Best-selling Sociology

November 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was leafing through the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, and when I got to the best sellers page, I noticed that three of the top ten books on the nonfiction list are sociology. Well, maybe not exactly sociology in a narrow sense, but in the sense of social science that isn’t psychology.


(Click on the image for a larger view.)
At number four is Superfreakonomics. The authors claim to be doing economics, but in the sequel as in the original, purely financial matters play a secondary role. Much of both Freak books looks a lot like sociology.

Numbers five (What the Dog Saw) and 10 (Outliers) are collections of Malcolm Gladwell essays, many of them based on research by sociologists. Gladwell is a journalist, but sociology is a large sector in his beat. He even spoke at the ASA a couple of years back.

Should I mention Mitch Albom in the #2 spot – a sports writer who wouldn’t be on the list at all were it not for his first best-seller about Tuesdays with a sociology professor? No I shouldn’t mention it.

Thanksgiving

November 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last year’s post-Thanksgiving post, was a response to a repost at The Situationist fretting about the conservative framing of Thanksgiving (The Situationist reposted it again this year.). The high priests of our society exhort the poor and downtrodden to give thanks for a system that is screwing them. Don’t question or rise against, is the message, but rather be thankful for the few crumbs it brings. The holiday is an exercise in false-consciousness.

From a Durkheimian perspective, I argued, this is the nature of all rituals not just Thanksgiving. “All rituals are inherently conservative. They idealize and uphold the society as a whole and promote the attachment of individuals to that whole.”

I added.
I just wonder whether godly conservatives, those who “recognize that everything we have is a gift from God” included the election of Obama as one of those gifts . . . and gave thanks for it last Thursday.
This Thanksgiving, I’m less sure that the spirit of Durkheim reigns in the land. My guess is that the thanks we hear from the right side of the table will come mixed with a generous portion of snark. The “Pray for Obama” campaign, hawked on everything from bumper stickers to teddy bears, is a recent example of the sort of thing we might get.

Psalm 109, verse 8 is: “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.” And in case it wasn’t clear what “days be few” means, the next verse spells it out: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”

Clever, isn’t it? Doesn’t it bring a smile to your face in this holiday season?

Conservatives know how to avoid false-consciousness. So expect more of this today. I hope someone else is reading the right wing blogs and watching Fox so I don’t have to.

Sour Grapes and Sweet Snickers

November 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston


Let a group of kids trade their candy bars – the “I’ll swap you three Krackles for a two Milky Ways” sort of thing – and you’ll wind up with an allocation that, on the whole, has greater value.

That’s the gist of a Marginal Revolution post by Alex Tabarrok. Now we know what Alex did with his leftover Halloween candy. . . only the “kids” were college students in his economics class, and the trading was not post-Halloween fun; it was a classroom exercise to demonstrate “gains from trade.”
Students open the bag and are then asked to write down how much they would be willing to pay for the bag's contents. But before snacking, students are allowed to trade. After a few minutes of trade, ask the students to write down their valuation again. Voila! Gains from trade. With a few numbers pulled at random from the students you can do a back of the envelope calculation for the total increase in value.
No doubt the economic explanation is valid, but when I read the post, the idea that sprang to mind was something that didn’t occur to Tabarrok or any of the people who commented on the post: cognitive dissonance, more specifically “postdecision dissonance.” People will value something more if they’ve chosen it rather than having no choice. 

It’s the converse of “sour grapes” (if I can’t choose it, it wasn’t sweet). Ask people what each of two candy bars is worth or how much satisfaction each would bring. Then have them actually pay something for their preferred treat. Now ask them to evaluate the two choices again. The subjective value of the chosen candy will have risen relative to the unchosen one. The valuation of the candy will have increased, but there has been no trade, just choice.

Two and a Half Jokes

November 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I finally watched an episode of Two and Half Men. The show’s been around for five or six years, and it’s still in the top ten – even in a week when there’s a really good football game in prime time (Colts-Patriots). So it was on my to-do list. As Everett Hughes said, the worst sin for a sociologist is snobbery.

Ideally this post would analyze Two and a Half Men in its social context – its relation to aspects of US society and culture. Maybe another time. For the moment all I could think of was this:

Basically, it’s the “in bed” fortune cookie thing. You know, you read the fortune, pause, then add meaningfully, “in bed.” Funny, right? It’s been around for years (maybe since around the same time that 2.5 Men started), but it still works. I heard Jon Stewart do it just a few days ago on the Daily show.

