Risk, Politics, and Group Alignment

September 24, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do we assess the different risks in our lives?

Her name was Paige,* but New Yorkers in the 1980s knew her as “the sign-the-petition lady.” She would set up at her anti-pornography display at various locations around Manhattan and chant endlessly, “Sign the petition. Sign the petition.”

In her right hand was some  offensive image from a porn mag (often, the meat-grinder cover from Larry Flynt’s magazine Hustler). Her other hand invariably held a lit cigarette. I was always tempted to say to her, “You know, you’re at greater risk from what’s in your left hand than what’s in your right.” But I never did.

Photo © richardgreene 2015
(Click to enlarge. The cigarette in her left hand will still not be clearly visible, but I’m sure it’s there.)

The recent bomb explosion in New York again raised the specter of terrorism and with it the question: how great is my risk from terrorist attacks? For some people, mostly on the right, the message was, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Donald Trump said, “ “We better get very tough, folks. We better get very, very tough,” though he did not specify what form this toughness would take.

By contrast, the mayor of New York insisted that “New Yorkers will not be intimidated. We are not going to let anyone change who we are or how we go about our lives.” He’s probably right. New Yorkers would find it difficult to change their daily lives. They could, for example, lower their risk by avoiding crowded places, but that’s where most of them work every day. The mayor’s comment makes sense because the risk of a terrorist attack is very low compared with other dangers, even bomb-like explosion.  We’ve had a few of them in the last decade, some of them fatal, but they were from gas mains.  And in that same period, at least 1000 people have died just walking the streets, the victims of automobiles.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, trying to estimate our risk from terrorism repeats the statistic from The Economist “the risk of an American being killed by terrorism in the decade after 9/11 and up to 2013 was one in fifty-six million.” He then asks, “Why [do] we develop such a high level of fright about such a low-level probability. Why are so many still so easily panicked?”

Gopnik gives two reasons – politicians and human psychology. The political angle is obvious. If a politician can get people to fear some thing and then present himself as the person best able to fight that thing, he’ll get a lot of votes. So some politicians  like  try to amp up our perception of the risk, taking their cue from Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” (See this post from a year or so ago.)

Gopnik’s  second factor is “the eternal human propensity to overstate and overimagine risks and loss and underimagine and understate gains and benefits.”

Maybe.  But Gopnik misses the moral angle. People react on the basis of moral judgment, not just rational risk calculation. Causes of harm that are immoral inflate our perception of their probability. We think we have more to fear from bad people – people who do want to do us harm – than from bad drivers, who do not want to do us harm. This moral judgment also draws a line between Us and Them – and we perceive Them as dangerous to Us. Bad drivers do not constitute a Them. Neither do apartment owners who install illegal gas lines. They are not some group we are at war with.

This moral Us/Them basis of risk assessment may also figure in the Black Lives Matter response when someone points out that Black people are more at risk from Black civilians (Black-on-Black crime) than from White cops. That’s irrelevant to their issue, which is that They (cops) target Us (Black people).

In the same way, anti-Muslim politicians and their supporters dismiss statistics about risk. In fact, my impression is that people who live in low-risk places but who are more militantly anti-Muslim are more concerned about the risk of terrorism and more likely to demand anti-Muslim measures than are those who live in places most likely to be terrorist targets – cities like New York or Los Angeles.

And in the same way, the sign-the-petition lady would have dismissed my  suggestion that she had less to fear from Larry Flynt than from Philip Morris. **


* Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York has more about her. A streetcorner very near where I live was one of her locations, so I often saw and heard her. But I never once saw anyone stop to sign the petition. According to one of the comments on the Vanishing New York blog, she used the petition mostly to get the names and phone numbers of women she could then hit on.

** There is an extensive literature in psychology on perceptions of risk which I am leaving out.

Ten Years a Blog

September 20, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many years ago, I saw Penn and Teller’s off-Broadway show in a small theater on West 43rd St.  Before his fire-eating routine, Penn explained that it wasn’t a trick. It was more of a skill. The performer really is putting a flaming torch in his mouth, and if he lets his mouth get at all dry, he can get burnt. It happens. It hurts. “So the next time you see someone eating fire” Penn said, “the question to ask is not how. It’s why.

