December 8, 2006

posted by Jay Livingston

If you blog about the news, things keep cycling back. This week, thanks to the report of the Iraq Study Group, the news reminds us that the Bush administration still refuses to talk with Iran and Syria. (You can download a .pdf file of the report here.) I blogged that such a refusal seemed silly (“Can We Talk?”, Nov. 1). The ISG puts it more soberly: it’s detrimental to us. It quotes an Iraqi official saying that already “Iran is negotiating with the US on the streets of Baghdad,” (p. 25 of the .pdf file, probably p. 33 in the actual report).

And then there’s the controversy over just how much violence there is. Two months ago, the British journal The Lancet published an article estimating that 600,000 people had been killed in Iraq, twenty times the figure President Bush had mentioned.

The numbers obviously had political implications, and war supporters (yes, there still were some back in October) insisted that the numbers were greatly inflated. After all it worked 470 a day, when even the big massacres reported on the news— car bombings and the like— rarely killed more than fifty. Some social scientists and anti-war bloggers defended the research— its sampling technique and its conclusions.

Shaping the data to fit political goals seems to have been a tool more used by the administration than by the social scientists. The ISG has this to say (p. 62 in the .pdf file).
In addition, there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. A murder of an Iraq is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.

Rationality at Ralph's?

December 5, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociologists are often accused of being preoccupied with the obvious and the useless. Business school faculty, by contrast, work on problems that have a practical payoff, right?

Somehow I got an the e-mailing list for a publication from the Wharton School of Business, which is to MBAs what MIT is to engineers. The latest issue has this article: “The ‘Traveling Salesman’ Goes Shopping: The Efficiency of Purchasing Patterns in the Grocery Store.” It asks if grocery shoppers plan out their route through the supermarket the way that sales reps plan a multi-city trip. “Do shoppers tend to be somewhat ‘optimal’ in their shopping patterns?” And it reaches the jaw-dropping conclusion: “travel inefficiency accounts for a large portion of the travel distance in the majority of grocery trips.”

I’ve shopped in supermarkets, and I’ve tagged along with others who shop in supermarkets. So this research seems right up there with “Ursine Defecation Patterns and Their Correlation with Sylvan Density Environmental Variables.” In a word, du-uhh.

The grocery researchers put Lojack-like transmitters on shopping carts so as to generate something like that map in Harry Potter with moving dots tracking people as they scamper around Hogwarts. Then the researchers matched the shopper’s path with the items scanned at the checkout. It’s an interesting high-tech “unobtrusive measure.” Without the shopper’s knowledge (I assume), they could know what items she bought and the route she took through the store. They also knew where those items were on the shelves, so they could work out the “ideal” route and compare it to the shopper’s actual route.

The high-tech research confirms what most of us could have guessed from our own experience, though it gives more precise estimates: Shoppers “spend only 20% to 30% of their time actually acquiring merchandise.”

O.K. People are not going from peanut butter to milk to ground chuck with tunnel-vision efficiency. (There’s a mid-Atlantic chain called ShopRite, and when I first saw that name I thought: exactly — shopping as ritual. And as Durkheim reminded us long ago, rituals are not about rationality and efficiency.)

But if people spend only 30% of their time actually “shopping,” what are they doing the other 70% of the time?

Most likely, they’re looking. As they’d probably tell you, they’re looking at all the stuff — that’s why companies spend so much on packaging and why they compete so desperately for eye-level locations on the shelves. But my guess is that shoppers also spend a fair amount of time looking at the other shoppers. And that is something they would probably not tell you.

I don’t mean that people would deliberately lie about what they are doing. It’s just that they are not aware of it, and more important, nobody thinks of people-watching as part of shopping. If you asked me what I did at the ShopRite, it just wouldn’t occur to me to say that I saw a lot of different people.