Sex makes it funny. If something’s already funny, sex makes it funnier. And basically, that’s 2.5 Men. Why is sex funny? Probably because it’s still something we don’t talk about openly. Any laughter a joke might evoke gets the add-on of the tension that comes from touching on a taboo topic. So we hear the essentially the same joke again and again and again. . . . in bed.

The central plot of last night’s episode was that Chelsea wasn’t having an orgasm when she and Charlie had sex. Charlie’s self-centered insensitivity is, I gathered, a regular comic element of the show. But add sex, and it becomes even funnier. Same with Berta. She’s caustic and earthy; she can say sardonic things about her husband and her marriage. But if it’s about sex (like who got to be on top) it’s like adding “in bed” to the Chinese fortune.

Yes, there was a subplot only tangentially related to sex – Alan trying to get a date by using spray-on hair to cover his bald spot. (It took me a few moments to remember where I’d seen this before. Beau Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys twenty years ago.). Then Alan goes on J-date and pretends to be Jewish – also not exactly a new idea in comedy.

But mostly, if last night’s episode is typical, 2.5 Men makes its living by taking standard sitcom jokes and adding “in bed.” And it works.

OTOH, or is it really the same hand, there’s XKCD’s take.

Sociology for Psychics

November 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I knew it was the ecological fallacy – using aggregate data to draw conclusions about individuals – but I took a shot. And even though I got a bull’s eye, more or less, the effect wasn’t what I’d hoped for. Here’s the story – sociological knowledge in action.

I wanted to make a change in my phone account, so I tried the “chat with one of our representatives online” option.

My chat window correspondent typed, by way of introduction, that she was Wendy M. Now Wendy was a name I hadn’t heard for a while. So as we were waiting for the system to register the changes I’d requested and that she was entering, I opened another window and looked for Wendy at to the Census site on baby names.


The name Wendy had peaked in popularity in from 1969 to 1972, climbing as high as 28th place.
I asked her if Wendy was her real name or if perhaps she was really in Bangalore and Wendy was merely her nom de screen.

No, she assured me, she was Wendy, and she was in Georgia.

I guessed that the Georgia curve for Wendy might have lagged the national average by a year or two. So I said,
Me: OK, are you 37 years old?
Wendy: I’m 36.
And that was all. Not, “Wow, very close!” not “How did you know?” I thought she would be stunned – after all, the only cues I had were typed words in a chat window, no picture, no voice – and I had come within a few months of her precise age. But Wendy seemed utterly unimpressed with my psychic powers – far less than I had been. So I didn’t bother asking her about her school friends Jennifer, Kimberly, and Michelle.

(Previous posts about names here, here, and here.)

Journalism Out to Lunch

November 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Interesting line-up on the Times op-ed page today. David Brooks’s column is on the left, Paul Krugman’s on the right. They’re both writing about Timothy Geithner. Krugman
key officials — most notably Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Fed in 2008 and is now Treasury secretary — have shied away from doing anything that might rattle Wall Street. And the bitter paradox is that this play-it-safe approach has ended up undermining prospects for economic recovery.
Brooks:
Well, the evidence of the past eight months suggests that Geithner was mostly right and his critics were mostly wrong. The financial sector is in much better shape than it was then. TARP money is being repaid, and the debate now is what to do with the billions that were never needed.
Brooks, the conservative is waving the flag for the Obama administration; Krugman, the liberal, is taking pot shots at it. Standing with Krugman are others that don’t usually line up alongside him in the same shooting gallery – The Wall Street Journal and other right-wing outlets.

The main difference seems to be the source of information about Geithner. The critics, right and left, are focusing on the Inspector General’s report on the AIG bailout, which says, essentially, that the Government gave away the store. It put much more money at risk than it had to. Rather than negotiating effectively, it protected bankers to the tune of 100 cents on the dollar.
David Brooks, on the other hand, had lunch with Geithner the day word of the report leaked.* Instead of mentioning the IG’s report, Brooks writes about Geithner’s “mentality,” his “ philosophy,” his “policy instincts.”

