The Past Is Never Uncertain

September 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Yogi Berra famously said, It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. He should have added the corollary (the obverse? or is it the converse?) – it’s easy to make predictions about the past.  I was going to say “the obvious corollary,” but I keep coming across statements by people who don’t seem to realize that they are making predictions about the past or that it’s easy.

A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran an article by psychiatrist  Richard A. Friedman, who was skeptical about claims that technology was rewiring the brains of America’s youth, and not for the better. “Despite news reports to the contrary, there is little evidence of an epidemic of anxiety disorders in teenagers.”

Times readers, some of them at least, could not let this calm, evidence-based assessment go unchallenged. The letters in response (here) included this, from a clinical psychologist.
[Dr Friedman’s] failure to take seriously the increased anxiety experienced by young people is problematic. The everyday lives of young people confront them with much more uncertainty about their futures than everyday life did for those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Young people today experience increased financial uncertainty relative to previous generations, with housing, education and health care costs having escalated astronomically relative to income. In addition, young people today have to contemplate the consequences of climate change over the next five or six decades, which will in all likelihood transform the quality of everyday life in many ways, almost none of which are desirable.

Oh for the 1960s and 70s, the era of certainty. But they were certain in the same way that it was certain Justify would win the Triple Crown, that the housing bubble would burst and with disastrous consequences, or that the song “Cheerleader” (God help us) would be a huge hit. They are certain only because we now know that they happened. Before that, all these events were uncertain.

Is the future more uncertain for young people today than for their counterparts fifty years ago? The sixties was a decade of cultural and political change:  a country divided over a seemingly endless war; political assassinations; urban riots, crime and White flight transforming the cities; drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll; student protests shutting down universities; the new feminism challenging rules and ideas about gender; and the ever present possibility of all-out nuclear war. Was anyone certain that it would all turn out OK?

Even for the fraction of today’s population (maybe 20%) who experienced the sixties, when we think about it now, all the  uncertainty is gone. We know what happened, and it’s hard to imagine that it could have happened any other way.  Because the outcome has now become certain, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever having been anxious about its uncertainty.

The logic used by the psychologist I quoted seems to go like this:

1. Things today are more uncertain than things were in the past.
2. Therefore, kids today must be more anxious than were kids in the past.

Neither of those statements is accurate. The first statement is true only because the past is history. When the current moment has passed into history, it too will be less uncertain than it is now. As for anxiety, if Dr. Friedman is right, then the evidence shows that the second statement is simply untrue.

Twelve Years a Blog

September 19, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Now we are beginning a new school year.” That was the line I had to write every September in elementary school, back when penmanship was still part of the curriculum. If I recall correctly, the follow-up line was, “Writing helps me in my lessons.” I should pay more attention to those words of wisdom. Writing this blog can have its rewards both for learning and for teaching.

The start of a new year (academic year, blog year, Hebrew year) is also the end of the old year. Time to look back and pick out the posts that I liked — an exercise in what Chris Uggen,* in the banner of his blog, called “self-indulgery.”

1. Two posts about Debbie, the sociology grad student in the TV show “Mindhunter.” Her misreadings of Durkheim and Goffman are noteworthy.

Debbie Does Durkheim  if only for the title. (Among people in France who read this post, there was some discussion on Twitter about how to translate the title so as to capture the cinematic allusion.)
“Mindhunter” Needs a Sociology Checker 

2.  Two posts on current hand-wringing over kids and technology.
America’s Not-So-Lost Youth

Smartphones and Teen Existential Angst 

3. Two posts about Tom Wolfe. Nobody had a sharper eye than Wolfe when it came to status and style — what we now call “signalling.” The trouble is that even when the issue was injustice or inequality, Wolfe saw only status and style.
Tom Wolfe (1931 - 2018) — Class, Status, and Parties 

Tom Wolfe and the Novelistic Techniques of the New Journalism – Reading Minds and Making Stuff Up

4. Rutgers v. Irony. I lapsed into very non-academic prose in this one.
Gentrification and Its Discontents
The guy it’s about e-mailed me that it was “brilliant,” but that’s only because I understood what he was trying to do while everyone else (Breitbart, Rutgers) was deliberately misunderstanding it. Eventually FIRE got involved.

* If anyone can get Chris to put on his spikes again and come out of blogger retirement, the Internet will be a better place.

