David Brooks Doesn’t Get It

September 9, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks’s persona, the character he plays in print and on TV, is the reasonable conservative – fair-minded, with ideas based in fact rather than ideology. He also likes to play the sociologist, offering broad pronouncements on society and culture. Especially culture.

Look at yesterday’s column, a puff piece for a new magazine, National Affairs, which he sees as the successor to The Public Interest. Brooks briefly summarizes the articles in the current issue.

Brooks loves virtue, which he usually subsumes under “culture” – the ideas people live by. But he ignores structure. He also forgets the basic insight of Sociology 101, week one – Durkheim: explanations of individual facts (like who gets ahead and who doesn’t) often aren’t much help in explaining social facts (like the overall degree of inequality and poverty in a society).

In explaining suicide at the individual level, sadness is a pretty useful concept. People who commit suicide are, no doubt, sadder than those who don’t. The surest way not to commit suicide is to be happy, not sad. But does knowing about these individual differences help us understand why the US has a rate of suicide nearly triple that of Greece? Are Americans three times as sad as Greeks? And within the US, are whites twice as sad as blacks?

Levels of income and degrees of inequality have as much to do with “virtue” as rates of suicide have to do with sadness.

From 2000 to 2007, median family income in the US fell by 5%. (Don’t look for the data on 2008 and 2009, when it comes out, to reverse this trend.) Can we conclude that Americans became more self-indulgent and irresponsible? That they threw away their degrees, broke up their families, and quit their jobs?

Since January 2008, over six million people in this country have lost their jobs. I guess the Bush administration wasn’t very good (and Obama, so far, no better) at “promoting virtuous behavior.”

Someone should suggest to David Brooks, that maybe, just maybe, when we consider income and inequality and unemployment at the national level, those individual–based explanations don’t help. It’s not a matter of culture or virtue. It’s the economy. Stupid.

Lone Star Litter . . . and Values

September 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

the brand consultant was consulting with me – i.e., he was picking up the cappuccino tab at Starbuck’s. He was about to start teaching a course called something like “Communications and Public Affairs,” and not being an academic (though he’s a really good teacher), he wanted some advice on the syllabus.

We finally got around to the idea that Messages about Issues had to be tailored for specific Audiences or Publics, particularly their Interests and Values. (Those capitalized words were possible major headings in the syllabus.)

I immediately thought of the example of Texas and litter. How could you convince Texans to be more respectful of public places and not toss all that crap out onto the roads they drove on? The Ladybird Johnson approach – “Highway Beautification”? Wrong audience. The people who were littering obviously didn’t care about highway beauty.

The guy you were trying to reach was Bubba, the classic red stater – fiercely individualistic, anti-government, macho. Bubba was also a slob, and probably proud of it. You couldn’t appeal to self-interest since it’s in Bubba’s self-interest to chuck his garbage out the window. Even hefty fines (and they are hefty) would work only if you could catch litterers often enough – unlikely on the Texas highways.

The best way in was Values. But how? “Don’t be a Litterbug, Keep Your Community Clean” would be too nice, too feminine or babyish, and, like “Pitch In” too collectivist. Instead, Roy Spence and Tim McClure at the Austin ad agency GSD&M had the Texas DOT go with chauvinism – Texas chauvinism. Spence and McClure were the ones who had distilled the target audience down to the Bubba stereotype, and the idea they played on to reach Bubba was not that littering was ugly or wrong or costly, but that it hurt Texas. And thus in 1985 was born one of the most famous and effective campaigns in the history of advertising.

With its double meaning of “mess,” it captured Bubba’s patriotism and pugnacity. The bumper stickers were soon everywhere. The TV ads featured famous proud Texans. One of the early ones (so early, I can’t find it on YouTube) featured Too-Tall Jones and Randy White, two of the toughest dudes on the Cowboys defense, picking up roadside trash.

JONES: You see the guy who threw this out the window, you tell him I got a message for him.

WHITE: (picks up a beer can): I got a message for him too.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: What’s that?

WHITE: (Crushes the beer can with one fist). Well, I kinda need to see him to deliver it.

JONES: Don’t mess with Texas.
Litter in Texas has been reduced by 72%, the campaign is still going strong a quarter-century later, and McLure and Spence have a book about it. My source was Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (no, jazzers, not those Heath brothers), Chip and Dan.

