Peggy Noonan Hollers “Catastrophe”

July 28, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Peggy Noonan (here) says that allowing people to choose their preferred pronouns is like the Reign of Terror. I am not making this up. The Wall Street Journal has tweeted Noonan’s article complete with a 1790s painting of state officials marching a man to the guillotine. And Jonathan Haidt says that it’s campus lefties who “catastrophize.”


Language changes. Most of the time, the change just seems to happen. It spreads gradually. More and more people use the new form. What had been incorrect becomes standard. “I was graduated from college” becomes “I graduate from college” which becomes “I graduated college.” An astronaut today would say, “Houston, we have an issue.” Totally.

But sometimes language changes because of deliberate efforts by interest groups. They hope that the change in language will change the way people think and act. That’s why. anti-defamation groups campaigned to make ethnic slurs — spic, kike, chink, etc. — unacceptable. Feminists, as part of the movement to change gender roles and rules, campaigned for a generic title equivalent to Mr., one that did not emphasize whether or not the woman was married, i.e., whether or not she belonged to a man. Similarly, they sought to change gender-specific words to make them more inclusive. Fireman to firefighter, policeman to police officer, stewardess to flight attendant.

Most people would not see these changes as evidence of a Reign of Terror. Mrs. Noonan apparently disagrees. She is an authoress much admired on the right, and she was not alone over there. Fox, National Review, Daily Wire and others voiced their horror. What triggered them was the discovery of a draft of a document circulated at Colorado State University with suggestions about language. Many of these, to my ancient ears, seem silly, especially those based on etymologies that nobody now is aware of. For example, the guidelines suggest not using “hip, hip, hooray,” because “during the Holocaust, German citizens started using it as a rallying cry when they would hunt down the Jewish citizens who were living in the ghettos.” Who knew? Nor will most people know of the ethnic origins of paddy wagon and peanut gallery.

But I don’t see any harm in not using these or phrases like “hold down the fort” or “cake walk.” Other guidelines are an attempt to avoid giving offense — spaz, basket case — or to avoid terms that the designated group itself rejects — Oriental, Indian. And really, does anyone still say, “Ladies and Gentlemen”?

But the main point is that these are suggestions. Suggestions. They are not a diktat; the CSU administration is not a reign of terror.  Despite what the people on the right are screaming, the guidelines to not take away anyone’s freedom of speech. As the document says at the very beginning.   

The document is intended to serve as guidelines.... What this document is not: This is not an official policy or required practice. This document is intended as a resource to help our campus community reflect our Principles of Community particularly inclusion, respect, and social justice. [emphasis in the original document]

Mrs. Noonan does not know much about the document she’s writing about. It seems she also doesn’t know a whole lot about the French Revolution. See this twitter thread by someone who does.

Jordan, Ryan . . The Boys at the Back of the Bac

July 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The birth mother in the novel I’m reading (The Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore) has named her child Mary. The adoptive parents promise to keep the name. But for them, the name Mary will not do. They call the child Emmie. They added Emma to Mary to get Mary-Emma, which became M.E., which became Emmie.

The difference in names reflects the social difference. The birth mother is from a small town in Wisconsin.  A foster parent who cared briefly for the child describes her as “not the sharpest tool in the shed.” The adoptive parents live in the university town (presumably patterned after Madison). The mother runs an expensive French restaurant (“Le Petit Moulin served things that sounded like instruments — timbales and quenelles . . .”) Her husband is a scientist. So baby Mary becomes Emmie. The Emmies of the world will have richer childhoods than the Marys. They will do better in school. They will have brighter futures.

The name-class connection is even stronger in France, as I’ve learned from Baptiste Coulmont. Each year, he blogs a graph showing the percentages of students who receive a très bien on the bac, a national test taken by all high school students.* Here are the results for 2019.

(Click for a larger view. The original is on Coulmont’s blog.)


Once again, girls do better than boys, and once again it’s the same girls — Alice and Diane, Louise and Adèle — who score très bien at a rate of roughly 20% or more. And each year, among the boys with Anglo names — Bryan, Ryan, Jordan, Dylan — less than one in twenty rate top honors. William does not do as well as his French counterpart Guillaume.

Here is just the left side of the graph, where the boys with the American names hang out.


The point, as M. Coulmont noted out in a comment when I blogged the 2016 bac, is the “cultural autonomy” of the French working class. In the US and probably elsewhere, fashions in names, like fashions in clothes, filter down through the class system. I remember that the names my upper-middle class, Upper West Side friends were choosing for their kids in the late 80s and early 90s — names like Oliver and Sophia, Noah and Olivia — were unusual at the time but became widely popular twenty years later.

But in France starting in the late twentieth century, the working class looked not upwards in the social system but outside of it, outside of the country entirely. They looked to the US as represented in TV shows and there found Jordan, Ryan, and the others.