I was reminded of I.F. Stone and what you might call his sociology of journalism – how the interplay of networks, information, and relationships shapes what gets printed. Stone was one of the best Washington investigative journalists, often finding truths that revealed the lies the government was peddling. (All Governments Lie is the title of a biography of him; that title has to be a direct quote from Stone himself.) He had no inside sources – nobody in official Washington wanted to be seen talking to him. Instead, he relied on transcripts of Congressional hearings, other government documents, and, for foreign affairs, the international press.

Stone thought that his isolation from the people in power made it easier for him to be a better journalist.

“Once the Secretary of State invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you're sunk,” he said.

Or the Secretary of the Treasury.

*To be scrupulously accurate, Brooks does not actually say that he lunched with the Secretary. He refers only to “an interview.

M*A*S*H-Up

November 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Men Who Stare at Goats, now playing at a theater near you, is a military comedy. It’s not M*A*S*H. It’s a mash-up – two mentalities: military and hippie.

Comedies are about mismatches. In military comedies, one of the mismatched elements is bureaucracy, especially its rule-bound lack of imagination, impersonality, and inability to adapt to novel events. These qualities are usually embodied by an authority, a high-ranking officer. Sometimes the authorities are benevolent, as in the fish-out-of water scenario. Here, the mismatch is that someone who was never meant to wear the uniform winds up in the Army. The authorities, with patience and firmness, manage to mold him or her (Pvt. Benjamin) into a soldier.

More typically, the mismatch is between the bureaucratic mentality of authorities and the human, fun-loving good guys, who are forever figuring out ways to get around the rules. The heroes are like little boys impishly scheming to have fun by fooling gruff old dad. But in the American version, the boys who ignore the regulations and the brass not only gain illicit pleasures (alcohol, sex, money); they also always turn out to be the ones who can actually accomplish important goals. They did it every week on M*A*S*H.

In The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Army creates a special program for soldiers to develop psychic superpowers. The program is sold to them largely by a former soldier (Jeff Bridges) who has done the hippie trip and now returns to train a select group of soldiers, the dippy dozen. The brass in their spotless uniforms give him great latitude, since they are looking for anything that can help win the Cold War. The soldiers let their hair grow long, do yoga, and try to develop supernatural abilities, like the ability to kill or at least stun animals by staring at them. Or to walk through walls.

Neither mentality comes off very well. The New Age ideas seem ridiculous, especially as military applications, and the military looks foolish too for being so desperate to beat the Soviets that they’ll believe this stuff. In an emblematic moment early in the film, we see an officer in full uniform psych himself up and try to walk through a wall at full speed. The result is inevitable.
That’s the gag that gets repeated throughout the movie – every time someone (usually George Clooney) tries to use these psychic powers, reality thwarts them, but they still continue to believe.

The message, one that is repeated not just on every episode of M*A*S*H but in many American movies, is this: acting on the basis of ideology is bad, whether that ideology is New Age or Cold War; acting on the basis of personal feelings for others is good. In Goats, what makes us like George Clooney is that despite his nutty ideas that never work, he doesn’t let the ideas get in the way of his more human impulses.

Mad Men and Me

November 14, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Mad Men” closed out its season (spoiler alert). The agency is about to be sold to a huge firm, so the key players slip off to regroup as a new, independent firm, taking as many accounts as they can with them. The final scenes contrast the spacious and elegant offices, now deserted, with their new venue – a suite in the Hotel Pierre. Instead of an office, each person gets an area of the living room. The media guy goes over his files on the bed in the bedroom.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Is it realistic, this social organization of ad agencies? Yes, and here’s my anecdotal evidence.

Way back, decades ago when I was a young academic, I did a consulting project in the private sector. The company had also called in the legendary ad man Julian Koenig. Koenig had been a copy writer at Doyle Dane Bernbach, where he was the brains behind the Volkswagen “Think Small” campaign, the Timex takes-a-licking campaign, and others. He left DDB, and, with Fred Papert and George Lois, formed their own agency, one that had much success. Then he quit.

Eventually, he decided to get back in the business, and that’s how our paths crossed. The same guy that had hired me for a sociological angle had hired Koenig for an ad man’s perspective. I met Koenig briefly out in the field. When I got back to New York, I wrote up my report and sent it to the company. Weeks later, I got a call from Koenig’s office inviting me to have lunch so we could compare notes.