Politics and Child’s Play II — Different Games, Different Thoughts

September 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

When kids play on their own — with no adults to direct, organize, or supervise —  they find ways to resolve differences and disputes that arise. Over the past few decades, kids’ opportunities for this kind of free play have dwindled. More and more play has come under the domination of adults and their institutions — schools, leagues, clubs, and the like.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt fears that this trend is aggravating the polarization that increasingly afflicts our society and politics. If kids never learn how to deal with one another in play, they’ll grow up to be adults who can’t work with other adults they disagree with.

There’s not a lot of data to support Haidt’s idea (see this previous post). More important, Haidt sees the problem as a matter of individual attitudes. That seems logical, but it makes two questionable assumptions: that it is largely these attitudes and abilities that determine what people do; and that each person has a limited repertoire of emotions and social skills. It makes more sense to realize first, that people generally have a wider range of thinking, feeling, and acting than psychological theories give them credit for. And second, that emotions and ideas are not just individual; they are part of a situation.

It might seem strange to see thoughts and feelings as residing in the external situation and not inside individuals, so let me give an example. In that earlier post, I briefly compared two ways that kids play baseball — pick-up games and Little League. In pick-up games, kids come up with all sorts of ways to resolve disputes and to deal with problems. Is the score lopsided after two innings? Have some players switch sides. Are there only thirteen kids, not enough for a full team on either side? Have same-side pitcher and catcher, no right-field hitting, or other work-arounds.

In contrast, in Little League, these solutions are literally unthinkable. If only six players from one team show up, it’s a forfeit. No game. Go home. How is it that the adults running the game cannot think of solutions that are obvious to 12-year olds playing a pick-up game? These grown-ups are not stupid. But ideas reside not just in the heads of individuals. What is thinkable and what is unthinkable is part of the situation.*

Emotions too come with the setting. Nobody likes to strike out or to muff an easy grounder or fly ball. Still, these things happen. But only in Little League did I ever see this kind of mistake bring a kid to the edge or tears, or over the edge. Were these Little League kids more emotionally frail while the pick-up game kids were psychologically resilient? No. These were the same kids. The only difference was the setting for the game.

What prevents kids from engaging with one another to resolve differences is not their personalities or social skills. It’s the structure of organized sports — adult umpires, coaches, and managers to make decisions; the teams dressed in uniforms, sitting on separate benches; the emphasis on winning. Put the kids in a different setting, and they are skilled negotiators and problem-solvers.

Politics may have this same dual character, with different kinds of politics shaping the available thoughts and feelings. Where people cannot talk to one another as people, they think of politics as a competition. Their goal is to win, to beat the other side. In politics at a smaller, more human level, people may see politics as governing — finding solutions to immediate problems in a way that accommodates others rather than alienating them.

The political polarization of recent years is real. At least there’s evidence of it in the answers people give in surveys. (See the charts in that previous post.). But surveys are general and abstract, and they ask mostly about national politics and national offices. What do you think of Trump, Democrats, Mueller, the tax bill? Which Senate or House candidate will you vote for? In other words, in this distant game that you watch on TV, which team are you rooting for? But when the issues are local — when a person can have a real effect on the outcome, and when the outcome is plainly visible — people are more flexible and co-operative. That’s one of the lessons James and Deborah Fallows draw from their five-year sojourn to cities in the heartland.

What we learned from traveling was not that the hardest American challenges of this era are illusory. They’re very real, and divisions about national politics are intense. So we made a point of never asking, early on, “How’s Obama doing?,” or later, “Do you trust Hillary?” and “What about Trump?” The answers to questions like those won’t take you beyond what you’ve already heard ad nauseam on TV.

Instead we asked people about their own lives and their own communities. [In The Atlantic]

Ask Conservatives and Republicans about taxes, and you’ll get the standard answer that lower is better. But Fallows visited towns in western Kansas, central Ohio, West Virginia, and South Carolina that voted for taxes in order to provide parks and libraries and to keep the employees who worked there from being thrown out of work.

These adults can come up with a variety of solutions to a problem. They can work out their differences. They can compromise. But they can also be the very same people who tell pollsters that they want government officials to stand on principle no matter what.


* I made this same argument in the early days of this blog (here) after I happened on a girl’s soccer game .

Chasing Rosebud

September 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stories about what very rich men do with their money bring out my inner Freud. This week, it was Paul Allen

Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is, of course, a billionaire. And with his billions, he does many of the things that very rich people do. He owns a 414-foot yacht plus a smaller yacht that’s only 100 yards long. He bought some sports teams (Seahawks, Trail Blazers). He has also supported medicine, science, and the arts. But his true love is aerospace..

