Who’s a Masseuse?

November 28, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In ninth grade, I had to read Ivanhoe. We all did. This was a long time ago. The only thing I remember about the book is that in Sir Walter Scott’s prose, the character Rebecca was a “Jewess,” often “the fair Jewess.”

Strange word. I think I may have giggled when I first read it. In the late 20th century, we no longer had Jewesses, just Jews or “Jewish girls.” I never thought to question the other “-ess” terms that were still around. That Jewish girl might want to grow up to be an airline stewardess or an actress; she might work in a restaurant as a waitress or a hostess. Today, in the 21st century, those feminine forms are disappearing. Some have been replaced by non-gendered terms like flight attendant or server. But we also remove gender by assimilating women into the category once reserved for men. Women are hosts and actors. Hostess and even actress seem to be going the way of authoress and poetess a century or more ago.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

This trend seems to follow the sequence we find in names that cross gender lines. Girls are given names traditionally reserved for boys, names like Leslie or Kelly. Generally, it’s a one-way street. Parents don’t give their sons girl names.  Often, when the girls move in, the boys start moving out. Has anybody here seen a boy named Kelly? (For more on this, see this earlier post.) Similarly with occupations, women drop the -ess* and take on the masculine form. They become authors and poets. When gender is needed, we add the specification “female. IMDB and Wikipedia refer to “female actors,” a phrase rarely heard or needed forty years ago.

I have found an exception — an occupation where the feminine form has become the generic. It’s masseuse. Once upon a time we had masseurs and masseuses, just as we had chanteurs (like Yves Montand) and chanteuses (Edith Piaf). Now, a man in the massage dodge might well be called a masseuse. If more gender clarity is required, we add “male.” Here is the Google n-gram showing the recent rise of masseuse and the decline of masseur.

Of course, the trends might reflect a change in subjects rather than language – more stories about women practitioners. So I Googled “male masseuse” and got 160,000 pages, led by Yelp’s listing of “Best Male Masseuse in New York.” And in 2015, Maxim magazine (here) interviewed a woman about her happy-ending massage at a high-end resort.

Just in case I had any doubts that masseuse had become the ungendered term, at about the same time Maxim ran that interview, we got the word from a far more widely-read authority on linguistic trends – The Jumble.

* The more durable -ess forms include royalty  (princess, empress, etc.), divinity (goddess), and perhaps wealth (heiress).


November 24, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Barney Frank, according to the New Yorker yesterday (here), is “long known as America’s crankiest liberal.” The former congressman is smarter than most people, and I get the impression that he does not suffer fools gladly, even when they agree with him.

This snippet is from an interview on the podcast “Unorthodox” (here).

Here is the transcript.

BARNEY FRANK: I was nervous. I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, but I was not certain.

STEPHANIE BUTNIK: Have you ever seen anything like this before? Is there anything that you can compare this to?


BUTNIK: Unprecedented?

FRANK: Well, that’s what not being able to compare it to means.

The three Unorthodox hosts, including the one who asks “Unprecedented?” are not fools, not by a long shot.* But Barney Frank couldn’t let it pass.

* “Unorthodox” bills itself as a “fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture.” But it reminds me of those “You don’t have to be Jewish” rye bread ads that New Yorkers of a certain age may remember. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it.

Power and Information

November 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Trump’s selection of Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff signals some hope. After all, he might have picked the White nationalists’ favorite, Steve Bannon, the Breitbart anti-Semite, who maintained Breitbart as a platform for anti-Semites. Priebus is a more mainstream Republican. Instead Bannon will be chief strategist.

My guess is that in the Trump White House, the chief of staff will be a crucial position. I asked a colleague in the political science department about this. She leafed through a textbook looking for an “org chart,” but couldn’t find one.  Here’s my stripped-down version of what it might look like.

The diagram shows the power arrangement, the chain of command. The president tells the chief of staff what he wants, and chief of staff converts these ideas into specific directions for those lower down the line.

But if you think of system as an information network, then the more information a person controls, the more power he has, regardless of the title associated with his position. Here’s another diagram.

Who’s in charge? It’s the same diagram – the same lines of communication. But relocating the circles shows more clearly the central position of the chief of staff. If all communication has to flow through him, and if he is the one who decides which information to pass along to others, he has the most power.