Koenig had returned to advertising in a small way – a four person agency– and their office was a suite in the Delmonico Hotel. Koenig had set up his office in one of the two bedrooms, sharing it with media expert; the secretary/receptionist/bookkeeper (she was also Koenig’s girlfriend) had a desk in the other bedroom; and the accounts man seemed to have the living room, where he welcomed guests (like me).

It looked very much like the suite in “Mad Men” but with less furniture – the same light filtering through the curtains, the same dull-colored, worn carpeting. I think Koenig had even managed to get the Timex account back in his portfolio. Watching Draper, Roger, and the others in that hotel set took me back. The three of us (Koenig, Accounts Guy, me) had a nice lunch at a French restaurant, Koenig said he’d liked my report – my ideas tallied with his own – and that was that. But seeing the Mad Men hotel set got me to wondering: what if I too had somehow been able to jump ship and throw in my lot with the ad men?

Spreading the Lack of Wealth Around

November 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Suppose a company in these hard times has to cut its payroll by 10%. It has two choices:
  • fire 10% of the workers
  • fire nobody, but reduce everyone’s hours and pay by 10%
Asked about this, Larry Summers, a top economic advisor to Obama, said,
It may be desirable to have a given amount of work shared among more people. But that’s not as desirable as expanding the total amount of work.
This is a policy non-sequitur – how the work is divided is a separate issue from how much work there is. And as Paul Krugman points out today after quoting this line, we are not in fact making much headway on expanding the total amount of work. The question of distributing the work remains, and Summers was dodging it.

But in answering it, we should consider not just the effect on individuals. After all, if you look at it as an economist might, the overall impact of the two policies is exactly the same. But there's a more sociological view that also considers the effect not just on the sum of the individuals but on the institution as a whole.

The Summers quote and this problem reminded me of a talk given recently by the president of a private university. Like all such schools, its endowment had taken a big hit. Here’s what he said (I’m paraphrasing*):
Other schools put in a hiring freeze. That’s fine with the faculty who are there. The only ones who suffer are people they don’t know – the people who didn’t get hired. But we put in a pay freeze. That may have hurt each faculty member somewhat. But it allowed us to hire new faculty, and boy was this a good time to be hiring. With those other schools taking themselves out of the market with their hiring freezes, we were able to hire twenty absolutely top rate people that we might not have gotten otherwise.
Spreading the lack of wealth around benefited the students and the university as a whole. And in a non-financial way, it also benefited the faculty whose pay had been frozen.

And about those new faculty, he was right, at least according to my informant, a sophomore at the university. Last weekend, he went to a panel discussion that included one of them, and he was so impressed that he decided on the spot to try to take courses with her.


*I wish I could quote the lines verbatim. This president is just an excellent speaker – part scholar, part stand-up.

Comments Galore

November 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post brought an unusually high number of comments for this blog, most of them not highly complimentary. But for the most part, the commenters and I agreed on the basic idea that was at issue. I phrased it offensively: using a gun to stop someone else from doing something you don’t like. There’s another way to phrase it. As I said in the original post, “Gun advocates put this in terms of self-defense.” Oh boy, did they. Check out the comments.

I also said that distrust of the government was a common theme. The comments also bear this out. At a minimum, commenters did not trust the government to protect anyone from criminals. They seem to distrust government in other ways as well.

So we agreed on what guns do. The smidgen of disagreement arises over whether guns galore is a good idea. The commenters seem to be united in their certainty. I am less so. I just have these gnawing thoughts that allowing anyone and everyone to buy this kind of weaponry might not be an unmitigated good. I don’t know the Texas law and how it works in practice, but my guess is that Hasan could have made his purchases even if he had not been in the military. If any disturbed, angry, jihad-minded nut could have walked into Guns Galore and come out armed to the teeth, that gives me cause for concern.

The problem is not that gun owners are “psychotic killers on power trips,” as one commenter interpreted my post. The problem is that psychotic killers on power trips have no trouble becoming gun owners. Their massacres, not to mention the individual shootings, are a very high price to pay.

Another commenter made a comparison with the UK. Here’s the most recent info I could find (here)
The murder rate in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years, with 648 homicides recorded in 2008/09 – 136 fewer than the year before. Home Office statisticians said the drop was "not a blip".

