Fashion Police (literally) - A Tale of Two (or more) Cities

August 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Speaking of victimless crimes* (as I was in the last post), the New York Times yesterday reported on baggy pants laws that have been passed in some towns. In Mansfield, LA, wear your jeans so low that they expose your boxers, and you can wind up with a $500 fine or even jail time.

Other towns have passed similar laws; state legislatures have come close. The laws are couched as “indecency” laws. But that seems pretty lame since the law is about cloth, not skin. It’s not about showing your butt, it’s about what you use to cover your butt: jeans, good; jeans with boxers, bad. Presumably, if the offender stripped off his jeans entirely and walked around in basketball shorts – maybe even plaid ones – there’d be no problem.

The real issue, as the Times points out, is hip-hop and all its implied attitudes and ideas. (I’m surprised that Rachel hasn’t blogged this one.)

People have often reacted to outward appearance in this way. We all judge others on their appearance, and sometimes the judgments become extreme. Violent fashionistas beat up zoot suiters in the 1940s, longhairs in the 60s and 70s. Institutions, notably schools, are similarly sensitive to seemingly small matters of style. At my school, leaving your shirttail out or turning your collar up in back were punishable offenses. The NBA has regulations limiting the length of basketball shorts. It’s not that the players are showing too much leg but too little.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale and the other end of the Eastern time zone, Brattleboro, VT, has just overturned its ban on public nudity. (Sorry, no pictures, but here’s a link to the story.) If you want to walk around downtown letting it all hang out, Brattleboro’s the place to be, at least for the next few weeks before the weather starts to turn.

(* I realize that we are now supposed to refer to these as “public-order offenses” or “non-predatory crimes,” but I think Schur’s original term, if less strictly accurate, better conveys the moral idea.)

(Hat tip on the Brattleboro story to my friend Alice, whose young grandchildren live there.)

Who's a Criminal?

August 29, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I look at the news these days, I sometimes think that labeling theorists have been running the show.

If you’ve taken even one sociology course, you probably know that labeling theory revolutionized the study of deviance starting about fifty years ago by expanding that topic to include social control. Most approaches to deviance and crime start from two basic questions: Why do those weird (or evil) people do those weird (or evil) things? And how can we get them to stop?

Labeling theory, by contrast, focuses less on the rule breakers and more on the people who make and enforce those rules.

So here we have Republican Senator Larry Craig, a family values kind of guy from Idaho, who got busted for soliciting homosexual sex in the men’s room of the Minneapolis airport. Several things are worth noting from the labeling perspective.

1. First, none of the accounts in the media are asking why Craig was doing what he did. Instead, the questions are about the law and its enforcement.

2. The cop who arrested him was sitting on the toilet in a stall for one and only one purpose – to get solicited for sex. It’s not technically entrapment in the legal sense, but clearly rule enforcement had a lot to do with what happened. If the decoy cop hadn't been there, it's quite possible Craig wouldn't have violated the law.

3. Craig tried to use his high status to avoid labeling. The arresting officer reported “Craig handed me a card that identified himself as a United States Senator as he stated 'What do you think about that?'”

4. No sex occurred, only “signals” like foot tapping. So Craig might have beaten the charges had he contested them. Instead he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge. Now he says he regrets that plea, and he insists that he’s not gay. His major battle is not about what he did and whether it was illegal; it’s about avoiding the label “gay.”

5. Others people are trying very hard to label Craig, whether as gay, hypocrite, criminal, etc. The incident happened in June, but it got press coverage only in the last week or so. Whether something is covered up or disclosed is not automatic. It’s the result of enterprise and work on the part of people with an interest in the outcome.

Meanwhile, the New York Times today reports that police are cracking down on people who sell tickets at the US Tennis Open. Here too, the police take an active role in soliciting the crime, approaching people as they go to the Tennis Center and asking them to sell their extra tickets. It is a crime to sell a ticket, even at less than face value, within 1500 feet of the event. Still, the people busted are outraged, and they deny the label of criminal:
“We weren’t trying to make a profit, but it didn’t matter.”
The Levines were trying to sell the tickets to help friends, two couples who were unable to attend the Open because their homes were damaged by Hurricane Dean. The four tickets cost $55 each.
“I’m in shock,” said Sharon Levine, a 50-year-old lawyer whose eyes were wet with frustration. “We were just trying to help out our friends whose homes were hit by the hurricane. We’re not criminals.”

