The Marvelous Mrs. Anachronism

January 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The authenticity of the [ancient parchment] scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.”*
Most language anachronisms are harder to spot than Oldsmobile. But why?

“Mad Men” begins in 1960, but the ad men and women use terms that didn’t enter the language till much later: niche marketing, iconic, enough on her plate, how’d that work out for you, key demographic, bi-coastal, and many others. (“Mad Men posts are here and here.)

And now we have “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, set in roughly the same time and place as “Mad Men,” New York City 1958, though the social geography is slightly different – downtown comedy clubs and Upper West Side Jews rather than Madison Avenue and WASPs. The trailer for Season One summarizes the concept and setting.

From the opening shot with Checker cabs through to the final frame, everything is visually perfect for 1958 – clothes, interiors. But then (at 1:42) Midge says, “This comedy thing – it has to work.” But that construction – “this _____ thing” with any noun in the blank – was all but unknown before the mid-sixties, and it didn’t become widely used until the 1980s.

Many other people have noticed the language anachronisms on this show. A twentysomething I know caught “touch base with.” My own list includes: reach out to, alternate universe, scam, low bar, talking trash, I’m fine with, out of the loop, perp walk, kick [some big-time comedy] ass, she has been killing it, wackadoodle, crunching the numbers.

At first I thought that the writer/creators just didn’t care. But on a recent interview on KCRW’s “The Business,” they said this.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript

Q: Do you ever do the research and say, “Would a woman in the 50s do this?”

A: We have this delightful researcher who has like twelve masters degrees in everything in the world, and all she gets is like “Did they say *** back in nineteen-fif . . You [Palladino] had a couple where I was like that just feels too modern.

We don’t want to get caught out with that stuff ’cause everyone around us is so good – our production designer, our costumes, our props . .  And the last thing I want to do, when everyone is making sure that the piping on the wall and the colors are all correct, is that we’re the ones that come in and throw in a bunch of dialogue that’s not appropriate.

If they’re so good about the props and costumes, how can they throw in a bunch of dialogue that has so many anachronisms? Part of the answer, I think, is that our dominant sense is sight. We are much more likely to notice an object that doesn’t look right than a word that doesn’t sound right. Second, these visual things are the object of deliberate thought. We consciously choose our cars and clothes and colors. We also know that someone has consciously designed them and that the designers are deliberately trying to make them new and different. Not so our words. Nobody is advertising “wheelhouse” or “drill down” as the must-have word for this year. All the influencing and being influenced occurs out of our awareness. As a result, our language seems “natural” – unplanned and spontaneous rather than arbitrary. So we assume that this must be the way people always speak and have always spoken. 

That’s especially true for people who were not around during the historical period in question. If you weren’t watching club performers in 1958, you might just assume that the emcee then, as now, would say, “Let’s give it up for. . .” And if you weren’t familiar with stand-up comedy from that period, you might assume that comics then would ask, as Mrs. Maisel does, “What’s up with that?”

In fact, her whole style of stand-up is an anachronism, but that’s a matter for another blog post. The writers are familiar with the new comedy of  the late 50s – Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx, and others. And there’s a reference to Nichols and May that includes a glaring anachronism. When a male comic offers to work with Midge as a duo, her manager Susie advises against it.

SUSIE: He wants to fuck you.

MIDGE:  He wants me to work with him. He says we’ll be like Nichols and May. Nichols and May don’t fuck.

SUSIE Nichols and May totally fuck.

Nichols and May did in fact have a brief romantic involvement. But in 1958, nobody “totally” fucked. Nobody “totally” did anything.

*  *  *  *  *
[A few months after I posted this, I had second thoughts about language anachronisms in contemporary TV shows. That post is here.]

[Update, Feb. 3, 2019. Some commenters have mentioned the profanity. In a more recent post (here), I suggested that what was anachronistic was not the amount of profanity but the specific words. Sixty years ago, the intensifier of choice among White middle-class New Yorkers would have been goddam, not fucking.]


* From Woody Allen’s essay about six parchment scrolls discovered by a wandering shepherd in cave near the Gulf of Aqaba.

