With a Quack Quack Here

June 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Heather MacDonald, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, tried to blame an increase in killings of cops this year on a “Ferguson effect.”  Protests over the police killing unarmed people cause politicians to criticize the police. The police, rather than risk sanctions, reduce their proactive efforts. As a result, the “criminal element is feeling empowered.” So crime and cop-killing increase.

In a post last week, I offered a simple count of cop killings to show that MacDonald’s assertions about them were quack criminology. I didn’t say anything about crime in general, but in yesterday’s Daily News (here), Frank Zimring, a distinguished criminologist, calls out MacDonald on those numbers as well.

The most recent official crime statistics indicate that so far in 2015, [New York City] has experienced significant declines from 2014's ultra-low levels in burglary, robbery and larceny. At the same time, total homicides for the first five months of the year at 135 are higher than in 2014 — but quite close to the pace of 2013 and around 30% lower than in 2010.

At their current rate, killings in New York City would end 2015 as either the third or fourth lowest year in the city’s modern history.

“Ferguson Effect”? Doesn’t look like it.

And if such an effect has indeed increased the New York homicide total, should it also get credit for the 223 fewer robberies so far in 2015 when compared to the previous year? How about the 974 fewer burglaries in five months?

The Zimring asks, “Why Mac Donald’s fearful haste?”

His answer is, roughly, that MacDonald and The Manhattan Institute where she is the Thomas W. Smith fellow just have a penchant for a sky-is-falling perception of crime. He could have added that the corollary to this view is a preference for policies promoting punishment and the police.*

* Years ago I posted (here) about MacDonald’s “lock ’em up” views on drugs.

A Time to Be Born

June 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Primates of Park Avenue is Wednesday Martin’s quasi-anthropological account of the young and the wealthy on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The “wife bonus” got most of the pre-publication flap, but the item that struck me was about family planning.

Martin was further panicked to learn her child had been born in the wrong month; many women on the Upper East Side time their pregnancies and IVF treatments to school enrollment, so their child will begin school at the oldest age possible — a practice known as redshirting.

“You go to the Upper East Side, and everyone will be heavily pregnant in the same month, because the time to have a baby is October or November,” Martin says. “Those are the good birthdays.” [New York Post.]

And why not? We now know, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, that role birth month plays a large part in who winds up at the top in Canadian junior league hockey.* Couple that with the child-rearing strategy that Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation” typical of middle- and upper-class parents. The agrarian metaphor is apt. For Martin’s East Side one-percenters, even before the cultivation of an actual child comes a careful decision about when to plant the seed. 

In this, they resemble the breeders of race horses. The official “birthday” of all thoroughbreds is January 1, so breeders time things so that for maximum development at that cutoff date.  That’s why American Pharoah and four of the other seven horses in the Belmont were foaled in April.** 

At private schools in Manhattan, where tuition fees are comparable to stud fees (K- 5 will run you upwards of $200K), a similar logic makes October and November “good birthdays. ” The cutoff date is September 1; children entering kindergarten must have turned five before that date. Those October children will have turned five eleven months before the cutoff. 

Do the Primates of Park Avenue really time their pregnancies? And does the strategy work? Are elite-school classes in May and June unpunctuated by cupcakes?  If anyone has data on the birthdays of kids in the lower schools of Dalton, Trinity, Horace Mann, etc., please come forth.

In horse racing, early developmental advantages fade as the horses become older. But Gladwell argues that for humans – or at least, for Canadian junior league hockey players – the initial advantage expands thanks to the way the system is organized. It’s what Robert Merton called “The Matthew Effect.” The parents of Park Avenue seem to subscribe to this same idea – that the October advantage extends past kindergarten, past grade school and high school, into the Ivies and then to career success.

What puzzles me is my own reaction that there’s something not quite right with this birth-timing. I accept other aspects of family planning – controlling the spacing of siblings or timing a birth so as to minimize the inconvenience to the parents’ work lives (especially given the anti-family US policies on parental leave). The same goes for the other things parents do to cultivate their children and ensure their chances of a successful life – the culturally enriching experiences, the “good” schools, the tutors, the coaches and, if necessary, the therapists – assuming that these are in fact helpful. There’s really no reason I should find the “good birthday” strategy objectionable. But I do.

