Bloggiversary (Now We Are Eight)

September 20, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog began in September 2006, eight years and 1341 posts ago. As I’ve said before, around this season I hear the CarGuys-like voice in my head saying, “Well, you’ve wasted another perfectly good year blogging.”

Anyway, here are a few from the past year that I’ve sort of liked.

1.    Separate Ways  Sociology falls out of love with Malcolm Gladwell.

2.     It’s Not About Obamacare and the companion piece Fearing Democracy    Anti-Obamacare as symbolic politics, again.

3.    The Revenge Fantasy - “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave”  This one got noticed at other places, including a website for screenwriters.

4.    The Wars on Christmas  A Dec. 25 post. “Happy Holidays” goes back farther than I (or Bill O’Reilly) thought.

5.    Losing Their Religion - And So . . .?  Brad Wilcox says that the decline in religion the cause of less civic engagement. Some data suggests otherwise.

6.    Game. Set,  Louis CK and assortative mating. The embedded video clip is from the “Louie” episode that won an Emmy.

7.    LOL  The many meanings of laughter. Includes a clip of Terry Gross and her apologetic laugh.

8.    How to Misread a Graph (It’s Not Easy, but The Heritage Foundation Finds a Way)    The title is neither succinct nor elegant, but it conveys the idea.

Corporations and Friends

September 17, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Corporations are people, my friend.”

If Mitt Romney winds up in the quotations books and URLs, this will be his contribution.

I’m not sure what Romney meant – probably that corporations were staffed by people, and perhaps that they were owned by people. It’s possible that he was referring to Supreme Court decisions that gave corporations some of the same rights as people. 

Whatever he meant, the statement still rings false because a corporation is so obviously not an individual person. Corporations have no social or emotional attachments to others. As economist Greg Mankiw explained recently (here), their primary responsibility, maybe their only responsibility, is to make as much money as they can. If Burger King can avoid paying US taxes by claiming that it’s a Canadian company, it’s just doing what it’s supposed to be doing. As that socialist rag Fortune put it, “The possibility exists that the company will be able to reassign the fees from its U.S. franchises to Canada and pay no U.S. tax on this income. Other taxpayers here in the U.S. will have to shoulder the burden and make up this shortfall in tax revenue.”

Corporations do not have a responsibility to society or country, and they certainly don’t have a responsibility to any person. My friend.

Still, corporations pretend otherwise and try to create the Romneyesque fiction that they are indeed people, people with feelings, people who are our friend.. Last week, several corporate PR offices Tweeted messages about 9/11.

(Click to enlarge)
I would guess that most people accepted these as sincere.* But not everybody. People in the PR and branding biz saw this patriotic tweetery for what it was – marketing.  At AdWeek, the AdFreak page interviewed Sean Bonner.

AdFreak: What makes these tweets feel so icky?
Sean Bonner: It's simple. Brands are not people. Brands do not have emotions or memories or condolences or heartbreak. People have those things, and when a brand tries to jump into that conversation, it's marketing.

Unfortunately, some corporations blow their patriotic cover and make the marketing aspect blatant. Intimacy Box, a company that sells lingerie, sent forth this tweet.

As comedian Robert Klein said decades ago about Presidents Day, “I’m sure that the father of our country would be pleased to know that he’s being honored with a mattress sale.”

These corporate tweets, whether they have discount coupons or pictures of flags, have the same underlying message: we want you to feel good about us so that you will buy more of our products. Dunkin’ Donuts, Beretta, and the rest leave the “buy more” message unsaid. After all, they are trying to convey the Romney idea that they are people. Only Intimacy Box makes it explicit, and that company was soon shamed into apologizing for its honesty.

*The irony of the Beretta tweet – the company is part of an industry whose product each year kills ten times as many Americans as died on 9/11 – was probably lost on Beretta’s Twitter followers.

HT: Dan Hirschman

When Thiago Met Daleyza

September 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Fashions in names are like fashions in clothes in at least one respect – they change more quickly for females than for males. When it comes to naming a boy, the same old styles will do, and very few seem out of date. But with girls, it’s easy to think of names like Ethel, Edna, Shirley, Doris – popular at one time, but today, nobody’s would give that name to their daughter.  But William, Richard, and Robert stick around generation after generation . . . at least until now.

That gender difference seems to be changing.  Even as recently as 1980, six of the top 10 boys names had been in the top 10 a decade earlier. For girls, only four remained in that group.

This was in the reign of Jennifer and Michael. Michael had been in #1 or #2 from 1954 through 2008. The Jennifer era was shorter, not 55 years but 15 – from 1970 through 1984. 

That was then. In the most recent decade, the turnover in the Top 10 has been more rapid for boys than for girls.  Six girls names but only four boys names stayed on that list through the decade.

The old reliable boys names – William, John, Robert, James – are being replaced by more faddish entries.  Jacob and Joshua may have hung around near the top for 20 or 30 years, but James and Robert stayed for 60 years or more.  My guess is that in ten years or less, newcomers like Jayden, Mason, Noah, and Liam will no longer be in the top 10, nor will the fading old-timers like Michael and Daniel, though their drop in popularity will not be as precipitous. Generally, the faster they rise, the faster they fall.