Punishment and Crime

January 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

When a criminal case is front-page news, the sentence matters not for its effect on the criminal but for its effect on the rest of us. As I said (here) about the Stanford swimming team rapist, punishment is not about crime.

The headlines in the local papers this morning confirm this idea.

What’s important about the sentence and the judge’s statement is that they express a collective outrage at Nassar. Nobody seriously expects the sentence to have any deterrent effect on other potential criminals. Nor was the sentence necessary to keep Nassar from further crimes. Federal courts had already sentenced him to sixty years for kiddie porn. The purpose of the sentence is to allow the rest of us to feel good. That function of sentencing marches under the banner of “retribution” or sometimes “justice.” But it might just as well be called “vengeance.”

The headlines also make it clear that this same motivation is the basis for sentiments favoring the death penalty. Proponents may talk about deterrence and saving lives, but their real argument is the moral one – that the criminal is so evil that he (almost always he, rarely she) does not deserve to live. But it’s not the criminal’s death per se that they want. The criminal who commits suicide or dies of illness has “cheated” us of our chance for vengeance. (See this 2006 post, “Cheating the Executioner.”)

We want the strongest expression of our moral outrage – and that is a sentence of death. Anything less will not do. So even though Nassar’s crimes were not capital offenses, the judge pretended that she was handing down a death sentence. Predictably, “death warrant” was the part of her statement that the newspapers ran in the headlines. Even the sedate New York Times had the money quote in a subhead, after “Gymnasts’ Abuse Draws Sentence Likely to Be Life.”

In these celebrated cases, what’s important then is the judge’s pronouncing the sentence. Whether the sentence is actually carried out usually escapes notice. Most people sentenced to death are not executed, and for the few who are, the execution comes so many years later that the crime has been all but forgotten. Go back to a case of a few years ago, a case where prosecutors and the much of the general public claimed that the only way to achieve justice was to execute the convicted person. Ask people if that criminal is still alive. Most will not know, and most will not care enough to bother to find out. The moment of truth was the handing down of the sentence. What happens later doesn’t count much on ledger of moral sentiments. There are exceptions – Charles Manson was never going to be paroled – but they are just that, exceptions

Harley Barber Was Right

January 20, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Harley Barber’s Finsta video – the one where she repeats the word nigger a dozen times in a minute – went viral. But in all the criticism, nobody (as far as I know) bothered to note that she is essentially correct: Language norms vary from region to region and from group to group. Or in Barber’s formulation of this idea:

I’m in the South now, bitch so everyone can fuck off.  I’m from New Jersey. So I can say nigger as much as I want.

Here’s the entire video.

She could have been more specific. She’s not just in the South. She’s in Alabama, and even more specifically, she’s in a car surrounded by her University of Alabama Alpha Phi sorority sisters. Her point is that if she had been in New Jersey, the people around her might have said, “You know Harley, we don’t think that way or use that word these days. And even if you do have those sentiments, it’s not a good idea to make a video of yourself expressing them, especially with that word. And if you do make a video, it’s a really bad idea to post it on Instagram.”

But her sorority sisters seem to be in complete agreement with her. That’s to be expected. Alpha Phi has a reputation for its retrograde mentality regarding race and gender. Their 2015 recruiting video looked like a casting call for The Bachelor except that all the girls are White.

As a writer at (the newspaper/media consortium) put it, Alpha Phi in this video presents itself as “all so racially and aesthetically homogeneous and forced, so hyper-feminine, so reductive and objectifying, so Stepford Wives: College Edition.” (The sorority soon took down the video, though you can see it here in a TV news story.)

The message was not lost on Harley Barber. Her video begins,

I’ve wanted to be in Alpha Phi since fucking high school and nobody fucking understands how much I love Alpha Phi

A couple of other observations about the incident:

1. Language norms change. Barber says fuck or fucking more times than she says nigger. As far as I know, nobody has voiced any objections.

