Committing Sociology

April 27, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“This is not a time to commit sociology,” said Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper. 

It’s witty, especially if you don’t know that Auden made the same joke nearly seventy years ago.
Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
    Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
    A social science.
But it’s wit in the service of a bad idea – willful ignorance.  The less witty version is the introductory clause, “We don’t need ‘studies’ to know that . . .” with the word studies almost always in quote.   As I’ve said in earlier posts (here and here) the phrase is pretty much a guarantee that the writer has no systematic evidence or that the available evidence points in the opposite direction.

It’s not so bad when the sentiment comes from a poet few people know of. But when it comes from people with real power, it can do real damage.  Here in the US the Republicans in Congress don’t like political science research.  Understandably.  But they are not just clapping their hands over their ears and shouting, “I don’t hear you.”  They are saying, “I won’t fund you.”  And now some of them want to eliminate funding for all science that can’t wave a patriotic flag.
 the new chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology floated the idea of having every NSF grant application include a statement of how the research, if funded, "would directly benefit the American people." Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that he was not trying to "micromanage" the $7 billion agency but that NSF needs to do a better job of deciding what to fund given the low success rates for grant applicants and a shrinking federal budget.  (More here.)
The sociology Harper was referring to consisted apparently of remarks by Justin Trudeau on the topic of terrorism.  Trudeau suggested that a strategy to prevent further terrorism should include a consideration of “root causes.”

Naive Trudeau.  Had he been more familiar with to the recent history of his neighbor to the south, he would never have used that phrase.  When crime was in the US rose drastically in the late twentieth century (when Justin’s dad Pierre was prime minister of Canada), some people suggested that to reduce crime, it might help to understand “root causes.”  Conservatives, the defenders of “law and order,” hooted with contempt.  We didn’t need to understand. We needed to punish the bad guys, the more harshly the better. 

The same reaction seems to have been taking place in Canada in the days following the Boston bombing and the discovery of a plot to blow up Canadian trains.  Apparently that is what Harper meant by “this is not the time.”  At a time like this, when people are “uncertain and afraid” (Auden again), they do not want to understand.  They want reassurance both of their safety and of their moral rightness.  They want actions and words that reinforce the boundary between Us and Them.

The trouble, especially with potential terrorists in our midst, is that we need the help of people who look like Them. Terrorism plots are foiled by information from insiders.  Do we really want to paint the boundary in bright colors and force them to choose a side?  Here is the sociology that Trudeau committed.
But we also need to make sure that as we go forward, that we don’t emphasize a culture of fear and mistrust. Because that ends up marginalizing even further those who already are feeling like they are enemies of society.

Wanted – Bad Research

April 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m not a research director.  But if I were, I hope I wouldn’t write questions that are obviously designed to bias the results.*  And if I did ask such questions, I wouldn’t boast about it in the newspaper, especially if my stacking of the deck got barely a majority to give the answer I wanted. 

But then, I’m not Michael Saltsman, research director for the Employment Policies Institute, whose letter to the Record (formerly known as The Bergen Record) was published today.
Regarding "Most favor minimum wage hike" (Page L-7, April 18):

The recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll finding that 76 percent of New Jerseyans support a minimum wage increase only proves that incomplete poll questions yield misleading results.

My organization commissioned ORC International to conduct a similar poll regarding an increase in the minimum wage. When respondents were informed of the unintended consequences of minimum wage hikes — particularly how such hikes make it more difficult for the least-skilled to find work— 70 percent support flipped to 56 percent opposition. [emphasis added]

This consequence isn't a hypothetical: Fully 85 percent of the most credible economic studies from the past two decades indicate a loss of job opportunities following a wage hike.

Michael Saltsman
Washington, D.C. , April 18
As for the facts on the effects of an increase in the minimum wage, Saltsman’s literature review is on a par with his questionnaire construction.  Apparently he missed John Schmitt’s CEPR article from two months ago (here).    The title pretty much sums it up:
Why Does the Minimum Wage Have No Discernible Effect on Employment?
Schmitt includes this graph of minimum-wage effects from a meta-analysis.