Torture and Masculinity - Anxiety on the Right

September 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

What’s with conservatives and their junk (junk in the current sense of male genitals)?

The Attorney General is looking into whether government employees – specifically CIA agents who tortured people – broke the law. Conservatives are outraged. It’s not just that conservatives think that torture is O.K. (not all torture, of course, just torture when we do it). It’s the imagery that bubbles up from their psyches.
“Emasculating US Intelligence.” (Headline on a blog at Commentary)

“Castrate the CIA, and Americans will die.” Ralph Peters in the the New York Post.
Fred Barnes, Executive Editor of the Weekly Standard on Fox TV fears that there won’t be a CIA agent left who’s able to pass his DNA to the next generation:

“They are emasculating the entire CIA.”

And of course, Charles Krauthammer:

“Panetta [head of the CIA] had his agency emasculated . . .”

These are just a few from the mainstream. If you searched blogosphere, you’d find lots more of them, anxiously lined up like soccer defenders on the free kick wall, their opposition to the attorney general being just one more example of their cojones-centered approach to legal interpretation and government policy.

I blogged about this a year ago (in what I thought was one of my better posts – here), after watching the Republican convention.
The Republicans seemed to view torture not just as a regrettable but necessary tactic. Torture became a romanticized test of toughness, the ultimate chapter in the Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche version of masculinity.

Their reactions further convince me that running just under the surface of the rational justifications for torture is the conservatives’ fear that if they reject torture, they will be less virile, less manly. They seem to have the fantasy that torturing and being tortured is a fraternity initiation – it tests a man and ultimately makes him a better person. They hold up John McCain as their exemplar.

It’s similar to the Dirty Harry fantasy about killing people. The reality of torture, as with killing, is far different from the movie and TV version. In many cases, for the victim, torture is permanently devastating. For the torturer, unless he has a bit of the psychopath in his character, it is permanently troubling.

(It’s tempting, when you actually see Fred Barnes and Krauthammer and the boys from Commentary, to make a psychoanalytic interpretation. I mean, they remind me of the wimpy brainiacs in high school who became the manager on the football team, tagging along and carrying the equipment for the muscular jocks they literally looked up to. Tempting, as I say, but I just don’t have enough information.)

Cop Killers – The UCR vs.The Wire

September 1, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is it OK for social scientists to use statistics in a misleading way when they write for the general public?

Peter Moskos is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His Cop in the Hood is based partly on his work as a police officer in Baltimore. Here’s the lede from a piece he wrote in the Washington Post with Neill Franklin, also a former Baltimore cop.

They follow this with:
In many ways, Dante Arthur was lucky. He lived. Nationwide, a police officer dies on duty nearly every other day. [emphasis added]
Let’s see – 365 days a year. That makes nearly 180 such deaths each year.

I’ve been out of the crim biz for a while, but that number sounded high to me. So I went to the UCR. Sure enough, in 2007, 140 police officers died in the line of duty. As Moskos and Franklin say, nearly one every other day.

But 83 of those officers died in accidents, only 57 were homicide victims – one every 6 days. Still a lot. But how many of those were drug-related? The UCR has the answer:


Nor was 2007 unusual. In the decade ending 2007, 1300 police officers died on the job. About 550 of these were in felonies, not accidents. And of these, 27 were drug-related. Three a year is still too many, but it’s a far cry from one every other day.

Maybe I should have looked at a DVD of The Wire instead of the UCR.

Officer Arthur will not appear in this table of the UCR. It counts only deaths. So I looked at data on assaults on police officers. There were 59,000 non-fatal assaults on police officers, nearly a third of them in “disturbances,” i.e., fights (at home, in bars, etc.). Curiously, the UCR does not have a separate category for drugs in these tables. In the Arrest category, it has Robbery, Burglary, and Other, which must include drugs. In that Other category, 174 assaults were with guns.

Total Assaults 59,201
Disturbance 18,789
Other Arrest 8,935



Using the drugs/other ratio from the table on deaths (about 1/3), we get about 60 non-fatal shootings (like that of Officer Arthur) in 2007 – one tenth of one percent of all assaults on police officers.

Moskos and Franklin argue that federal laws should allow states to make the manufacture and distribution of drugs legal and regulated rather than criminal. The authors make several good arguments against current drug laws, which have created many problems that legalization might ameliorate. But I’m skeptical as to whether legalization would make much of a difference in police safety.