2. Money makes it OK. In Barber’s reasoning, wealth and conspicuous consumption justify morally questionable attitudes.

And if anyone else wants to snake me for saying nigger on my finsta, I’m a in a fur vest. I want you to buy my fur vest. Cause fuck you. Go to Neiman Marcus and buy my fur vest

Neiman-Marcus fur vests go for as little as $600, but most are $2500 and up. Barber is not alone in resolving moral questions by looking at financial success. (See this earlier post about similar defenses of chicanery by JP Morgan during the financial crisis)

3.  Ideas and essence.  A day or two later in her fifteen minutes of fame, Barber issued an apology: “I’m an idiot. There’s no excuse. I did something really bad.” I would guess that if you asked Barber, “Are you a racist?” she would say No, and she would be sincere. Many other people are calling her a racist, and they are just as adamant. The trouble is that the question “Is she a racist?” is the wrong question. First, it assumes that ideas and attitudes are permanent and essential. Second, it also assumes what we might call the racism-binary – that each person either is or is not a racist. Both those assumptions are questionable if not flat out wrong. Much of the reporting about the incident got it right. Headlines referred to a “racist video” or “racist rant,” not a “racist co-ed.”

What Becomes of the Broken Norm?

January 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Norms are fragile things, especially when they apply only in select situations.

In the 1970s, Bill Weeden and Dave Finkle worked as a comedy duo in clubs like the Improv in New York City. They billed themselves as “A Couple of Guys With Class,” which was also the title of their opening song. As best I can remember, it started like this:

We’re a couple of guys with class,
Up to our ears in class.
If you looking for vulgar,
Boy we’re not it,
We never say “fuck”
And we never say “shit.”

The joke of that last line – it always got a laugh – was in the apophasis (saying something while saying that you’re not saying it). But it also put the audience on the side of the performers in recognizing that the norms about proper language were arbitrary and situational. The message was,“We all know we’re not supposed to say these words, but we also know that we all actually do say them.” We were laughing at our own hypocrisy or at least our inconsistency from one situation to another.

If you lean on that situational norm, pretty soon it gives way. Twenty years earlier, Weeden and Finkle could have been arrested for violating New York’s obscenity laws (as Lenny Bruce fans and viewers of Mrs. Maisel know). Many “fucks” and “shits” and a few court cases later, that had all changed. Today, it’s rare to hear a comic who, like Seinfeld, does not say “fuck” and “shit.”

A few weeks ago, news outlets with class – the New York Times and NPR, for example – would not use the word “shit” even as part of a compound word – a word like, say, “shithole” – even though the word  “shit” was in wide use elsewhere. Season two of NPR’s podcast “Serial” was about an Alabama man who referred to his local community as “Shittown.” NPR called the podcast “S-town.” That was a year ago.

Now Donald Trump’s characterizing some nations as “shithole countries” was just too important to ignore. Some publications continued to censor or Bowdlerize the word. You would see “S**t” in print or hear Wolf Blitzer talk about “s-hole countries or bleep-hole countries.” Much of the mainstream media put the phrase in quotation marks, as if to say, “Trump’s word, not ours.” But in today’s Times, Paul Krugman, writing about anti-immigration in the 19th century, says, “Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day.” The quotation marks around shithole are implied but not visible.

I expect that from now on, the censoring of other quotes that include “shit” will decrease. Then before long, op-ed writers will be able to use the word even when it carries no reference to what someone else said.

The norm once breached is now broken. Like Humpty-Dumpty, it has been pushed off the wall and lies shattered on the sidewalk. Of course, Trump has violated far more serious norms (as noted in this Atlantic article  among many, many others). Will the social forces (i.e., people) upholding those norms be resilient enough to re-instate them?

One For the Books

January 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ending of the Vikings-Saints game was one for the books.

By “ending” I don’t mean the fluke 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown as the clock ran out.  I mean the actual ending – the final play, the extra point, which didn’t come until eight minutes (it seemed like 20) after the touchdown.

And by “books” I don’t mean the record books. I mean the bookmakers. That point, or non-point, made a big difference only to them and their customers.

It was also one for this blog. In the early days of this blog, I had several posts that considered the idea of “the wisdom of crowds.” James Surowiecki’s book with that title was much on my mind, mostly because I thought that it was wrong, at least when the topic was football gambling. (See this post, for example.) The basic idea is that for guessing what is now unknown (a lost ship, the outcome of next week’s game, the weight of an ox), don’t ask an expert. Ask a crowd of ordinary but interested people and take the average. Gamblers call that choice the “chalk” – the team (or horse) that’s getting most of the action.