Annual crime figures published yesterday show the number of murders and manslaughters and infanticides fell to a level not seen since 1989.
There was a significant further fall in gun crime with the number of incidents involving a firearm down by 17% to 8,184. The number of fatal shootings fell from 53 to 38.
That works out to a rate of 1.4 - 1.5 murders per 100,000 population. The rate in the US last year was more than triple that – 5.4 per 100,000.

The CDC report mentioned by another commenter does say that there is not enough evidence to show that gun laws are effective in reducing violence. That may mean merely that the gun laws we have don’t really reduce the flow of guns, especially to those who are most likely to misuse them. Or, as the CDC says in a Rumsfeld-like utterance, absence of evidence for violence reduction is not evidence of the absence of violence reduction. The effect may be there, but the difficulties of doing this kind of research make it very hard to find.

Finally, one commenter wrote of guns as a means of “punishment to defectors.”
Guns are the means to--if necessary--to punish defectors (criminals) within a population of cooperators (law-abiding citizens) as a means of maintaining the trust required for other-wise costly altruism.

It's also a probably factor in out of control crime-rates in cities. Not so much the loss of altruism at the individual level, but the inability for local populations to maintain an ability to promote social norms regarding trust and altruism.
That’s an interesting point, and I have a vague memory of seeing some lab-experiment studies on it. I don’t know of any real-world data. (It may well exist, but I’m just not up on this literature.) Usually, it’s the government that punishes defectors. Where the government cannot fulfill that function, altruism and trust break down. But I don’t see how individual gun ownership – self-defense – replaces governmental control. The more likely solution to the government’s failure would be vigilantism – private, but collective, punishment of defectors.

Thanks for all the comments, guys. I hadn’t known about LiveJournal – what it is or how it works. I’ll have to check it out.

The Philosophy of the Gun

November 10, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Guns Galore. The name might be emblematic of the US as a whole, but it’s merely the name of the store where Maj. Hasan plunked down his $1,100 and walked out with his brand new
Hekstra FN Herstal 5.7mm and several 20-round magazines.


At first, I thought that gun control was irrelevant in this case because Maj. Hasan was member of the US Army, and no law could deny a gun to a member of that category. But I was wrong. The murder weapon was not an Army firearm. It was privately acquired. Maj. Hasan was able to get his gun because he was a member of another category for whom getting guns is rarely a problem: people in Texas (also a few dozen other states.)

Maj. Hasan may have been a Muslim first and an American second, he may have practiced an extreme form of a foreign religion, he may have been psychologically unstable. But in at least one way, he was as normal and American as Charlton Heston: he believed in the philosophy of the gun.

The philosophy of the gun is simple: if someone does something you don’t like, shoot them. If you can’t shoot that person, shoot someone like them.

If you don’t like abortions, shoot an abortion doctor . If you don’t like an anti-abortion protester , shoot him. If you feel wronged by people at work, go postal. If a woman has rejected you, shoot her. If you can’t find a woman who actually rejected you, shoot several women. Don’t like the kids in your school? Shoot them. Feel you’ve been dissed by someone from another gang, shoot them.

Gun advocates put this in terms of self-defense. If you have gun, you can defend yourself, your property, and your loved ones from people who are doing something you don’t like. Which is just another way of saying that if you don’t like what the person is doing, shoot them. The only difference is that such shootings might be legal.

The question is this: whose decision is it? Who gets to decide whether shooting the bad person is OK? Most societies restrict this decision to law enforcement, to agents of the state. If someone is doing something you think they shouldn’t be doing, something that should be stopped right now, you call the cops.* That’s true to a great extent in the US as well.

But distrust of the government is a theme that runs through US political culture. So we make it easy for any person to take that power literally into his (or her) own hands. The law might punish you afterwards, if you are still alive. But until then, you are the law, and the decision over the use of deadly force is yours. Gun manufacturers might just as well advertise: “We provide, you decide.”

Fortunately, most gun owners never shoot their guns at other people. The vast majority don’t use guns to express their anger or their religious and political beliefs. But for the small minority who do want to use guns in that way, wide open lies the door of Guns Galore.


* Police scholars will recognize this as Egon Bittner’s definition of the police.The title of his article “The Capacity to Use Force as the Core of the Police Role” states it formally. More colloquially, Bittner says that the police are who we call when “something ought not to be happening about which something ought to be done right NOW!”

