What Becomes of the Broken Norm?

January 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Norms are fragile things, especially when they apply only in select situations.

In the 1970s, Bill Weeden and Dave Finkle worked as a comedy duo in clubs like the Improv in New York City. They billed themselves as “A Couple of Guys With Class,” which was also the title of their opening song. As best I can remember, it stared like this:

We’re a couple of guys with class,
Up to our ears in class.
If you looking for vulgar,
Boy we’re not it,
We never say “fuck”
And we never say “shit.”

The joke of that last line – it always got a laugh – was in the apophasis (saying something while saying that you’re not saying it). But it also put the audience on the side of the performers in recognizing that the norms about proper language were arbitrary and situational. The message was,“We all know we’re not supposed to say these words, but we also know that we all actually do say them.” We were laughing at our own hypocrisy or at least our inconsistency from one situation to another.

If you lean on that situational norm, pretty soon it gives way. Twenty years earlier, Weeden and Finkle could have been arrested for violating New York’s obscenity laws (as Lenny Bruce fans and viewers of Mrs. Maisell know). Many “fucks” and “shits” and a few court cases later, that had changed. Today, it’s rare to hear a comic who, like Seinfeld, does not say “fuck” and “shit.”

A few weeks ago, news outlets with class – the New York Times and NPR, for example – would not use the word “shit” even as part of a compound word – a word like, say, “shithole” – even though the word  “shit” was in wide use elsewhere. Season two of NPR’s podcast “Serial” was about an Alabama man who referred to his local community as “Shittown.” NPR called the podcast “S-town.” That was a year ago.

Now Donald Trump’s characterizing some nations as “shithole countries” was just too important to ignore. Some publications continued to censor or Bowdlerize the word. You would see “S**t” in print or hear Wolf Blitzer talk about “s-hole countries or bleep-hole countries.” Much of the mainstream media put the phrase in quotation marks, as if to say, “Trump’s word, not ours.” But in today’s Times, Paul Krugman, writing about anti-immigration in the 19th century, says, “Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day.” The quotation marks are implied but not visible.

I expect that from now on, the censoring of other quotes that include “shit” will decrease. Then before long, op-ed writers will be able to use the word even when it carries no reference to what someone else said.

The norm once breached is now broken. Like Humpty-Dumpty, it has been pushed off the wall and lies shattered on the sidewalk. Of course, Trump has violated far more serious norms (as noted in this Atlantic article  among many, many others). Will the social forces (i.e., people) upholding those norms be resilient enough to re-instate them?

One For the Books

January 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ending of the Vikings-Saints game was one for the books.

By “ending” I don’t mean the fluke 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown as the clock ran out.  I mean the actual ending – the final play, the extra point, which didn’t come until eight minutes (it seemed like 20) after the touchdown.

And by “books” I don’t mean the record books. I mean the bookmakers. That point, or non-point, made a big difference only to them and their customers.

It was also one for this blog. In the early days of this blog, I had several posts that considered the idea of “the wisdom of crowds.” James Surowiecki’s book with that title was much on my mind, mostly because I thought that it was wrong, at least when the topic was football gambling. (See this post, for example.) The basic idea is that for guessing what is now unknown (a lost ship, the outcome of next week’s game, the weight of an ox), don’t ask an expert. Ask a crowd of ordinary but interested people and take the average. Gamblers call that choice the “chalk” – the team (or horse) that’s getting most of the action.

But gamblers also talk about the “smart money.” In sports betting, bookmakers don’t care so much about the crowd. But there are a few people whose action the books do pay special attention to, and not just because the bets are usually large. Last Monday, most books opened the Vikings-Saints game with the Vikings as 3½-point favorites. The public liked the Saints. Two out of every three bets took New Orleans plus the points.

Since bookmakers have a guaranteed profit when the amount bet on each side is the same, bookmakers should then have tried to discourage more Saints money by reducing the points – say from 3½ to 3. Instead, they raised the line to 4 and then 4½, The public may have been backing the Saints, but the smart money, the “sharps,” were taking the Vikings. By the weekend, the line had gone to 5 and then 5½.

With the Saints leading 24-23 with ten seconds left and the Vikings 60 yards from the goal line, it looked like the crowd was right. Then came the touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. The score was now Vikings 29, Saints 24; the clock showed all zeros. The smart money, the bettors who had gone with the Vikings early in the week, looked very smart indeed. Among Saints backers, those who had bet late and gotten the 5½ came out ahead.

Bookmakers still lost money since a lot of the Saints action had come in on Sunday at 5½. But the touchdown saved them from paying off all those early bets on the Saints.

Then came the bizarre extra point. After the touchdown, with no time left on the clock, everyone thought the game was over. TV crews and others went out onto the field. Players strode gleefully or walked dejectedly to the locker room. The refs had to call them back out for the extra point. NFL rules require it. But there was no way the outcome would be changed, so who cared? Bettors and bookies, that’s who. For all those who had bet the game at 5½, the extra point was the difference between winning and losing.

The Saints weren’t too enthusiastic about things and took their time coming out of the locker room and back onto the field.

When both teams had finally shown up, the Vikings, rather than trying to score, politely took a knee. Game over, finally.
It would have been even better for the books –  and worse for the crowd –  if the teams had taken the extra-point seriously. Normally, even with only a few seconds left on the clock, the teams would have lined up for the extra point, the kick would have been good, and the Vikings would have won by 6 points rather than 5. Bookies would have kept all that Saints money.

In the end, the smart money won. As for the crowd, some won, some lost, some got a push.