But gamblers also talk about the “smart money.” In sports betting, bookmakers don’t care so much about the crowd. But there are a few people whose action the books do pay special attention to, and not just because the bets are usually large. Last Monday, most books opened the Vikings-Saints game with the Vikings as 3½-point favorites. The public liked the Saints. Two out of every three bets took New Orleans plus the points.

Since bookmakers have a guaranteed profit when the amount bet on each side is the same, bookmakers should then have tried to discourage more Saints money by reducing the points – say from 3½ to 3. Instead, they raised the line to 4 and then 4½, The public may have been backing the Saints, but the smart money, the “sharps,” were taking the Vikings. By the weekend, the line had gone to 5 and then 5½.

With the Saints leading 24-23 with ten seconds left and the Vikings 60 yards from the goal line, it looked like the crowd was right. Then came the touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. The score was now Vikings 29, Saints 24; the clock showed all zeros. The smart money, the bettors who had gone with the Vikings early in the week, looked very smart indeed. Among Saints backers, those who had bet late and gotten the 5½ came out ahead.

Bookmakers still lost money since a lot of the Saints action had come in on Sunday at 5½. But the touchdown saved them from paying off all those early bets on the Saints.

Then came the bizarre extra point. After the touchdown, with no time left on the clock, everyone thought the game was over. TV crews and others went out onto the field. Players strode gleefully or walked dejectedly to the locker room. The refs had to call them back out for the extra point. NFL rules require it. But there was no way the outcome would be changed, so who cared? Bettors and bookies, that’s who. The score was 29-24. For anyone who had bet the game at 5½, the extra point was the difference between winning and losing.

The Saints weren’t too enthusiastic about things and took their time coming out of the locker room and back onto the field.

When both teams had finally shown up, the Vikings, rather than trying to score, politely took a knee. Game over, finally.
It would have been even better for the books –  and worse for the crowd –  if the teams had taken the extra-point seriously. Normally, even with only a few seconds left on the clock, the teams would have lined up for the extra point, the kick would have been good, and the Vikings would have won by 6 points rather than 5. Bookies would have kept all the money that had been bet on the Saints. Instead, they had to pay off the late bets that came in on the Saints plus 5½.

In the end, the smart money – the sharps who bet the Vikings giving 3½ or 4 points – won. As for the crowd, some won, some lost, some got a push.

Punishing the Poor, Again

January 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Republican approach to Medicaid seems designed not to improve the health and lives of the poor but to bolster other people’s feelings of righteousness. That’s why these policies focus on punishment for the “undeserving poor.” (See the previous post.)

The same preference for punishing sinners rather than solving problems pervades the anti-abortion movement. If the goal is to reduce the number of abortions, it would seem logical to reduce unwanted pregnancies. But most anti-abortion groups and politicians also want to restrict birth control.

Abortion opponents should also, logically, promote policies that make motherhood easier, but they don’t. Instead, as Michelle Oberman in today’s New York Times (here) points out, abortion opponents typically focus on making abortion more and more difficult or even punishing abortion-seeking women. These policies fall hardest, of course, on women with little money.

The price of motherhood is set by our government’s policies. It will, at some level, always be cheaper for a woman to have an abortion than to have a baby. But if anti-abortion campaigners truly want to decrease the numbers of abortions, rather than passing laws designed to drive up the costs of abortion, they would do far better to invest in the kinds of economic supports that make becoming a parent a realistic possibility for struggling women.

Consider the medical needs of the women living at Rose Home: access to health care, substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, food and housing. Each has a price tag. Yet rather than offsetting the high price of motherhood, recent anti-abortion laws drive up the cost of abortion by closing clinics, forcing women to travel farther, and to wait longer before ending their pregnancies.

The abortion war, with its singular focus on law, distracts us from the economic factors entwined in a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy. In a world of true choice, whether a woman walked into a Planned Parenthood or a crisis pregnancy center, she would learn that society cared enough to provide her with the resources she needs, regardless of her decision.