The same might be said for keeping a blog going for a decade. Ten years, 1572 posts. My answer to Penn’s question is the answer Teller, if asked, would give on stage. But I will follow my custom of culling a handful of posts that I liked from the last year.

The Philosophy of the Gun in Trumpland

September 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

It seems odd for a politician to boast that many of his supporters are potential murderers, terrorists, and assassins. But then much about the Trump campaign is strange and odd.

Trump acknowledges that his supporters believe in what I once called (here) “The Philosophy of the Gun.” Here’s the gist of that post from seven years ago.

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.

My blog usually gets few comments, but on this one, the gunslingers descended en masse,* though as I said in a post the next day (here), they mostly agreed with my basic point; they just didn’t like the way I put it.

Now Donald Trump has joined me. A few weeks ago, he hinted that if gunlovers (“Second Amendment people”) didn’t like a judge, they would take aim and assassinate the judge (or perhaps the president who appointed the judge).  Yesterday, he suggested that they would shoot Hillary Clinton. No mention of policies or judicial appointments. They would shoot her just because they don’t like her – if they could get away with it.

I think they [Clinton’s Secret Service detail] should disarm immediately. Take their guns away, she doesn't want guns. Take their— and let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away. OK, it would be very dangerous.

Very dangerous. Trump is talking about people who adhere to the philosophy of the gun, and apparently he counts many of these people among his supporters. He is saying essentially that they will shoot the Democratic nominee for US president. He merely adds the caveat, if they can be successful, i.e., if the Secret Service cannot shoot them first.

When Clinton said that half of Trump supporters were racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic, the Trump campaign and supporters took umbrage. When Trump himself suggests that many of them are potential terrorists and assassins, they seem to take it as a compliment. 

* Peter Moskos, whose blog Cop in the Hood is well worth reading, once told me that sometimes when he’s feeling neglected and lonely, he’ll put up a post about guns. And very soon, he’s got lots of company.

Has Trust Gone Bust?

September 16, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks was preaching again this week. His Tuesday column (here) was a jeremiad on the ills that “an avalanche of distrust” is bringing to US society.  (The phrase “avalanche of distrust” came probably from the headline writer, not Brooks. Brooks refers to “an avalanche of calumny.” Either way, the country’s being buried under a lot of bad snow.)

A generation ago about half of all Americans felt they could trust the people around them, but now less than a third think other people are trustworthy.

Young people are the most distrustful of all; only about 19 percent of millennials believe other people can be trusted. But across all age groups there is a rising culture of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering.

Brooks is partly right, partly misleading. He seems to be referring to the General Social Survey, which, since 1972, has asked regularly about trust.  The GSS has three items that pertain to trust.
  • TRUST – Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in life?
  • HELPFUL – Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?
  • FAIR – Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?
The GSS data does show some decline in all these since 1990 – i.e., a generation ago.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
Of the three variables, TRUST has declined the most. The percentage of people saying that most people could be trusted fell from 39% to 30%, Brooks’s statement about “half of all Americans” a generation ago being trusting is a bit misleading as it implies that 50% was standard year in year out. In fact, in only one year, 1984, did the percentage reach that level. As for the other variables relevant to the “culture of paranoia,” perceptions of other people’s helpfulness also declined; perceptions of their fairness changed little.

What about the age differences Brooks notes?  I extracted GSS data on the Trust variable at three different periods – 1972-1976, 1989-1991, and the most recent years that we have data for.

In every period, the young are the least trusting, but the difference between them and people in older age groups is much greater now than it was 25 or 40 years ago. That’s because millennials, as Brooks correctly notes, are much less trusting than were their 18-30 year old counterparts in the 1970s.

But what about the rest of us? According to Brooks, “across all age groups there is a rising culture of paranoia.”  In the 1972-76 period, in the youngest group, 38% were trusting. In 1990, those people would be in their early 40s to early 50s. In that year, that age group was somewhat more trusting than they had been 25 years earlier. And 20 years later, when they were in their late 50s and up, they were still as trusting as they had been before. The same is true of the people who were 30 and up in the 1970s. Similarly, the youngest group in 1990 had the same level of trust twenty years later – about 30%.

