Path Dependency and the Road Not Taken

February 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In my Superbowl post earlier this month (“The Social Construction of Brutality”), I said, “We now have an institution that is seemingly unchangeable. Any other way of doing things is unimaginable.” Reality is constructed by people, but once constructed, it develops its own momentum, its own seemingly inevitable logic.

So now we have the President of the United States endorsing the idea that the solution to the problem of school shootings is to pay teachers to carry guns. It’s part of the strategy of “target hardening” – more guns, more guards, more metal detectors, more locks, more secure doors – basically making schools resemble prisons. Conservatives from the NRA to the National Review love this idea. It’s realistic. It makes sense given the reality that we have created.

In that Superbowl post, I asked readers to imagine a world with no football. Given what we now know about brain damage, would we introduce football – from levels starting in  grade school on up to the pros – into that world? I borrowed this idea from Lisa Wade (“Imagine a world of higher ed but with no fraternities . . . .”)

Now imagine a world where guns are tightly regulated. Semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are banned. So are most handguns. Let’s call this world the United Kingdom. Suppose someone – someone like Wayne LaPierre – goes to the UK and proposes that they do away with all these laws. Here’s the pitch:  If you just let gun manufacturers and dealers make and import these wonderful weapons and sell them to just about anybody, your country will reap the rewards of more safety and more freedom.

Of course, eventually you’ll have a few school massacres now and then, but you can hire school guards who you buy guns for, and you can instal metal detectors and buy guns for your teachers to carry at all times. Your police officers too will run a much greater risk of being shot and killed, but bullet-proof vests can help a little, and the police themselves will all carry guns so they can kill more people. Oh, and you’ll also have more civilians shooting each other or themselves. What do you say? This is your chance to make the UK great again. Have we got a deal?

The UK politely declines. (“The logic of the honourable gentleman’s proposal lacks a certain . . . .”  Which is a polite way of saying, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”)

Now imagine another world, a world where some people have guns, but the guns that most bad guys can get are cheap revolvers accurate only at very close range though useful to brandish in a robbery (they’re called “Saturday night specials”). More sophisticated handguns are relatively few; semi-automatic rifles for civilians are unknown. Let’s call this world United States 1965.  Imagine the same spokesman coming to the US and making the same proposal – more and better guns (by better, he means, more accurate and able to shoot more bullets that are more lethal; simply put, he means better at killing more people). Others protest. They want to put restrictions on what gun merchants can manufacture, import, and sell and on who can buy these weapons. Don’t listen to those people says our spokesman. Get rid of those pesky restrictive laws. The future lies before you bright with semi-automatic assault rifles and handguns. That is path to safety and freedom. What do you say, US? Have we got a deal?

That is the path we chose.

What makes Trump’s proposal rational is “path dependency”
the continued use of a product or practice based on historical preference or use. This holds true even if newer, more efficient products or practices are available’ (Wikipedia). 
In many ways path dependency is a fancy phrase for addiction – trying to solve a problem with larger doses of what caused the problem in the first place. To outsiders our president’s more-guns solution to the problem of school slaughter sounds crazy.  But Americans who have come down this path, even Americans who find the idea repugnant, have a hard time denying its logic.

We Still Don’t Need No Stinking Evidence

February 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociology isn’t just “common sense,” we tell our students on day one of the intro coruse. First, one common sense proposition can contradict another. And in any case, the only way to find out if common sense is right is to look at systematic evidence rather than relying on intuition and experience. 

So here is Ross Douthat on Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast on Thursday, talking about his “Let’s Ban Porn” column in the Times (see this post from last week).  Asked about the negative effects of pornography, Douthat says,

I think we spend a lot of time in the media landscape today arguing about studies, and in certain ways in this case I’m appealing to cultural experience and moral intuition

Early in the discussion, Douthat had referred to the “experiment” we have conducted “in using not just pornography but hard core extreme obviously misogynistic pornography as a kind of broad based form of sexual education for young men.” He didn’t specify the outcome variables of this experiment, though the hosts of the show mentioned that at the same time that porn was spreading wildly, the subjects of the experiment (teenagers) were racking up lower rates of casual sex, pregnancy, abortion, and rape.

Nearly an hour into the podcast host David Plotz asks about evidence. Douthat refers to the relation between porn and “anti-social behavior writ large – depression, unhappiness.” I would have thought that unwanted pregnancy and rape were writ just a bit larger than unhappiness. But even with the variables he mentions, Douthat acknowledges that the studies showing a relationship between porn consumption and unhappiness come from a think tank that is hardly neutral (the Witherspoon Institute), and that these studies suffer from the problem of endogeneity, a word that here means that even if there’s a correlation, it’s hard to figure out which is causing which. (Douthat says nothing about the studies that contradict his desired result that porn makes kids unhappy.)