Oberman refers to “focus on law” in that last paragraph, but the laws she’s talking about, much like the Medicaid work-requirement rules, are designed not to help pregnant women but to make life more difficult for the unrighteous. The message these laws send is not that we want you to become a mother but that we want to see you suffer for having an unwanted pregnancy. For abortion opponents, having their morality engraved into the law the allows for rejoicing in righteous victory, but as Oberman says, it doesn’t do much for poor women or for their babies.

Last week, a New York Times op-ed about Medicare had a title that characterized the Republican approach: “You’re Sick. Whose Fault Is That?” The same idea applied to abortion would give us “You’re Pregnant. Whose Fault Is That?” It’s a great question if you are interested in assessing blame. The payoff comes in the currency of feelings – guilt (for those with illness or unwanted pregnancy), pride or righteousness for the healthy and virtuous. But if you’re interested in effective policy to improve people’s health or reduce abortion, “whose fault?” is the wrong question.Why not ask, “How can we help?”

* Policies like this play well in the US. Where other countries see problems and search for effective solutions, Americans tend to see moral wrongdoing that should be punished. This tendency is especially strong in the area of sexuality, especially female sexuality, and not just when the issue is abortion. 

Nine years ago I wrote (here) about a Pennsylvania district attorney who was threatening to prosecute 15-year old girls for “sexual abuse of a minor.” The minors? Themselves. Their crime? A year or two earlier, they had taken cell-phone photos of themselves that showed them from the waist-up wearing only a bra. If convicted, they could be sent to prison and forced to register as sex offenders.

GOP Medicaid – It’s About Righteousness, Not Health

January 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post, I concluded that the principle goal of the Republican approach to Medicaid was not to improve the health of poor people but to punish their unvirtuous behavior. Today, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services pretty much confirmed that. They issued guidelines allowing states to force Medicaid recipients to get a job, or failing that, to volunteer or participate in job training.  Here is the tweet from Seema Verma, director of the Centers.

Verna assumes that forcing poor people to work or volunteer improves their health. It doesn’t. At the Upshot (the New York Times’s data-heavy sector, here) Margot Sanger-Katz reviews the evidence.

It is not at all clear how much work or income alone improve health. In fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence that causality can move in the opposite direction . . . .“Having the medical coverage helps people to get a job,” said LaDonna Pavetti, a vice president at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who has studied work requirements extensively. . . .

The earned-income tax credit, a program established specifically to raise the incomes of low-wage workers, wasn’t able to find any clear health benefit.

Sanger-Katz links to an article by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank. Even he doesn’t think that the new rules will improve the health of the poor. And because people without Medicaid will wind up going to the emergency room (far more expensive that regular treatment), work requirements won’t save the government any money. Heritage published the article last March with the headline, “Work Requirements in Medicaid Won’t Work . . .”

A work requirement would just make it less likely for able-bodied adults without dependent children, known as ABAWDs, to register for the program. The work requirement would reduce Medicaid enrollments, but Medicaid costs might well go up because the eligible ABAWDs would go to the emergency room rather than receive routine care elsewhere. . . .

Suppose a Medicaid eligible ABAWD enrolls in Medicaid and then fails to do his work assignment (a very likely outcome based on experience with other work requirements). This individual then shows up sick in the emergency room or clinic. Is the government going to deny him medical care because he did not do his workfare assignment? Of course not. [Well, maybe and maybe not. A lot of Tea Party types would gleefully deny him medical care. At a debate during the 2012 GOP primaries, they cheered at the idea of allowing someone without insurance to die. See this post.]

As Sanger-Katz says, Rector’s rationale for work requirements is not medical, it’s moral. The goal is not to make people healthy but to make them virtuous, to make them “personally responsible.”  And the way to do that is to punish them for their lack of virtue even though that may bring sickness and death. After all, since health is a matter of personal responsibility, it’s what they deserve. 

The new rules may not be very good at improving the health of poor people, but they will be effective at making the rest of us feel morally righteous. And isn’t that more important?

Virtue and Public Policy

January 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the conservative view, poverty and its associated ills happen not because poor people lack money and living-wage jobs but because poor people lack virtue. Since the 19th century, conservatives have struggled with the question of how to instill virtue in the lower classes. Their answer is usually some scheme for punishing bad behavior. Those policies are consistent with the idea that behavior arises from individual morality.