If only there were an unobtrusive Lojack that could monitor not just where shoppers are pushing their carts but what they are looking at. Failing that, we might see if shoppers traveled more efficiently when the store was relatively empty and there was nobody to look at. Or maybe some clever students who still need an idea for a research project could figure out some other way.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

December 2, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sesame Street has a segment intended to teach kids to think in categories. The screen shows four objects, and the song goes:

One of these things is not like the others
One of these things just doesn’t belong
Can you tell me which one is not like the others
By the time I finish my song.

I thought of this song when I saw this item, chock full of boldface names, from Page Six (the gossip page) in the New York Post:

Lindsay Lohan . . .at the GQ Men of the Year dinner, . . . joining the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, Jay-Z . . . and Magic Johnson - she “flipped out” upon seeing Jessica Biel . . . there with her assistant.

Why is Al Gore here among the entertainers and superstars?
Over a century ago, Wilfredo Pareto wrote about the “circulation of elites,” and a half-century ago C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite wrote about the connections between
people at the top in the worlds of Business, Military, and Government. Generals retire to work for military contractors; politicians become lobbyists for corporations; business biggies become politicians (Bloomberg, Corzine).

Now celebrities are in the loop, and can circulate from one realm to the other. Magic Johnson is a “motivational speaker” for businesses. And Al Gore, a man we might kindly call charismatically challenged, sits at the GQ table with Jay-Z.

Of course, Al Gore did make a movie, produced by Larry David’s wife. But mostly Gore is remembered for losing an election despite getting the most votes (representing infinities with non-presidencies).

But today, he’s in boldface with the stars on Page Six.

The War on Drugs

December 1, 2006Posted by Jay Livingston

“Whatever happened to the war on drugs?” a friend asked, “Did we win?”

We were having lunch at a Greek restaurant a few weeks ago, and she was being facetious. This is someone who knows a lot about crime, law-enforcement, and sociology. She also knows that drugs haven’t exactly disappeared from American society. Her point was that without any big decrease in actual drug use, the “war on drugs,” so important for so long, is now something we rarely hear about.

From the perspective of 2006, that war now looks more and more like part of a “moral panic,” a change in public consciousness when real events, like the crack boom of the late 1980s, evoke an apparently hysterical response. The moral panic and the officially declared war that went with it saddled the US with policies that seemed more designed to make us feel that we were taking a strong stand against evil than to reduce drug use. These policies were also very expensive and wasteful. After all, when you are conducting a morality-based war against Evil, you cannot compromise. You cannot drive out the devil with treatment; it takes harsh punishment, and damn the cost. At least that seemed to be the logic behind much of the legislation and enforcement. The war on drugs also fell most heavily on minorities, and it shrunk the usual protections that the Bill of Rights afforded to all citizens.

When 9/11 gave us a new enemy, a new source of Evil, the war on drugs just couldn’t compete. The moral troops of our collective consciousness had to be moved to a new front.

It’s not that actual drug enforcement has faded. Thanks to laws passed in those decades, we’re still locking up inordinate numbers of people. But the urgency, the moral panic, seems to have subsided.

I remembered this question — whatever happened to the war on drugs?— when I was watching “House” on TV this week. Besides the usual medical problems that come up each week, “House” now has a continuing plot thread that involves a drug-fighting cop who does everything in his power to convict drug-law violators. The interesting thing is that he’s the bad guy. His zeal is portrayed as harmful, and he himself has no redeeming qualities (at least not yet). Dr. House, the drug violator, and his fellow doctors who try to shield him are portrayed as virtuous victims of the cop’s doggedness. Would a major network have aired such a story in the 1980s or 90s?

Over a century ago, Durkheim maintained that a society needs a certain level of deviance. By reacting against deviance, we strengthen social solidarity. So when the level of deviance falls, we will either expand our definition of what’s deviant, or we will find a new threat that requires us to reinforce our moral boundaries.

It seems unlikely that the moral panic about drugs, only recently subsided, can be quickly revived. The war on terror — at least as it has been carried out in Iraq— now looms as a very costly mistake. If there are no new terrorist attacks, the US may need to find a new moral threat on the home front. My friend predicts that it will be gangs. (Keep tuned to your local media and politicians to see if she’s right.)