I said, my lack of knowledge and industriousness and maybe my inescapably male perspective and experiences, make me the wrong person to write that book. I hope Filipovic does it for me.