The trouble is that public policies derived from truths about individuals often have little general impact, especially when those policies emphasize punishment as the path to virtue. At The Upshot section of the New York Times website today (here), Dr.  Dhruv Khullar looks at how virtue and its lack affect health. The headline says,
“You’re Sick. Whose Fault Is That?”
Not mine. People like me, we go to the gym, we spin, we do yoga, we try not to gain weight, we don’t smoke, we wear FitBits and eat kale for godssake – all in the belief that this will keep us healthy and extend our years. There’s some evidence that we’re correct. But does our virtue point the way to effective policies? The sub-head in Dr. Khullar’s article has the answer.
It seems sensible to encourage “personal responsibility,” and yet policies that invoke the phrase can make health problems worse. 
Dr. Khullar offers the example of Indiana. When Indiana expanded Medicaid under the ACA, it added some provisions to punish unvirtuous health practices among the poor.*

To get full benefits in Indiana, patients must contribute monthly to a “personal wellness and responsibility account.” If they fail to pay, they may have benefits cut or lose coverage entirely for six months. They must also make co-payments for certain services, and pay a fee if they use the emergency department  unnecessarily.

Dr. Khullar says that the program has had “mixed results.” It is certainly not as effective as the state government claims. (Jake Harper at  NPR  goes deep into the weeds to fact-check those claims.)

At the same time the Indiana government rejected a more obvious way to reduce bad health practices, namely smoking. Some legislators thought that Hoosiers would cut down on their smoking if the tax on cigarettes was increased by $1 a pack. Less smoking and its attendant ills, more money for the state to use for healthcare or highways. Sounds like a good deal. But Gov. Pence and the Republicans in the state senate opposed the bill, and it never passed.

These legislative choices seem consistent with two principles cherished among conservatives: first, conservatives really hate restricting individual behavior even if those restrictions promote the general welfare (this same principle justifies their aversion to taxes, even “sin” taxes); and second conservatives really like punishing unvirtuous behavior among the poor


* The woman who ran this program for Indiana when Mike Pence was governer is now the Trump administration’s head of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Norm-Breaking in Elite Cultures

January 8, 2018 
Posted by Jay Livingston

A couple of recent items had me wishing that we had more ethnographies of the wealthy and powerful.*

First it was the Republican leaders’ obsequiousness to Trump after they’d passed the tax bill – what journalist Martin Schram called “a gushing word-bath of praise.”
  • Paul Ryan: “Something this big, something this generational, something this profound could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership.”
  • Mitch McConnell: “Mr. President … this has been a year of extraordinary accomplishment for the Trump administration.”
This despite Trump having insulted them on Twitter (“Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan.” “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done.”)

Trump has forced cabinet members and other White House staff to similarly grovel. I wondered how these leaders, public and important men, could fawn like this. Don’t they know what they look like? Don’t they know how others see them?

My sociological spider sense tells me to think about them the way we think about any small-group culture. American sociology, since its early days, has shown how groups develop a set of ideas about what they do, especially when what they do is seen by others as strange or wrong. Howie Becker’s essays on marijuana-using musicians in the 1940s may be the best known example.

Maybe these politicians create a culture that frames this fawning as “political efficacy” or something like that rather than as what it seems to outsiders – brown-nosing. Maybe someone has already written an ethnography of Washington insiders. If so, I’m not aware of it.

A week later, Vanity Fair splashed an article about Silicon Valley sex parties.

The quote in the title is misleading. It’s a moral statement  – about what’s right and wrong (though not precisely in those terms). The full sentence takes the sociological perspective. It’s not that something is right or wrong but that how it looks depends on whether you are inside or outside.

“Anyone else who is on the outside would be looking at this and saying, Oh my God, this is so fucked up,” one female entrepreneur told me. “But the people in it have a very different perception about what’s going on.”

It raises the same question implicit in Becker’s Outsiders and all those other studies of deviance in groups: How do you insulate yourself from the perceptions of others?

The author of the article, Emily Chang, gives a couple of examples of the ways that these men neutralize mainstream norms. For example, they see their sexual morality and behavior as “disruptive” and as “changing paradigms.” Both of these buzzwords carry a very positive charge these days, especially in the tech and business world. “Disruptive” companies “change paradigms” and along the way make a ton of money.** Also carried over from the start-up world to the world of sex parties is an anti-regulation ideology. These men see themselves as libertarians, not libertines.