With a high-information president who seeks out information from a variety of sources, the chief of staff’s position is not so central, and its power is less. But if a president has little curiosity about facts, the person who controls the facts that he does get is the one who is really calling the shots. My impression is that George W. Bush was that kind of president, though in his case, at least during the first five or six years of his tenure, the central position was not the chief of staff but vice-president. “I’m the decider,” Bush famously said. But if Cheney was giving Bush the options to choose from and the information about those options, Cheney was the most powerful person in the administration.

Our current president-elect does not show much interest in the details of policy. It seems that he is delighted to be the president but that he does not really want to do the work of directing an administration. Given Trump’s meager knowledge of most issues, especially foreign policy, and his impulsiveness, a more centrist party hack like Priebus as chief of staff looks like a good thing, relatively speaking. Trump’s image of his administration will be Diagram A above. The reality will be Diagram B.

Majority Rules? Not in the US

November 13, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Correction (November 14): I misread the House returns, reversing the totals for Republicans and Democrats. The Republican House candidates got a higher total vote --51.4%. They won 55% of the seats.

Update (November 23): The popular vote for president now shows Clinton ahead by 2 million votes.

It’s official. The US government is now in full control of the less popular political party. More Americans voted for Democrats than for Republicans, but the minority party now controls all three branches of the federal government.

President: The Democratic candidate got more votes than did the Republican candidate.
    Clinton 60.1 million 62.4 million
    Trump 59.8 million 62.2 million

The Republican will be in the White House.

Senate: More votes were cast for Democrats than for Republicans.
    Democrats 45.2 million
    Republicans 39.3 million

The Republicans have a 51-48 edge in the Senate.

House:  More votes were cast for Democrats than for Republicans.
    Democrats 56.3 53.2 million
    Republicans 53.2 56.3 million

In Congressional seats, Republicans have a 237 - 193 advantage.

Judiciary: At the Supreme Court level, two justices – Alito and Thomas – were confirmed by Senators who represented a minority of the electorate. More Americans voted for Senators who voted Nay than for Senators who voted Yea. That pattern will likely hold for whoever Trump nominates for the seat that is currently vacant. That seat is vacant because Republicans refused to allow Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, to come up for a vote. Many of them hinted that if Hillary had won but Republicans still controlled the Senate, they would continue this tactic for four more years.

They have taken the same delaying approach to lower-level federal judgeships, so Trump will have many of those to appoint. In these too, the Republicans have shown themselves willing to trash long-standing norms for the sake of GOP hegemony. As Nina Totenberg explained (here) the day after the election,

If history is any guide Republicans will abandon — as they have before — traditional protections for the minority party, meaning that the views of opposition party senators will not be considered in the appointment of judges, even from states where both senators are Democrats. Senate Democrats, even when they controlled the Senate, did honor those GOP views, but Republicans have forsaken that traditional accommodation in recent times.

In my mind’s ear, the phrase “ruling minority party” calls up images of Saddam and the Ba’ath party in Iraq, or the Assad regime ruling Syria despite the Alawites being very much a minority— not exactly governments to emulate. I do not know if this strange and anti-democratic arrangement – the party with the most votes frozen out of power – has ever occurred before in US history. But for at least the next two years, the minority rules, and you can be sure that they will do everything in their power to keep it that way

Do Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well

November 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Economist Justin Wolfers tweeted yesterday.

By “economic & fiscal conservatism,” he’s referring to the Republicans’ often-voiced concern about The Deficit.  As I said in this post  three days ago, when Republicans are in power and want to spend a lot more than they take in, their “deficit scolds” stop scolding.*

The deficit data from the Federal Reserve (here) shows this pattern. The graph below charts the ratio of surplus or deficit to GDP.  In years where the government had a surplus, the line goes above the 0-point. The farther below the line, the greater the deficit relative to GDP. (The coloring and text identifying the presidents and their party are my own addition.)

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

Compare the first and last years of each administration. In all cases, deficit-to-GDP  under Democrats was less when they left office than when they entered. (For Carter, the difference is too small to see in this graph:  -2.57 in 1977, -2.46 in 1981.) In all Republican administrations, deficit-to-GDP was higher at the end of their terms than at the beginning. Democrats reduce the deficit; Republicans increase it.

