Naming Variables

July 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Variable labels – not the sort of problem that should excite much debate. Still, it’s important to identify your variables as what they really are. If I’m comparing, say, New Yorkers with Clevelanders, should I call my independent variable “Sophistication” (Gothamites, as we all know, are more sophisticated)? Or should it be “City” (or “City of residence”)? “Sophistication” would be sexier, “City” would  more accurate.

Dan Ariely does experiments about cheating.  In a recent experiment, he compared East Germans and West Germans and found that East Germans cheated more. 

we found evidence that East Germans who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to capitalism.

Yes, East Germany was a socialist state. But it was also dominated by another nation (the USSR, which appropriated much of East Germany’s wealth) and had a totalitarian government that ruled by fear and mistrust.  For Ariely to write up his results and call his independent variable “Socialism/Captialism,” he must either ignore all those other aspects of East Germany or else assume that they are inherent in socialism.

The title of the paper is worth noting: “The (True) Legacy of Two Really Existing Economic Systems.”  You can find it here.)

The paper has been well received among mainstream conservatives (e.g., The Economist), who, rather than looking carefully at the variables, are glad to conflate socialism with totalitarian evils.

Mark Kleiman at the Reality Based Community makes an analogy with Chile under socialist Allende and capitalist Pinochet.

Imagine that the results had come out the other way: say, showing that Chileans became less honest while Pinochet was having his minions gouge out their opponents’ eyeballs and Milton Friedman was gushing about the “miracle of Chile”? How do you think the paper would read, and what do you think the Economist, Marginal Revolution, and AEI would have had to say about its methods?


Nannies and States

July 20, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat is puzzled. He seems to sense that a liberal policy might actually help, but his high conservative principles and morality keep him from taking that step. It’s a political version of Freudian repression – the conservative superego forcing tempting ideas to remain out of awareness.

In today’s column, Douthat recounts several anecdotes of criminal charges brought against parents whose children were unsupervised for short periods of time.  The best-known of these criminals of late is Debra Harrell, the mother in South Carolina who let her 9-year-old daughter go to a nearby playground while she (Debra) worked at her job at McDonald’s. The details of the case (here  among other places)  make it clear that this was not a bad mom – not cruel, not negligent. The playground was the best child care she could afford.

One solution should be obvious – affordable child care.  But the US is rather stingy when it comes to kids. Other countries are way ahead of us on public spending for children.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Conservatives will argue that child care should be private not public and that local charities and churches do a better job than do state-run programs. Maybe so. The trouble is that those private programs are not accessible to everyone. If Debra Harrell had been in France or Denmark, the problem would never have arisen.

The other conservative US policy that put Debra Harrell in the arms of the law is “welfare reform.”  As Douthat explains, in the US, thanks to changes in the welfare system much lauded by conservatives, the US now has “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.”

That’s the part that perplexes Douthat. He thinks that it’s a good thing for the government to force poor women to work, but it’s a bad thing for those women not to have the time to be good mothers. The two obvious solutions – affordable day care or support for women who stay home to take care of kids – conflict with the cherished conservative ideas: government bad, work good.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

As he says, it’s a distinctive challenge, but only if you cling so tightly to conservative principles that you reject solutions – solutions that seem to be working quite well in other countries – just because they involve the government or allow poor parents not to work.

Conservatives love to decry “the nanny state.”  That means things like government efforts to improve kids’ health and nutrition. (Right wingers make fun of the first lady for trying to get kids to eat sensibly and get some exercise.)

A nanny is a person who is paid to look after someone else’s kids. Well-off people hire them privately (though they still prefer to call them au pairs). But for the childcare problems of low-income parents, what we need is more of a nanny state, or more accurately, state-paid nannies.

Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

July 12, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

At age 22, Charlie Haden was the bassist the original Ornette Coleman quartet.  He had already been playing for a couple of years with bebop pianist Hampton Hawes.  Ornette played music that, at the time (1959), was considered so far out that many listeners dismissed it as noise. (“They play ‘Some of These Days’ in five different keys simultaneously.”) Ornette became even freer, moving even further from the basic changes, and Charlie followed along.

Haden was also a very melodic bass player. That’s especially clear in his duo work with guitarists like Pat Metheny and Egberto Gismonti and pianists Keith Jarrett, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron (“Night and the City” is one of my favorite albums). He remained rooted in bebop, notably as leader of Quartet West (with Ernie Watts, the man responsible for my giving up saxophone). 

He had polio as a child in Iowa, and in recent years suffered from post-polio syndrome.

Here is a brief video made at the time Charlie recorded the duo album with Keith Jarrett, who does much of the talking here.

Needs (One More Time)

July 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Before I read Benjamin Schmidt’s post in the Atlantic (here) about anachronistic language in “Mad Men,” I had never noticed how today we use “need to” where earlier generations would have said “ought to” or “should.” Now, each “need to” jumps out at me from the screen.*  Here is today’s example.


Why not: “Even more proof health care records should go digital”?

In a post a year ago (here), I speculated that the change was part of a more general shift away from the language of morality and towards the language of individual psychology, from what is good for society to what is good for the self.  But now need to has become almost an exact synonym for should. Just as with  issue replacing problem** – another substitution flowing from the brook of psychobabble – the therapy-based origins of need to are an unheard undertone.  Few people reading that headline today will get even a subliminal image of a bureaucratic archive having needs or of health care records going digital so as to bring themselves one Maslow need-level closer to self-actualization.

It looks like need to and issue will stick around for a while. Other terms currently in use may have a shorter life. In the future (I mean, going forward), “because + noun” will probably go the way of  “my bad.” And by me, its demise will be just groovy.  I wonder if language scholars have some way of predicting these life-spans. Are there certain kinds of words or phrases that practically announce themselves as mayflies?

Oh well, at the end of the day, the bottom line is that it is what it is.

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* As Nabokov says at the end of Speak, Memory “. . . something in a scrambled picture — Find What the Sailor Has Hidden — that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.”

** In 1970, Jim Lovell would not have said, “Houston, we have an issue.”  But if a 2014 remake of “Apollo 13” had that line, and if the original weren’t so well known,  most people wouldn’t notice.