Unfortunately, Chang is doing journalism, not ethnography. She does not show us the conversations that reinforce the ideas that neutralize conventional perceptions and judgments. One man she talks to has reached the interesting view that although it’s the men who organize the parties and supply the women with Ecstasy and other drugs, “it’s women who are taking advantage of him and his tribe, preying on them for their money.” My hunch is that the “tribe” of men help reinforce this idea. But the picture we get from Chang is that they have come by this ideology separately.

Many of the men offer another idea as both explanation and justification – that they are making up for all the sex they didn’t have when they were younger. Even one of the women Chang talks to agrees.. “Ava” is an entrepreneur, and while apparently she is not a regular at sex parties, she has dated several of these newly wealthy men. Her evaluation of the catching-up hypothesis is less charitable than that of the men, and it is based on more conventional views of adult relationships.

They say, “I’m still catching up. I lost my virginity when I was 25,”  And I’ll say, “Well, you’re 33 now, are we all caught up yet?” In any other context, [these fancy dates] would be romantic, but instead it’s charged because no one would fuck them in high school. . . . I honestly think what they want is a do-over because women wouldn’t bone them until now.


* There is surely a market for these books, and they have the potential to cross over from academia to the trade lists. Rachel Sherman carved a 2300-word essay from her book Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence that ran on the front page of the Sunday Times Review section (here ). It got over 3000 comments.

** A famous quote from Steve Jobs succinctly combined the ideas disruption and paradigm shift long before those terms became fashionable. Jobs was trying to convince John Sculley, CEO of Pepsico, to come to Apple as a marketing executive. Said Jobs, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Sculley went to Apple. According to Wikipedia, he “continues to speak and write about disruptive marketing strategies.” 

Your Money or Your Life Ideas

January 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“A bet is a tax on bullshit,” says Alex Tabarrok. Most of the time though, even when the losers are paying up, they still reject the notion that their position was bullshit.

Heather MacDonald (see the previous post) didn’t put actual money on her prediction that the court-ordered curtailing of the NYPD stop-and-frisk policy would increase crime, but if she had, even while she was handing over the cash-filled envelope, she would be insisting that her views about policing are correct. It’s easier to give up your money than to give up your ideas.*

That’s true even when the money in question is a million dollars.

In 2007, Ted Seides, a hedge fund manager at Protégé Partners, and Warren Buffet made a million-dollar bet.** Buffet was a hedge-fund skeptic despite all the tales of hedge funds elevating their investors from merely wealthy to filthy rich. Basically the  bet was whether the hedge funders would outperform the market over the next decade. Seides selected a pool of five hedge funds; Buffet took the market – the S&P 500.

It’s 2018, and time’s almost up. Let’s turn up the cards over and see who won. The hedge funds showed an average yearly gain of 2.1%; the S&P, 7.1%.

In Bloomberg piece yesterday (here), Seides conceded: “With eight months remaining, for all intents and purposes, the bet is over. I lost.”

The title of the article is “Why I Lost My Bet With Warren Buffet.” The more accurate title would have been “I Lost But That Doesn’t Mean I Was Wrong.” Seides argument is basically that this was an unusual event. “S&P 500 defied the odds” with its “anomalously strong relative performance.” He makes the analogy to a single showdown hand of hold ’em. You expect that the pocket aces to stand up against the 7♣ 4♦. But every so often, the next five cards will include a couple of sevens.

But when you use five hedge funds, not one, and 500 stocks; when you use a ten-year period rather than a day or month or even year; then you greatly reduce the chances that the outcome is a freakish event.

The trouble, Seides says, is that over the past decade the market has gone up, not down. Alas. Hedge funds do much better when the market tanks. Thus he persuades himself that his ideas are still right. In fact, he’s ready to go double or nothing. 