The main reason is fairly obvious, though Twitter’s 140-character limit makes the tweet from Wolfers a bit misleading. He refers to “Trump’s tax and spending program.” What he means is “Trump’s less-tax and more-spending program.”  Trump’s people have said that one of their big priorities for the first 100 days is tax cuts. Steven Moore, Trump’s economic advisor, says that these will result in increased revenues. Cut tax rates, and tax revenue will magically increase. Hmmm. Where have we heard this before?

The answer is: Reagan and Bush II. (Bush the first, until Reagan selected him as his running mate, famously referred to this idea as “voodoo economics,” which it was. Costs of the tax cuts were not offset by increased revenue.) Bush II, in his early months in office, seemed to be touting his tax cuts, which of course would benefit mostly the wealthy, as the solution to everything. As Rick Herzberg in The New Yorker said at the time, Bush seems to think that the number one problem facing the country is that rich people don’t have enough money.

The Republicans in 2017 will follow in this tradition – lower taxes, especially for the rich, increased spending, and instead of deficit scolding, a reaffirmation of faith in voodoo economics.

* In the Bush years, some senators who had been elected as Republicans (e.g., Lincoln Chafee and Jim Jeffords) stuck by their deficit guns. Instead, they changed their party affiliation. They were no longer Republicans, leaving the GOP entirely to those whose concern with the deficit was selective and inconsistent (which is a nice way of saying “hypocritical”). 

Men At Lunch – Then and Now

November 11, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw these construction workers on Broadway at 79th St. today and took the picture mostly because of the color – those neon yellow vests.

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

When I was looking at the picture later, it reminded me of another photo, “Men At Lunch” by Charles Ebbetts – men working on the construction of Rockefeller Center in 1932.

The men in 1932 sit on a girder high above the streets, not on the sidewalk. They wear caps, not hard hats. They smoke. But the difference that most struck me was what they were doing. In 1932, men at lunch are sharing those papers (blueprints?). Except for the guy on the right end, they are all talking to another man.

In 2016, every man is on his cell phone. 

Is There Any Good News?

November 9, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The next four years are likely to be, in many ways, a disaster (to use a favorite word of our president-elect). But maybe there are some bright spots.

1. Deficit scolds. That’s Paul Krugman’s term for politicians and conservative think-tankers who opposed many of Obama’s policies on the grounds that they would drastically increase the deficit. What we needed, so the argument went was “fiscal responsibility.” In many situations, that argument was not just bad policy, it was bad economics.

But once Republicans are in power, they will no longer cry wolf. As we saw during the Bush years, when it comes to spending lots of money on stuff that Republicans really like – tax cuts for the wealthy, for example, or a nifty little war in Iraq – their worry about the deficit vanishes. No more scolding.

2. Sexual sophistication. European voters don’t care much about what their political leaders do in their private sex lives. They see that sphere as separate from the public world of policy. Conservative Americans, especially the religiously conservative, have usually taken a different view – that a man who is sexually immoral cannot possibly govern wisely.

As I showed in a recent post (here), Trump has gotten these conservatives to lighten up. They have now become cosmopolitan, almost European, in their separation of sex and statesmanship. Their votes yesterday have given us a president with two divorces, several affairs, and a penchant for grabbing women by the pussy (if they are attractive enough) and walking in on naked teenage girls. We are now a nation where each of us is only a click away from nude photos of our First Lady.  Makes the French seem prudish by comparison.

3.  Re-moralization. Four years ago, Charles Murray called our attention to the demoralization of the White working class. They had become disaffected and no longer attached to the dominant institutions of society – work, education, family. They felt that they had been screwed by the system, a system run by a distant and disdaining cultural elite. That feeling, said Murray, was accurate (more here). Their America had been taken from them. 

This sentiment was the basis of Republican political strategy during the Obama years. If you want to take back “your” country from these usurpers, vote Republican. (See my post “Repo Men” from five years ago.)

Now that they have taken it back, perhaps these White working class people will feel more a part of society. They will stay in school, get married and stay married and raise their children in traditional families. They will re-adopt the work ethic and stay in their jobs and in the labor force. Rates of drug use, suicide, and ill health will decrease.

Will any of these happen? Yes, but the changes will not be permanent. The first two are examples of people altering their ideas – about economics or morality – to suit their political preferences. Given a Democratic politician or policies, these people will revert to their former ideas, all the while insisting that fiscal responsibility and conventional sexual morality are rock-solid, inviolable principles.