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* All this assumes a strong correlation between social class and performance on the bac and other school measures. I’m not familiar with research on this topic in France, but I would guess that the correlation is as strong as it is in the US.

Paul Krassner, 1932-2019

July 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston


To appreciate the brilliance of Paul Krassner’s “Fuck Communism” poster, you have to remember that in 1963
a. Anti-communism was still the number one principle for US conservatives — more than tax cuts, more than “freedom,” more than guns, more than anything.

b. The word fuck was far more taboo than it is today, and especially so among conservatives. In 1963, you still couldn’t say damn or hell on TV and radio. It was darn and heck or just don’t bother.
I don’t know how many copies of the poster The Realist, Krassner’s satirical monthly, sold. The more famous Realist graphic was Wally Wood’s “Dirty Disney” drawing. According to the Times obit, “Later, digitally colored by a former Disney artist, it became a hot-selling poster that supplied Mr. Krassner with modest royalties into old age.”

More widespread fame, though also more fleeting, went to Krassner’s parody of a best-seller about JFK.

The Realist’s most famous article was one Mr. Krassner wrote portraying Lyndon B. Johnson as sexually penetrating a bullet wound in John F. Kennedy’s neck while accompanying the assassinated president’s body back to Washington on Air Force One. The headline of the article was “The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book,” and it claimed — falsely — to be material that had been removed from William Manchester’s book “The Death of a President.”

“People across the country believed — if only for a moment — that an act of presidential necrophilia had taken place,” Mr. Krassner told an interviewer in 1995. “The imagery was so shocking, it broke through the notion that the war in Vietnam was being conducted by sane men.”

I don’t know whether Krassner is right about the effects of his article. But it was impressive that one brief shining moment, so many people, sophisticated media people, believed that it was true or at least plausible. They believed it in part because it did not clash with their image of LBJ. But mostly what made it credible was Krassner’s skill as a parodist. It sounded like William Manchester. Yes, Johnson was Krassner’s target, but Krassner also did a great job of imitating Manchester’s pop-history prose.

(Click for a larger view.)


Black Teachers, White Students

July 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two years ago, in an episode of his podcast “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell took issue with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. In that famous decision, the Court ruled that the problem of segregated schools was that they were inherently harmful to Black children. In Gladwell’s view, the real problem of government-mandated segregation was that it denied Black people school choice. But that was also true, in the aftermath of Brown, of government-mandated integration.

The result, says Gladwell, is that desegregation was not good for Black kids. And it certainly wasn’t good for Black teachers, at least not teachers in places like Topeka, Kansas.

Across the entire south, Black teachers just get fired left and right. It wasn’t something done secretly; it was done right out in the open. There was something like 82,000 African-American teachers in the south before the Brown decision. Within a decade, as the decision was slowly implemented across the country, about half had been fired.

Gladwell has fallen out of favor with academic social scientists, who complain that in his desire to tell a good story, he’ll use data from studies that are methodologically shoddy. (See my 2013 post here). But Owen Thompson, an economist at Williams College, heard Gladwell’s podcast and dug into the data. His recent NBER paper backs up Gladwell’s claims about Brown and teachers in the South.

Using newly assembled archival data from 781 southern school districts observed between 1964 and 1972, I estimate that a school district transitioning from fully segregated to fully integrated education, which approximates the experience of the modal southern district in this period, led to a 31.8% reduction in black teacher employment. ( Owen Thompson, “School Desegregation and Black Teacher Employment.”) [The paper is behind the NBER paywall. This is from the abstract..]

The dearth of Black teachers had a devastating effect on Black students, especially the best and the brightest. It’s not that the kids no longer had Black role models or that the White teachers were prejudiced. The problem is that White teachers apparently are just not able to perceive talent in Black kids. Gladwell draws on the research of Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding about who gets into Gifted and Talented programs. In this audio clip from the podcast, Gladwell talks with Grissom.



Here is an edited down transcript of the clip. I’m leaving out the part about all the relevant variables in the equation. The point is that even after you control for all these variables (including, of course, test scores), race differences persist. So it’s not about the kids. It’s the teachers.

Grissom: In the overwhelming majority of school districts in the United States, the way that a kid ever gets to be identified as gifted is if someone in the school, usually a classroom teacher, has to look at that kid and say, “I think this kid might be gifted.” If I am a Black student and I have a Black classroom teacher, the probability that I’m assigned to giftedness in, in the next year looks very much like the probability for a White student. But if I am a Black student and I have a White classroom teacher, my probability of being identified as gifted is substantially lower.

Gladwell: How much lower?

Grissom: Okay, so for very high achieving Black students, the probability of being assigned to gifted services under a White teacher is about half the probability as an observably similar Black student taught by a Black teacher.

Less gifted and talented Black kids also suffered.