Douthat mentions other outcomes: “Young men are messed up. . . .Relationships just aren’t working that well. . . People seem really unhappy with the dating landscape.” If there’s evidence that all of these were different in some pre-porn paradise, Douthat doesn’t cite it.

For sex conservatives, the question of the evils of porn is just too important to be left to empirical evidence. Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a similar post (“Data? We Don’t Need No Stinking Data”). The names of the conservatives have changed (Kristol out, Douthat in) but the idea is the same.

Does watching porn or listening rap make kids more promiscuous? Why waste time figuring out how to get data on the question? Just take it from Irving Kristol (William’s dad) from some years back writing in the Wall Street Journal:
Is it not reasonable to think that there may also be such a connection between our popular culture and the plagues of sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the increasing number of rapes committed by teenagers? Here again, we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case.
    Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our “rap” music is without effect?
By “here again,” he apparently means that there are several other areas where we are better off not trying to get evidence.


In the years since Kristol wrote that, our popular culture became more sexual and more violent. But sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the number of rapes committed by teenagers all decreased.

But What Can We Do When It’s Too Late?

February 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NRA doesn’t really have to marshal arguments against the gun control laws that will again be proposed in the coming days and weeks. If legislators ain’t gonna legislate, you don’t really need to support your position. But argue they will. Their basic argument is that good guys need guns to defend themselves against bad guys, and the bad guys have lots of guns.

The country is so awash in guns that your only hope is to buy a gun, thus putting still more guns into circulation, creating an even greater need for people to buy guns. It is a feedback loop devoutly wished for by the NRA and gun manufacturers.

They also argue that the huge number of guns (300 million – an average of one per person – and counting) also makes anti-gun action a fool’s errand. As Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg argued (here) four years ago in the wake of the Aurora massacre, “It’s too late.”

It’s Vietnam all over again. In the late 60s, as it became clear that the US war in Vietnam was a mistake, war supporters made a similar argument. “Yeah, you were right about not getting into the war and then sending hundreds of thousands of more troops. But what we can do now? The war is not going well for us, so we have no choice but to send even more troops.” The Bush administration made a similar response when their invasion and de-stabilization of Iraq turned out to have been a predictably terrible idea.

Here’s one idea about what we can do. It’s not really a policy, but it might provide a start on finding a better policy: Stop electing the same kinds of politicians and the same party that got us into this mess in the first place.

In a post last November, I said (here) that the NRA policy on guns is like addiction: trying to solve a problem by doing more of what caused the problem in the first place. We wouldn’t put a Mexican heroin cartel in charge of the DEA. But we keep electing NRA-certified politicians to write our gun laws. Then, we’re shocked and dismayed that there’s so much gun violence.

Victims and Policies

February 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Right-wingers used to smugly say, maybe they still do, that a conservative on crime is a liberal who’s just been mugged. It seems logical. But twenty-five years ago when I was working on a criminology textbook, I could find no systematic evidence showing a link between victimization and political attitudes.

At the time, I thought that the problem might be that while most victimizations might be upsetting, they were not permanently traumatizing. If one day I stepped in dog shit because some inconsiderate New Yorker hadn’t bothered to obey the pooper-scooper law. In the moment, I would to immediately be rethinking my position on the death penalty.

But the emotion was transitory and faded quickly. It was the same when I found the window of my car smashed. Perhaps those victimizations were not serious enough. They were property crimes, not what the UCR calls “crimes against the person.” But I knew people who had been mugged – this was, after all, New York in the bad old days – and they had not adjusted their politics.

During the lockdown at the Stoneman Douglas school in Florida, while the shooter was still at large, one of the students interviewed others hiding with him in a closet.


There is only audio, no video, for the second girl interviewed, but  ABC posted a captioned version on Twitter. Here is a composite screen shot.


Maybe a liberal on gun control is an NRA hopeful who has just been shot at. But maybe not. In any case, whether this girl retains her new position on gun control, the evidence suggests that a mass shooting, even one covered extensively in the media, will have little impact on opinion nationwide. With Republicans in control of the government, yesterday’s killings might not even bring the customary increase in sales of guns and assault rifles.

In states that already have some sentiment in favor of stronger gun laws, a local massacre might be enough to tip the legislative balance. That’s what happened in Connecticut following the slaughter of children in Newtown. But in the legislatures of states like Florida and in Congress in Washington, these mass slaughters – even when the victims are children, even White children – count for little.

The kid who made the video, David Hogg, said on CNN, “We're children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action. Work together. Come over your politics.”

The public may be upset, but the emotion is transitory, unlikely to last much past the funerals of the next few days. The pro-gun forces are strong and steady. It seems unlikely that Hogg’s simple request, despite its wisdom, will have any impact on laws or policies.