As for the White working class, I suspect that the economy is far more important than their sense of political efficacy. If Trump can bring back industrial jobs to the heartland as he guarantees he will, their participation in work, family, and school may reverse its downward course. It is possible. But if we do not see a return to a 20th-century economy, the Trumpists will somehow have to resolve the dissonance. It will still be their country; the party and the man who represent them will still be dominant. But the reality of their lives may remain unimproved. The ways they might resolve that dissonance include some possibilities I’d rather not think about right now. These have been visible for a while, but if we lose the economic gains of the Obama years, things could get really nasty.

Straight Outta Wharton – Trump and Hip Hop Values

November 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jay Z and Beyoncé joined Hillary at a campaign rally, and Donald Trump attacked. (So what else is new?) Criticizing the language in Jay Z’s lyrics, he said. “My lewd language. I tell you what, I've never said what he said in my life.”

It’s the same argument that Trump’s surrogates have been making ever since the Access Hollywood tape became public. Instead of defending Trump, they criticized the critics, accusing them of hypocrisy. Here is Betsy McCaughey on CNN reading some lyrics from Beyoncé’s “Formation.”

McCaughey’s point is that it is hypocritcal for Hillary Clinton to pretend to be offended by Trump’s remarks while at the same time claiming to admire Beyoncé. This same argument echoed rapidly around the right wing media sites, which all, by strange coincidence, used the same Beyoncé lyric. It’s a silly argument. As the others on the panel point out, Beyoncé is not running for president. Do we really want to apply the same criteria for choosing a president that we use for judging the persona of an entertainer? The comparison is ridiculous. Or is it?

In fact, Trump embodies many of the same values as rappers. Most obvious is the narcissism – the constant need for attention, the desire to be above others, to be the biggest, greatest, most successful, wealthiest. If others seem a threat to that status, attack them without regard for the usual norms of the situation. Modesty and non-violence, are decidedly not virtues – not for Trump, not for the rappers.

The corollary of this narcissism is conspicuous consumption. How do you make sure that everyone is aware of your greatness? For both Trump and the rappers, there’s a clear answer – bling. Lamborghinis, gold chains and grilles, Kristal champagne for the rappers. For Trump, a gold-plated motorcycle and helicopter. The National Review (here) describes his NYC home.

A Louis XIV-style Manhattan apartment features marble floors, walls, and columns; ceiling frescos; winged cherubs; and diamond chandeliers. Gold platters, lamps, vases, crown molding, and other 24-karat fittings decorate this ostentatious King Midas’s abode.

Trump owns a yacht and a jet and fancy cars. So does Jay Z. The parallels go further. Jay Z, in “99 Problems,” brags about exploiting legal technicalities for his personal advantage. His first album was “Reasonable Doubt.” Trump brags about his ability to use the law to avoid paying taxes (“That means I’m smart”). He’s got 99 problems, but the tax code ain’t one.

Does the rapper-Trump parallel extend to ideas about women? Yes, but I think there are important differences (I am necessarily oversimplifying here). Neither offers a very evolved attitude, but Trump has at least a fantasy of himself as a romantic. His discourse about women lacks the strand of pure exploitation and violence that runs through some rap lyrics. Rappers distinguish between bitches and hos – a distinction that seems based on the ways that a man can exploit them.  Trump’s view is more unidimensional – a scale of one to ten.

I am not all that familiar with rap lyrics, but this excerpt from Sheek Sheek on Puff Daddy’s “All About the Benjamins” seems to capture the similarities. With only a little rewriting, they might be something Trump could easily have said – except for the line about exploiting the woman financially (she pays for the skiing at Aspen).

But don't knock me for trying to bury
Seven zeros over in Rio Di Janeiry [offshoring income for tax purposes]
Stash in the buildin’ wit this chick named Alona (uh-huh) /
from Daytona, when I was young I wants to bone her (uh-huh) /
But now I only hit chicks that win beauty pageants (ahahaha) /
Tricking and taking me skiing, at the Aspens

With all these – language, attitudes towards women, narcissism, conspicuous consumption, attitudes towards the law – there are differences between Trump and the median rapper. The question is whether they are differences of kind (as Trump says about language) or differences of degree.