Gladwell: Having a Black teacher raises the test scores of Black students, it changes the way Black students behave, and it dramatically decreases the chances a Black male student will be suspended. A group of social scientists recently went over the records of 100,000 Black students in North Carolina over a 5 year period. They found that having even one Black teacher between the third and fifth grade reduced the chance of an African-American boy would later drop out of high school. By how much? By 39%. One Black teacher.

Again, my guess is that here too it’s not about role models. The problem is that people, teachers included, have difficulty “reading” someone of another race. Eyewitnesses make far more mistakes identifying someone of another race than someone of their own race. In the same way, White teachers may be less able to sense the needs of Black students and to know how to respond to them.

The Shipping News — Street Value

July 10, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not every day that you see a headline story about J.P. Morgan ship full of cocaine.



In fact, you probably didn’t see it yesterday. The above headline is from Business Insider . The Wall Street Journal  put story in the “Logistics Report,” basically the shipping news. 


The J.P. Morgan part of the headline is a bit misleading. It’s not the bank; it’s J.P. Morgan Asset Management. The ship belongs to Mediterranean Shipping Co., which apparently got their financing from Morgan. The ship is worth $90 million.

The Gayane was raided on June 17 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who found about 20 tons of cocaine with a street value of $1.3 billion stashed in several containers. The ship had sailed from Freeport in the Bahamas and before that it called in Panama and Peru after starting its voyage in Chile. It was due to sail on to Europe after the U.S. stop.

That $1.3 billion sounds like a lot of money. It’s supposed to. That’s why the police and the press use street value. The actual cost to the drug suppliers is much less. Here’s the math. The 20 tons of coke is about 18,000 kg. So the $1.3 billion works out to $72,000 per kg. Divide that by 1000, and you get $72 per gram. In the US, a gram of coke goes for around $50 in most places, but maybe the $1.3 billion is based on European prices.

The coca leaf that went into that $72,000 kilo cost something more like $720. The cocaine itself cost less than $7000 a kilo at the ports of Peru or Colombia and perhaps only $2-3000 in the jungles. So the cost to replace the seized product is probably between one twentieth and one tenth of the street value. That’s still a lot of money — $65 million or more — but well under the $1.3 billion street value reported by law enforcement. (More on drug costs and prices here.)


There’s one other intriguing aspect to this news story. Most of the time, when a deal goes bad — say when someone does something that loses someone else their $90 million ship that now belongs to the Feds— there’s a lawsuit. But as Matt Levine at Bloomberg (here) points out, the folks whose 10,000 barrels of cocaine got seized aren’t likely to seek their day court.

JPMorgan might lose a $90 million ship, but the drug dealers have definitely lost $1.3 billion of cocaine! If I were the JPMorgan fund manager who owned this ship, I’d watch my back for a while; the Feds may be the least of their worries.

To repeat, the drug dealers lost far less than $1.3 billion. But whatever their losses, what can they do?  I would think that drug lords use violence in a rational way — to set an example so as deter people who might be in a position to harm them. Who would that be? Even if the financing deal were made by an identifiable person or a few people rather than by an asset management firm, why would the drug dealers want to deter other asset managers who might be thinking of making deals with ship companies?

If anybody should be worried, it’s the eight Serbian and Samoan crew members, now in custody, who loaded the cargo and who the drug biggies might suspect of, intentionally or inadvertently, tipping off the Feds.     

João Gilberto, 1931-2019

July 7, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the summer of 1964, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing “The Girl From Ipanema.” It was the hit single from the album Getz / Gilberto.


The Gilberto named on the album cover is João Gilberto, whose death was announced this week. He was one of the central figures in the creation of bossa nova, along with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes (music and lyrics, respectively, for “The Girl From Ipanema”), and a few others.
But the Gilberto who this chart-topper made famous was his wife Astrid. DJ s would even refer to her as “The Girl From Ipanema.” João was left in the editing room. On the album, the song runs 5½ minutes. First João sings the original Portuguese lyric, then Astrud the English lyric, followed by Getz for a full chorus, Jobim on piano for half a chorus, with Astrud again singing the final 16 bars.

Radio stations wouldn’t play songs longer than three minutes, so the radio version cut João completely and all but eight bars of Getz’s solo.


Gilberto’s 1958 recording of “Chega de Saudade,” another Jobim-Vinicius composition, is one of the defining moments in bossa nova. It’s a wonderful song, or two songs really — a 32-bar section in C minor, followed by a complementary 36-bar section in C major.* (The minor-major change reflects the change in the lyrics from sad to hopeful.) The recording is just Gilberto accompanying himself on guitar. There’s only a bit of what he would do more of later in his career — singing slightly away from the beat, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, so that you’re not sure if he’s ever going to get back in sync with the song.



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* Most sheet music versions, including lead sheets and guitar tabs, are in D.


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