Among the less common names, volatility is much greater. The biggest  leaps upward in rank occur far down on the list.  Here are the biggest movers in 2013.

The small numbers make for greater volatility.  With only two hundred Thiagos born in 2012, an additional hundred in 2013 made for a jump in rank of 374 places.  It’s also worth noting that several of the names on the list are inspired by figures in the media – Thiago and Forrest (mixed martial arts), Daleyza (reality TV), Jayceon (music), and probably others I’m too lazy to look up.  Usually, fashions in names spread via influence within the population. The rise in popularity starts gradually.  Parents-to-be get wind of a cool name by hearing what parents around them have chosen. The next year still more parents see kids with that name, and the trend grows.  By contrast, the influence of distant figures in the media is more sudden.  A graph of changes in popularity – steep or gradual – can give you a good idea as to whether the influence is coming from outside or from within the population, even if you’ve never heard of “Larrymania.” (See this post  from two years ago, inspired by Gabriel Rossman’s writings about how songs become hits.)

If fashions in boys names are changing almost as rapidly as changes in girls names, what are we to make of this convergence?  We’re moving away from those once durable names – the Roberts and the Williams – and we’re putting more value on less frequent and more nearly unique names. Philip Cohen (here) speculates that the trend towards more individual baby names reflects a change in how we think about children.  In contrast to 19th-century assumptions about children, we now see each child as a unique individual, important to us for her or his special personality.  The child’s place in the family is all about interpersonal relations rather than economic contributions. In Viviana Zelizer’s famous phrase about this change (roughly in the period from the 1870s to the 1930s), the child has become “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

Gender differences might be following a similar pattern, with more attention paid to the emotions and social life of boys, their unique personalities, rather than simply their economic abilities and prospects.  We see a movie like “Boyhood,” nod our heads appreciatively, and say, “Yes, that is what boyhood is all about.” It’s hard if not impossible to imagine a similar story told in 1850 and based on 1850s ideas and assumptions about boys. It would be similarly difficult for Americans of 1850 to understand Linklater’s film (which if you haven't seen, you should).

A century ago, a good father could be emotionally distant so long as he was a reliable breadwinner.   Now, we  expect dads to take part in the emotional life of the family, once pretty much a female preserve.  Maybe the trend in boys names is a further sign of the gradual erosion of old and rigid distinctions between boys and girls, men and women. If so, I wonder if the people who most object to Jayden and Landon and Grayson* and to the greater variety and variability of boys names are also those who insist most strongly on maintaining those traditional gender-role boundaries.

* Boys names ending in “n” have had an impressive rise in popularity. The final “n” now dwarfs names ending in the other 25 letters. For graphs, see this 2009 post.

Religious Knowledge, Religious Feeling

September 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Robin Hanson has a “it isn’t about” list (here). It begins
  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Also on the list is
  • Church isn’t about God
Maybe church isn’t about religious ideas either.

I was reminded of this recently when I followed a link to a Pew quiz on religious knowledge (here). It’s a lite version of the 32-item quiz Pew used with a national sample in 2010.  One of the findings from that survey (the full report is here) was that people who went to church regularly and who said that religion was important in their lives didn’t do much better on the quiz than did those who had a weak attachment to church and religion.

The strongly committed averaged 17 correct answers out of the 32 questions; the uncommitted, 16.  This same pattern was repeated in the more recent 15-question quiz.

The committed may derive many things from their church attendance and faith, but knowledge of religion isn’t one of them.  To be fair, the quiz covers many religions, and people do know more about their own religion than they do about others.  “What was Joseph Smith’s religion?” Only about half the population gets that one right, but 93% of the Mormons nailed it. Mormons also knew more about the Ten Commandments. Catholics did better than others on the transubstantiation question.  But when it came to knowing who inspired the Protestant Reformation, Protestants got outscored by Jews and atheists.

Overall, onbelievers, Jews, and Mormons did much better than did Protestants and Catholics.

One reason for their higher scores might be education – college graduates outscore high school or less by nearly 8 points out of 32.

It may be that nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons are more likely to have finished college. Unfortunately, the Pew report does not give data that controls for education.

But another reason that these groups scored higher may be their position as religious minorities. Jews and Mormons have to explain to the flock how their ideas are different from those of the majority. Atheists and agnostics too, in their questioning and even rejecting,  have probably devoted more thought to religion, or more accurately, religions. On the questions about Shiva and Nirvana, they leave even the Jews and Mormons far behind.

For Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, learning detailed information about their religion is not as crucial. Just as White people in the US rarely ask what it means to be White, Christians need not worry about their differences from the mainstream. They are the mainstream.*  So going to church or praying can be much more about feelings – solidarity, transcendence, peace, etc.  That variety of religious experience need not include learning the history or even the tenets of the religion itself. As Durkheim said, the central element in religion is ritual – especially the feelings a ritual generates in the group. Knowing the actual beliefs might be a nice addition, but it’s not crucial.

* These same majority-minority differences apply in politics as well. A lifetime Democrat or Republican can get by on general principles without having to worry about the details of policies or candidates’ positions. Socialists and Tea Partistas are more likely to devote more time and thought to those issues.