Hristos Doucouliagos and T. D. Stanley (2009) conducted a meta-study of 64 minimum-wage studies published between 1972 and 2007 measuring the impact of minimum wages on teenage employment in the United States. When they graphed every employment estimate contained in these studies (over 1,000 in total), weighing each estimate by its statistical precision, they found that the most precise estimates were heavily clustered at or near zero employment effects.
Schmitt offers several guesses as to why employers don’t cut jobs when the minimum wage rises – maybe they raise prices, or accept a lower profit margin, or reduce the wages of better-paid employees; or maybe the increased minimum wage brings more customers, and so on.**

But regardless of the findings on minimum wage, Saltsman’s letter carries a more important if depressing message.  We try to teach our students to design good research.  We tell them that good research skills might help them get jobs.  Yet here is an example of a research-director job that depends on designing bad surveys and doing bad research. 
*In his methods course, my colleague Chris Donoghue uses a made-up abortion item for teaching items that introduce bias:
“Every year in the US, over a million babies are killed by abortion. Do you agree that laws should make it more difficult to get an abortion?”

** Brad Plumer at WaPo’s WonkBlog has more on this, including a fuller discussion of Schmitt’s paper (here).

Ulysses in LaLa Land

April 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

A non-sociological post. 
I’ve never been all that good at resisting the obvious.

From today’s New York Times:
The indictment also named Molly Bloom, who made headlines in 2011 for her role in arranging clandestine games for high-rollers, including Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
And then he asked me if he could get into the game yes and would Matt be there yes and Ben with himself so pumped up and proud yes yes and Leo too all blond and often staying in with only king seven yes and he took out his checkbook and asked with his eyes if this would be enough for the buy-in yes and it was a wondrous number with lots of zeros yes yes yes

Underground Demography

April 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

The magic of demographic knowledge is a memorable moment in John Sayles’s 1984 movie “Brother From Another Planet.”   On the A train, a young man shows an elaborate card trick to the title alien, who looks like an African American but seems to have no understanding of the trick.  So the magician offers another.

From 59th St. to 125th St. is one stop on the express.  But as the movie shows, that short ride covers a large demographic change, and it’s not just racial.  The New Yorker has posted interactive graphics (here) showing the median income of the census tracts surrounding subway stations.* 

Take the A train one stop  – from the southern border of Central Park to a few blocks above its northern border – and see median income drop by $100,000. 

Many other lines travel the extremes of economic inequality.  My line is the 2. 

In the early morning commute, I see blue collar workers in their hoodies or rough jackets and steel-toe boots next to well-dressed people reading The Wall Street Journal.  They didn’t get on at the same stop.  The people who live in and work in the Wall Street census tract, which includes Park Place, are not on the train.  Here’s what their housing looks like.

And here is Franklin St., Brooklyn.

The subway demographic trick is not limited to New York. Here’s a time-lapse video of the Red Line of Chicago’s CTA.
(If the video does not play, you can see it here.)
Despite the social class segregation in housing, in cities like New York and Chicago, people of vastly different economic circumstances are likely to share the same subway car, at least for a few stops. 

Yet I don’t get a sense of strong resentment or even envy among the have-nots (though I wish I had systematic data on this).  These cities are also where the rich are more likely to be liberal and in favor of redistributionist policies.  As Andrew Gelman has shown, the wealthy in rich states are far more liberal than the wealthy in poor states.  That may be partly because in rich states, the wealthy live in the large cities.  How strong would that effect be if we used Upstate New York, Downstate Illinois, Massachusetts outside Rte. 128, and so on?

Or to quote James Carville’s famous line about Pennsylvania: “Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in between.”

HT: Jenn Lena for the link.