The Times takes a labeling theory approach. The cops are enforcing the law not against real scalpers but against ordinary citizens. Who, the Times asks, benefits from this moral entrepreneurship? Answer: Ticketmaster.

Of course, the police claim that they are just enforcing the law: “A New York City Police Department official said . . . that the number [of undercover cops] was determined by the department and not influenced by event coordinators or box offices.” Yeah, right.

I’m going to the Open tomorrow. But I’m not selling my extra ticket – at least not without a 1500-foot tape measure. And I’m not tapping my foot in the men’s room either.

Hey Dude, Where's MY Internet Bubble?

August 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

One final thought on fortunes and the bubble – along the lines of “private troubles” and “public issues,” biography and history. In putting together those graphs on income a couple of days ago, I realized something weird: I felt the effects of the Internet boom and bust, felt them deeply – the giddiness of sudden riches, the despair of getting wiped out. But my biographical changes are not in any of those historical graphs.

I made a lot of money in the late 1990s. Oh, not a lot of money by the standards of the people in those graphs. But a lot for me. The value of my stock portfolio nearly doubled. I constantly watched my stocks on Yahoo in those days. It was great fun. One day when I noticed that one of my stocks had just gone up, I started to type an e-mail about it to a friend who also owned it. By the time I finished the message, the stock had jumped another 25%. (By contrast, Dan Myers, in these calmer times, is justifiably impressed that his son’s imaginary portfolio has gone up 3.3% in a week.)

If I’d closed out all my positions at the start of the 2000 baseball season, I’d have fewer financial worries today. It’s called “realizing” a profit – i.e, making it real. But instead, I watched as all those on-paper profits slipped away.

As a result, none of that money shows up in the data. My private troubles and triumphs would have become part of the public-issue statistics on income only if I had cashed in my profits in the 90s and then cashed out my losses in later years. But I didn't, and so I remain the invisible investor.

Income and the Internet Bubble

August 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I suggested that much of the fluctuation in mean income (but not median income) in this century was accounted for by the changing fortunes of the very rich. Here are some relevant graphs showing the share of income going sectors among the top 10% of families. The first one shows the share of total income going to the all but the top 1% – the 90th to 95th percentiles and the 95th to 99th.

These folks are not poor – the lower group averaged $110,000, the upper group $177,000 – and their incomes have increased faster than those of those below them. That’s why their share of all income increased from about 24% in 1973 to 27% in 2005. But the changes are not dramatic. The difference in the lower group, the 90th to 95th percentiles, is essentially unchanged. The upper group increased its share by a factor of 18%.

Now here is the top 1%, all except the tenth of one percent of the population, the top 145,000 families. Here too, I’ve divided them into two.

The “poorer” half of this 1% (average income $370,000) increased its share from 2.7% to 4%. The share of the upper half (average income $696,000) went from 3.2% to nearly 6%. As in the first graph, the richer half got even richer than did the lower half – an 87% increase compared with a 47% increase.

But what about the truyly rich, he top tenth of 1% of families – with incomes well over $2 million? Their considerable incomes show much larger fluctuations.

The overall trend is a big increase. Their share of total income doubled. It is also in this group that we see the effects of the dot-com boom (1995-2000) and bust (2000-2003). In 2004 and 2005, they seem to have gotten their groove back.

(Note: these graphs are based on data published by Piketty and Saez based on tax returns. The figures for income do not include capital gains. If capital gains were included, the differences between the very rich and the rest would be even larger.)

Here’s one final picture showing that the largest effects of the Internet bubble occurred at the top. It shows the ratio of CEO income (including bonuses and stock options) relative to that of the average worker.

The billowing and bursting of the Internet bubble is obvious. But smoothing out the curve also shows the general trend towards increasing inequality.