His latest project is “Stratolaunch”– a dual-fuselage plane with a wingspan longer than a football field. It will carry a half-million pound rocket ship to its cruising altitude a mile or more above the earth, then drop the rocket, which will then blast off for space. An article about it in Wired  had the title “385 Feet of Crazy.”

Mark Palko at West Coast Stat Views, (here), my source for this story, pulls the quote that would have caught my attention too.

As a teenager, Paul Allen was a sci-fi and rocketry nerd. . . .His childhood bedroom was filled with science fiction and space books. . . . . As Allen tells it in his memoir, he was crushed when he visited his parents as an adult and went to his old room to reference a book. He discovered that his mother had sold his collection. (The sale price: $75.) Using a blowup of an old photo of the room, Allen dispatched scouts to painstakingly re-create his boyhood library.

Allen never stopped thinking about space.

As Mark says, “You have here a fantastically wealthy man going to great lengths to recapture childhood dreams.”

Mark posts period images of Willy Ley Space Models and Galaxy magazine that might well have been part of Allen’s childhood. The current project, says Mark, is part of the culture of “Silicon Valley futurism . . . heavily (and I would argue not at all healthily) influenced and bounded by the tropes, rhetoric, and imagery of postwar science-fiction.”

My ideas run less to sci-fi and more to Freud and “Citizen Kane.” I’m not so much concerned with the specific type of fantasy. It could be sci-fi or winning the Superbowl; it could anything. What’s important is that the object of the chase is just that, a fantasy — an ideal that can never be realized. It’s a dream object that, if only it could be grasped, would bring total fulfillment. The trouble is that it can’t, and it wouldn’t.

But (and here comes the Freud*) the fantasy does have a basis in reality — the reality of the warmth, security, and fulfillment of early childhood.  That reality can never be fully recaptured — we’re adults after all, living in the adult world. Yet it remains in the unconscious as a motivating assumption — the idea that somewhere out there, something can bring that same level of gratification.

A man (it’s usually a man) driven by this kind of motivation converts that unconscious ideal into something more tangible; often that something is wealth or power or both. These goals have the added benefit of being infinite and therefore unattainable. No matter how much you have, you can always have more.**

“Citizen Kane” illustrates this idea in near-perfect form. From the very outset, the film makes it clear that Charles Foster Kane has spent his life trying to recapture the childhood he had with his mother.  In the opening scene, the dying Kane lets fall from his hand a snow globe, a perfectly contained snowy world of happiness and peace. Soon after, a flashback shows us Kane as a boy, playing in the snow, gliding downhill on his sled. But this is the day that Mr. Thatcher arrives to take him east. It’s his last day with his mother. Minutes earlier the sled had been a source of delight. Now he uses it, as a shield-like weapon against the man who is taking him away from this childhood..

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

“Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or lost,” says Thompson, one of the investigative reporters who, according to the screenplay is “the personification of the search for the truth about Charles Foster Kane.” Thompson, in the next sentences,  hedges his hunch. “No, I don't think it explains anything. I don't think any word explains a man's life.”

But of course, it does. Rosebud symbolizes something Kane lost and then couldn’t get. And he couldn’t get it because he didn’t realize what it was that he really wanted – the human warmth and happiness of childhood. He displaced that goal onto the narcissistic goals of wealth and power.  Each victory in pursuit of those goals brings him no real or lasting pleasure because they are not really what he is seeking.
Is Paul Allen a version of Kane with sci-fi memorabilia instead of snow? I have no idea. Wikipedia tells me only that “Allen has never married and has no children. He has been, at times, reclusive.” More important, in real life, motivation is not purely a matter of individual psychology. Movies are very good at showing us individual reactions, emotions, and ideas. But as I argued a while ago (here), motives, even motives like greed,  also reside in institutions and situations.

* The ideas that follow also owe much to Philip Slater.

**  “A million dollars isn’t cool,” Sean Parker tells Mark Zuckerberg (or at least he does in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay).  “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” But people with a billion dollars several times over are rarely cool enough with that amount that they stop trying to make more.