My guess is that doubling down on a bet with Warren Buffett for the next 10 years would hold greater-than-even odds of victory. The S&P 500 looks overpriced and has a reasonable chance of disappointing passive investors. Hedge funds mitigate risk in bear markets, while seeking to participate in some of a bull market. Investing in hedge funds is a bet against continuing bull markets; investing in the S&P 500 is a bet on a continuing bull market. [emphasis added]

Buffet’s principle reason for avoiding hedge funds is the high fees they charge their investors. Those high fees pay the salaries and bonuses of people like Ted Seides. No wonder he defends hedge funds despite his having just lost a million-dollar bet. As Mark Twain said, “It is very difficult to get a man to understand something, especially if his income depends on not understanding it”

* The subject line of this post is a reference to an old Jack Benny joke.  (Benny, for you youngsters out there in the under-70 crowd, was a comedian whose persona included being a tightwad.) A robber points a gun at him and utters the cliche robber line, “Your money or your life.” Benny hesitates. The robber repeats, “Come on buddy, your money or your life?” “I know,” says Benny, “I’m just trying to decide.”

** The actual amount they put on the tables was $320,000, a sum that after ten years would probably be worth $1M. It turned out to be a bit more. See this Business Insider article for details.

Stop-and-Frisk and the Crime Wave That Wasn’t

January 2, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s hard to admit you were wrong even when you make a flat-out prediction of something that doesn’t happen. In 2010, twenty-three economists signed a letter predicting disastrous inflation because of Fed monetary policy. Four years and no inflation later, all but one stuck to their guns and refused to acknowledge that they were wrong. (For more details, see my post “Failed Prophecy and Sunk Costs.”)

And now Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. In 2013, when the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy was being challenged in court and in the City Council, she clearly saw the future. In City Journal, the house organ of the Manhattan Institute, she wrote an article called “Stop the Killing, Keep ‘Stop-and-Frisk.’” Stop-and frisk was stopping murder, she said, and ending the policy would reverse that positive trend.

Unless the politicians and editorialists pressing so hard for a radical reduction of stops can offer a crime-fighting strategy to rival the NYPD’s record, they are implicitly calling for a rise in violence.

Her interview on the National Review podcast “Need to Know” was summed up as follows by Jack Dunphy at Ricochet, a right-leaning website.

I’ve just now finished listening to the latest “Need to Know” podcast, in which Jay and Mona interviewed my friend Heather Mac Donald. . . . End stop-and-frisk, she says, and prepare to see the murder rate in New York climb once again.

MacDonald didn’t put it quite that simply, but the implication was clear. On that podcast, she also predicted that the end of “proactive policing” (mostly stop-and-frisk) would “destroy the city’s economic vitality.”

It didn’t happen – none of it. The court challenge to stop-and-frisk was upheld in 2013. Stops decreased dramatically. Crime did not increase. At all. Not that year and not in the years that followed. As this graph from Mother Jones shows, the rapid increase and then decrease in stops had virtually no effect on crime rates, which began to decrease in the early 1990s and continued their downward trend.

The graph goes up through 2015. In the next two years, the lines continued their slight downward trend. In the year just ended, New York had its lowest number of murders since the 1950s. Rates of other crimes have also remained low.

Three years of low crime following the decrease in stop-and-frisk was finally enough for some conservatives to admit that they were wrong. At National Review, Kyle Smith wrote a column with the headline “We Were Wrong About Stop-and-Frisk.”

Not Heather MacDonald. The title of her piece, also in National Review, warns us. “Don’t Take the Wrong Lessons from NYC’s Murder Drop.” Those wrong lessons are caricatures of those who disagree with her (“proactive policing like pedestrian stops is unnecessary, these cop critics say”). As for the continued low level of violence and murder, she attributes these crime trends to gentrification. She has a point. Demographic changes play a part, and the gentrification MacDonald describes is linked no doubt to that economic vitality that she said would die along with the reduction in stop-and-frisk. But demographic change happens gradually. The changes in stop-and-frisk were sudden. Their effects should have had immediate and noticeable effects. They didn’t.

UPDATE, Jan. 3: On Twitter, Mark Kleiman says that just although the big increase in stop-and-frisk had no effect during a period of relatively low crime rates, the policy might be effective when crime rates are high. I do not know of any relevant research on this, and Kleiman doesn't refer to any. But the targets of the policy, even during low-crime years, were high-crime neighborhoods and people who the police suspected of being high-crime people.