 * In first chapter of his best-seller Outliers, Gladwell shows that the ranks of the top Canadian junior league hockey teams (boys 16-19years old) are heavy with boys born in the first quarter of the year.  That’s because official age is determined by the calendar year.  The  born on January 1, 2008 and the boy born 12 months later on Dec. 31, 2008 are both seven-year olds.  But the January boy has a huge edge in physical development. He is more likely to be selected for better teams, better coaching, and better competition.

** Horses born in the early spring mature faster than do those born earlier. 
Here is a chart of the birth months of winners of the individual Triple Crown individual races since 1970 and the birth month of horses sold at the Keeneland Yearling sales. (To keep both variables on the same chart, I have divided the sales figure by 10. Data source here.)

If you are spending $60,000 to have your mare bred to Pioneer of the Nile (American Pharoah’s sire) or $300,000 for Tapit, the sire of Frosted, who finished second in the Belmont, you want to make sure that your foal has the best chance to win these million-dollar purses.

Did Protests Lead to the Killing of More Cops?

June 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Since July of of last year, the media have publicized a handful of cases of police officers killing unarmed Black people. In response, people – mostly Black – have mounted protests not just about these killings and the exoneration of the killers but about police treatment in general.

Have these protests endangered police lives?  Heather MacDonald, the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, seems to think so. In the Wall Street Journal Friday (here), she wrote:

A handful of highly publicized deaths of unarmed black men, often following a resisted arrest—including Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., in July 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore last month—have led to riots, violent protests and attacks on the police. Murders of officers jumped 89% in 2014, to 51 from 27.

The logic of those two sentences is that the protests caused the increase in murders of police. If that’s true, then most of the those murders should have come in the second half of 2014, following the protests over the killing of Eric Garner.

The Officers Down Memorial Page for 2014 (here) lists 59 homicides of police, eight more than MacDonald’s figure – 47 by gunfire, 10 by vehicular assault, 2 by assault. Conveniently, ODMP* lists these deaths by month.  Here’s the tally.

Not much difference, especially considering that the extra three days in the latter six months of the year.
MacDonald’s main point is not about danger to police officers. It’s about police and crime. She is arguing that officers’ perception of increased risk coupled with “this incessant drumbeat against the police” (the main drumbeaters being public officials) has led police to withdraw from proactive policing, and that this withdrawal has in turn allowed criminals free to commit crimes.

She may be right, though as she says, data for the latter half of 2014 is not yet available, and data for the first half of 2015 is at least a year away. But when that data is available, we can assume that she will treat it as scrupulously and honestly as she treated the 2104 data on the murder of police officers.
* I also used ODMP data in an earlier post on killings of police officers ( here http://montclairsoci.blogspot.com/2015/04/cops-killing-and-being-killed.html).

Data Is Like Spaghetti

June 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I used to say, “The data are.” Pretentious I know. But no more.  Now I’m a “the data is” kind of guy.

I’m not alone. Here’s the chart from Google n-grams, which also shows that we’ve become steadily more data-conscious.

For much of the twentieth century, most people who wrote about data preferred the word as a plural. Even as the references to data increased, the pluralists maintained their lead. Then in about 1985, the tide turned.

When we talk about “the data,” we are referring to a whole -- a large thing made up of lots of smaller similar things. The word data is plural only in the most technical sense – it’s plural in a foreign language. The trouble is not that the language is foreign or that nobody speaks it. The problem is that data is a plural of a word that in English has no real singular. Nobody talks about a datum. When we select a particular instance in our data, we call it a “data point.”

It’s like spaghetti, another plural word in a foreign language. Spaghetti refers to a lot of similar things all combined to create a whole thing, a dish. We speak of that ensemble as a singular thing. We don’t say, “The spaghetti are delicious.” If we were speaking Italian, then yes, we would follow Italian grammar and use the plural “Gli spaghetti sono deliziosi.” And in Latin we would use the plural conjugation for data. But we’re speaking English. 

With spaghetti, for a single instance analogous to a data point, we refer to “a strand of spaghetti.” I would bet that even in Italian cookbooks authors do not use the singular. They do not say, “to check for al dente, bite into uno spaghetto.”*

I have two Italian cookbooks on my shelf – gifts from people who thought my Italian is much better than it actually is – but I’m not going to try searching for something that probably is not there.