Politics and Child’s Play

September 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the unit on bureaucracy and rationalization, I ask students to think about the differences between Little League baseball and pick-up games. It’s the same activity — kids playing baseball. But Little League runs on principles of bureaucracy as outlined by Weber. It has clear rules and authorities to enforce them. In pick-up games kids are free to adjust the rules according to the situation. With no umpires around, it’s the kids themselves who make the decisions. So the outcome on a close call, like whether a runner is safe or out, might depend on the current score (“OK, we’ll give it to you”), the decision on the previous close call, the individual involved (“Hey, it’s little Mason — give him a break”); or it might be decided by rock-paper-scissors. These are all reasonable ways of reaching an agreed-on resolution. And in Little League, they are all off limits. Kids are barred from participating in the decisions that affect their own game.

In Sunday’s Times (here), Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make the same point about adult-organized activity compared with “free play,” but they go much farther. It’s not just that different structures (bureaucratic or informal) demand different ways of acting and thinking. They have long-term consequences. “Free play . . . matters not only for the health of our children but also for the health of our democracy.”  Clearly, Haidt-Lukianoff are swinging for the fences.

There’s good data to show that they are right about free play getting squeezed out — by school and homework, by adult-run activities (lessons, organized sports), and by solitary vices involving screens. But Haidt-Lukianoff claim that the change has led to anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide. They also argue that it makes for a more polarized society where those who disagree cannot work towards compromise solutions. Do we have any real evidence for these consequences?

The trouble is that Haidt-Lukianoff are talking about how free play affects individuals, but for evidence they rely on data about aggregates — rates of behavior now compared with the same rates in the past. The logic is tempting. Teens today, on average, spend less time in free play. Teens today, on average, report more symptoms of anxiety and depression.  But are those anxious and depressed kids the ones who have been spending less time in free play? We don’t know. It’s also possible that these psychological problems are increasing not just for teens but among the population generally. For example, it’s true that rates of teen suicide have increased in the last decade, but so have rates of suicide among all age groups, including those who grew up in the years when kids had more free-play time.

Then there’s Haidt-Lukianoff’s claim about “the health of our democracy.”
The second predictable consequence of play deprivation is a reduction in conflict management and negotiation skills.
It’s predictable, but has it actually occurred? Haidt-Lukianoff point to the increasing political polarization in the US. “Americans report feeling fear and loathing toward people on the other side and have become increasingly less willing to date or marry someone of a different party. Some restaurants won’t serve customers who work for — or even just support — the other team or its policies.”

But young people are not responsible for this polarization, as even Haidt-Lukianoff recognize. “Play is clearly not sufficient for political cooperation — today’s political elites had plenty of free play as children.” Those “conflict-management and negotiation skills” are part of a willingness to compromise rather than adhere rigidly to ideology in all situations.  So it might be helpful to see who prefers compromise and who prefers ideology. We might expect to find a greater preference for flexibility in what Sarah Palin called “the real America” —  small-town and rural, conservative in religion and politics, more in the South and Midwest than on the coasts.

In 2014, a Pew survey asked people whether elected officials should “make compromises with people they disagree with” or on the other hand whether they should “stick to their positions.” In most comparisons, “real Americans” were less likely to want compromise.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

If the decline of free play is related to the inability or unwillingness to engage with others, that suggests one other variable, one that Haidt-Lukianoff ignore — social class. I’m a little surprised that they don’t mention it since one of the most important and widely read books in sociology in the past 20 years, Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, focuses specifically on the question of who organizes children’s play — adults or the kids themselves. Lareau compares the “natural growth” parenting of working-class parents with the “concerted cultivation” of middle-class parents. The natural-growth approach lets children develop more on their own, with less parental direction and intervention. Middle-class parents, by contrast, cultivate. They organize and supervise. They pay great attention to what their kids are doing and worry about how that fits with long-term goals. They’re less willing to leave things to chance. . .  or to their children. Needless to say, middle-class kids have far less free-play time than their working-class counterparts, who are left to organize their own play. 

If Haidt-Lukianoff are right, the better-educated, more middle-class people should be less likely to want compromise. But it’s just the reverse. It’s the less educated who want their elected officials to be uncompromising when dealing with people who have conflicting ideas.

This  lack of convincing evidence is disappointing, for I don’t think that Haidt-Lukianoff are completely wrong. They’re making an im point about play and about politics. But they see the problem as psychological; they focus on individual psychological traits and social skills. They miss the important point that when we are looking at political processes, and even when we are looking at personal reactions and problems, it makes more sense to think about structures and situations, as I will hope to explain in a subsequent post.