Gemeinschaft and Ge-Sellout

November 7, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gemeinschaft is usually translated as community. But, I tell my students, we use community in many ways that would have old Tönnies spinning (spönning?) in his grave. Sometimes it refers to the political boundaries of a town. It sounds better to talk about “the Hohokus community” than merely “people who live in Hohokus.” (Or would it? Maybe there’s nothing you can do with a name like Hohokus.)

We also use community to mean people who share some demographic characteristic. “The African American community.” Forty million people spread over the entire country hardly gets at the kind of Gemeinschaft Tönnies had in mind – a group based on mutual trust, on permanence, intimacy, personal involvement.

But what about this, taken from Friday’s New York Times story about an insider trading scheme? Traders used advance information on mergers and acquisitions to make millions of dollars. Some of the schemers were caught, pled guilty, and in turn sold out their former partners or employers. The arrests and charges are rolling in.
The charges, against 14 money managers, lawyers and other investors, followed the arrest last month of a hedge fund billionaire, Raj Rajaratnam, on charges that he had profited from inside information.
But here’s what caught my attention.
The complaints represent a significant expansion of a case that has gripped the hedge fund community.
What kind of community is this, I wondered, this hedge fund community?

Maybe it really is a Gemeinschaft-like world where everyone knows everyone else. Maybe it’s the personal quality of relationships that makes it so hard to abide by the impersonal bureaucratic rules the prohibit insider tip-offs. I doubt it, but I haven’t searched the literature.

Are there any ethnographies of Hedgefundland?

Boinged

November 7, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog has a small but select readership. I have data to back that up – at least the part about small. I use Google Analytics to track the number of visits. On Monday, the counter seemed to go haywire. When I checked it late in the afternoon, the number of visits was about 600,.

The mystery was soon solved since Google Analytics also shows where people had linked in from*. In this case it was Boing Boing. It had listed my post with the four charts on healthcare costs, and the hits just kept on coming. By day’s end, the total was nearly 2600. That’s what being Boinged will do.


The effect wears off quickly, though not as quickly as the euphoria.

*Google Analytics is not entirely trustworthy on this. It showed a dozens of referrals from a site for forums devoted exclusively to discussions of the Mazda Miata. Also several from a site which has items only about the making of wooden boats.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Meltdown

November 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The financial system nearly collapsed,” he said, “because smart guys had started working on Wall Street.”
Calvin Trillin in an op-ed in the Times a couple of weeks ago, supposedly quoting some guy he meets in a bar. But Trillin was writing as a humorist, not a reporter (he does both very well), and I strongly suspect that his informant in the midtown bar was just something he made up for laughs, from the 1950s Brooks Brothers clothes to the theory about the financial debacle.

The theory goes like this: Wall Street used to be run by guys who got into decent schools because of family; they finished in the lower third of the class. Nice guys, not especially bright, and, by current standards, not especially greedy. (A certain ex-president comes to mind.) But when Wall Street started offering insanely high payoffs, the really smart guys got in – the math majors from MIT, physics Ph.D.s from CalTech.
“Did you ever hear the word ‘derivatives’?” he said. “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”
And how did that lead to calamity?
“Why do I get the feeling that there’s one more step in this scenario?” I said.

“Because there is,” he said. “When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was. All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich, and they had gotten to like that. All of that easy money had eaten away at their sense of enoughness.”
Funny, right? It interrelates some stylized facts that aren’t really related – math geniuses replacing pleasant college grads; the spread of greed; Wall Street collapsing. That’s what humor writing often does – stretches the plausible till it becomes unrealistic. And besides, the theory fits only one instance – the current one.

Generally speaking, you don’t turn to NBER* papers for a good chuckle or for confirmation of humorous speculation. I doubt that Calvin Trillin has a stack of these papers on his nightstand. I certainly don’t. But via a link at Brad DeLong’s blog) I found this abstract of one published last December:
We use detailed information about wages, education and occupations to shed light on the evolution of the U.S. financial sector over the past century. We uncover a set of new, interrelated stylized facts: financial jobs were relatively skill intensive, complex, and highly paid until the 1930s and after the 1980s, but not in the interim period. We investigate the determinants of this evolution and find that financial deregulation and corporate activities linked to IPOs and credit risk increase the demand for skills in financial jobs. Computers and information technology play a more limited role. Our analysis also shows that wages in finance were excessively high around 1930 and from the mid 1990s until 2006. [emphasis added] --Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef, “Wages and Human Capital

The same thing was going on in the 1920s too. Wall Street jobs were skill intensive, complex, and highly paid. And look what happened in 1929.  ’Taint funny McGee.