Punishing the Poor, Again

January 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Republican approach to Medicaid seems designed not to improve the health and lives of the poor but to bolster other people’s feelings of righteousness. That’s why these policies focus on punishment for the “undeserving poor.” (See the previous post.)

The same preference for punishing sinners rather than solving problems pervades the anti-abortion movement. If the goal is to reduce the number of abortions, it would seem logical to reduce unwanted pregnancies. But most anti-abortion groups and politicians also want to restrict birth control.

Abortion oppenents should also, logically, promote policies that make motherhood easier, but they don’t. Instead, as Michelle Oberman in today’s New York Times (here) points out, abortion opponents typically focus on making abortion more and more difficult or even punishing abortion-seeking women. These policies fall hardest, of course, on women with little money.

The price of motherhood is set by our government’s policies. It will, at some level, always be cheaper for a woman to have an abortion than to have a baby. But if anti-abortion campaigners truly want to decrease the numbers of abortions, rather than passing laws designed to drive up the costs of abortion, they would do far better to invest in the kinds of economic supports that make becoming a parent a realistic possibility for struggling women.

Consider the medical needs of the women living at Rose Home: access to health care, substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, food and housing. Each has a price tag. Yet rather than offsetting the high price of motherhood, recent anti-abortion laws drive up the cost of abortion by closing clinics, forcing women to travel farther, and to wait longer before ending their pregnancies.

The abortion war, with its singular focus on law, distracts us from the economic factors entwined in a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy. In a world of true choice, whether a woman walked into a Planned Parenthood or a crisis pregnancy center, she would learn that society cared enough to provide her with the resources she needs, regardless of her decision.

Oberman refers to “focus on law” in that last paragraph, but the laws she’s talking about, much like the Medicaid work-requirement rules, are designed to make life more difficult for the unrighteous, not to help pregnant women. The message these laws send is not that we want you to become a mother but that we want to see you suffer for having an unwanted pregnancy. For abortion opponents, having their morality engraved into the law the allows for rejoicing in righteous victory, but as Oberman says, it doesn’t do much for poor women or for their babies.

Last week, a New York Times op-ed about Medicare had a title that characterized the Republican approach: “You’re Sick. Whose Fault Is That?” The same idea applied to abortion would give us “You’re Pregnant. Whose Fault Is That?” It’s a great question if you are interested in assessing blame. The payoff comes in the currency of feelings – guilt (for those with illness or unwanted pregnancy), pride or righteousness for the healthy and virtuous. But if you’re interested in effective policy to improve people’s health or reduce abortion, “whose fault?” is the wrong question.Why not ask, “How can we help?”

* Policies like this play well in the US. Where other countries see problems and search for effective solutions, Americans tend to see moral wrongdoing that should be punished. This tendency is especially strong in the area of sexuality, especially female sexuality, and not just when the issue is abortion. 

Nine years ago I wrote (here) about a Pennsylvania district attorney who was threatening to prosecute 15-year old girls for “sexual abuse of a minor.” The minors? Themselves. Their crime? A year or two earlier, they had taken cell-phone photos of themselves that showed them from the waist-up wearing only a bra, If convicted, they could be sent to prison and forced to register as sex offenders.

GOP Medicaid – It’s About Righteousness, Not Health

January 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post, I concluded that the principle goal of the Republican approach to Medicaid was not to improve the health of poor people but to punish their unvirtuous behavior. Today, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services pretty much confirmed that. They issued guidelines allowing states to force Medicaid recipients to get a job, or failing that, to volunteer or participate in job training.  Here is the tweet from Seema Verma, director of the Centers.

Verna assumes that forcing poor people to work or volunteer improves their health. It doesn’t. At the Upshot (the New York Times’s data-heavy sector, here) Margot Sanger-Katz reviews the evidence.

It is not at all clear how much work or income alone improve health. In fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence that causality can move in the opposite direction . . . .“Having the medical coverage helps people to get a job,” said LaDonna Pavetti, a vice president at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who has studied work requirements extensively. . . .

The earned-income tax credit, a program established specifically to raise the incomes of low-wage workers, wasn’t able to find any clear health benefit.

Sanger-Katz links to an article by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank. Even he doesn’t think that the new rules will improve the health of the poor. And because people without Medicaid will wind up going to the emergency room (far more expensive that regular treatment), work requirements won’t save the government any money. Heritage published the article last March with the headline, “Work Requirements in Medicaid Won’t Work . . .”

A work requirement would just make it less likely for able-bodied adults without dependent children, known as ABAWDs, to register for the program. The work requirement would reduce Medicaid enrollments, but Medicaid costs might well go up because the eligible ABAWDs would go to the emergency room rather than receive routine care elsewhere. . . .

Suppose a Medicaid eligible ABAWD enrolls in Medicaid and then fails to do his work assignment (a very likely outcome based on experience with other work requirements). This individual then shows up sick in the emergency room or clinic. Is the government going to deny him medical care because he did not do his workfare assignment? Of course not. [Well, maybe and maybe not. A lot of Tea Party types would gleefully deny him medical care. At a debate during the 2012 GOP primaries, they cheered at the idea of allowing someone without insurance to die. See this post.]

As Sanger-Katz says, Rector’s rationale for work requirements is not medical, it’s moral. The goal is not to make people healthy but to make them virtuous, to make them “personally responsible.”  And the way to do that is to punish them for their lack of virtue even though that may bring sickness and death. After all, since health is a matter of personal responsibility, it’s what they deserve. 

The new rules may not be very good at improving the health of poor people, but they will be effective at making the rest of us feel morally righteous. And isn’t that more important?