*National Bureau of Economic Research

Top of the Charts

November 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In case you wondered about what we in the US pay for health care compared with those unfree unfortunates who suffer under various forms of socialized medicine, here are some graphs showing the advantages of what Republicans here tell us is “the best health care system in the world.”

The graphs are from the International Federation of Health Plans. I’ve selected only four – to show the relative costs* of
  • an office visit
  • a day in the hospital
  • a common procedure (childbirth without complications)
  • a widely used drug (Lipitor)
(Click on a chart to see a larger version.)




You can download all the charts here, but be warned: it gets boring. We’re number one in every chart, at least in this one category of how much we shell out.

Since we have the best health care in the world, this must mean that you get what you pay for. Our Lipitor must be four to ten times as good as the Lipitor that Canadians take.


*Udate: As Phenompbg says in his comment below, these amounts are what providers are paid by governments or other insurers, not what the patient pays, which in many Eurpean countries is essentially nothing. See the footnotes for the tables in the original document. Or look at the comments on this at Boing Boing, a discussion which is remarkably civil (do they monitor comments?).

Hat tip: Ezra Klein.

It’s Your Funeral

November 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Current funeral fashions . . . illustrate the sad truth that, as a society, Americans are no longer sure what to do with our dead.” So says theologian Thomas Long in an All Souls’ Day op-ed in the Times.

He mentions some of these fashions:
coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; “virtual cemeteries” with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded.
If you don’t believe him, take a look on line, here for example.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

But the source of this diverse emporium of funeral stuff isn’t our uncertainty over what to do with our dead. Instead, it rises at the intersection of two cherished American ideals: capitalism and individualism.

The American tendency to turn ceremonial occasions into commerce is certainly not news. As Robert Klein said of Washington’s Birthday (back when there still was a Washington’s Birthday and not the generic Presidents’ Day), “I’m sure the father of our country would be pleased to know that his birthday is being honored with a mattress sale.”

Even our most solemn moments, funerals, are opportunities to cash in, as was noted long ago by two Brits – Evelyn Waugh in a comic novel (The Loved One, 1948), and Jessica Mitford in a book of serious reporting (The American Way of Death, 1963).

The combination of capitalism with our value on individualism and freedom of choice gives us in funerals what it gives us in everything from automobiles to breakfast cereal: a wide variety of products.

The loser here is tradition. But tradition has never held much power in the US. “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t win many arguments here, especially not when it goes up against rational utilitarianism (“but it would be cheaper and quicker to do it this way”). Tradition is also losing out to self-fulfillment and self-expression. Tradition emphasizes the community – past, present, and future – over the individual. It links the individual with past generations and future generations. In most societies, funerals emphasize the primacy of the group and celebrate the deceased as a member of that group, whatever his particular individual quirks might have been.

The new look in funerals celebrates the individual for precisely those things that made him an individual – his particular interests – even though these have nothing to do with the traditions of the community.
One family asked for a memorial service on the 18th green of their father’s favorite golf course, “because that’s where dad was instead of church on Sunday mornings, so why are we going to church,” Mr. Duffey said. “Line up his buddies, and hit balls.” Another wanted his friends to ride Harleys down his favorite road, scattering his ashes. [From an article in the Times four years ago.]
The same trend has transformed other religious events like confirmations (“Select a confirmation party theme that celebrates the guest of honors hobbies or passions”) and of course, bar mitzvahs.
a beach themed party will put everyone in a tropical mood. Decorate with orange, pink and green lighting and maybe even some tiki torches! String tiny lanterns across the ceiling and use brightly colored flowers in vases for the centerpieces. Everyone will enjoy a limbo contest especially when its played along with some Hawaiian music.
(And I was worried that the previous post’s picture of a Weimaraner wearing a tallith and yarmulke might have been seen as sacrilegious. What was I thinking?)