Trust seems to be remarkably resilient – impervious to the vicissitudes of aging or of social and political changes. The Watergate era, the Reagan years, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the recent recession – none of these seems to have made much difference in each cohort’s level of trust.  Go figure.

Brooks’s sermon then turns from the aggregate data to the effect on people’s souls.

The true thing about distrust, in politics and in life generally, is that it is self-destructive. Distrustful people end up isolating themselves, alienating others and corroding their inner natures.
Over the past few decades, the decline in social trust has correlated to an epidemic of loneliness. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no close friend with whom they could discuss important matters. By 2004, 25 percent had no such friend.

That finding, which made headlines a decade ago, has since been questioned if not debunked.The GSS data it’s based on contained a coding error, and other surveys have found no such drastic increase in friendlessness. Claude Fischer has an excellent blog post about this issue (here). He includes this graph based on results from the Gallup poll.

Brooks obviously is not interested in these corrections. He is, after all, crying “avalanche” in a crowded political theater. But it tuns out there’s not all that much snow. The change to worry about is that over the last 25 years, each new cohort is less trusting, and this is one time when hand-wringing about what’s wrong with kids today might be appropriate. Those attitudes, once formed, are little effected even by major changes in the society and government.

Trump Unrestricted

September 15, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Commas are important. Sometimes.
  • I waved to the young man who was wearing a gray suit.
“Who was wearing a gray suit” is a restrcitive clause. It’s called that because it limits the subject. There could have been a lot of other young men, but I waved to the one in the gray suit.
  • I waved to the young man, who was wearing a gray suit.
With the comma added, the clause becomes nonrestrictive. The young man is the only possible one, and he was wearing a gray suit.

Today we have this statement from Donald Trump’s doctors.

We are pleased to disclose all of the test results which show that Mr. Trump is in excellent health, and has the stamina to endure — uninterrupted — the rigors of a punishing and unprecedented presidential campaign and, more importantly, the singularly demanding job of President of the United States.

With no comma, the clause “which show that Mr. Trump is in excellent health” becomes restrictive. It implies that there may other test results which do not show Trump to be in excellent health. Was the copy editor being cagey or merely careless?

Today’s statement is a bit more specific than the previous medical records released by a Trump doctor — “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” which sounds almost as if the Donald himself could have written it.

Of course Mr. Trump is in great health, the best – believe me. I know his doctors, the finest really. I admire them, and they say his stamina is great. I can’t believe that people are complaining about a comma. Don’t get me wrong. I love commas. China – by the way, a very great country – China doesn’t have commas, and we’ve let them get away with that. China is incredible in many ways. I eat Chinese food. I mean, my Chinese chef is tremendous, tremendous. But many people say that there are no commas on the menus. No commas at all. Sad.

All In the Family

September 11, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

“God must love the common man,” goes the quote usually attributed to Lincoln, “He made so many of them.”

Greg Mankiw must love the rich. He writes so many articles promoting policies that help them. In today’s installment in the NY Times Business section (here), he writes about the estate tax.*

Mankiw probably didn’t write that headline, and it’s slightly misleading. It suggests that Mankiw wants to get rid of all inheritance taxes without making any other changes. In fact, he proposes other ways to “make sure those at the top pay their fair share.” But the headline captures the takeaway – or at least what rich people and their advocates take away.

Not taxing inheritances is what happened when Mankiw was, as he reminds us, chief economic advisor to President George W. Bush. Bush phased out the estate tax entirely. Presumably Mankiw raised no strong objections. It’s possible that Mankiw recommended to Bush the alternate taxes he mentions in today’s Times. We don’t know. But if he did, the only item in his advice package that Bush and the Congressional Republicans paid attention to was the call to just get rid of this pesky tax on the heirs of the wealthy.

In writing against the estate tax, Mankiw pulls the same switcheroo that other opponents of the tax use. He writes about it as though the people who pay the tax are those who accumulated the fortune. They aren’t. Calling the inheritance tax the “death tax” makes it seem as though the dead are being taxed for dying. They aren’t. If you leave an estate to your heirs, you have departed this mortal plane and are safely beyond the reach of the IRS.

The people who would pay the tax are those who inherit the money. If they had gotten this money the old fashioned way, by earning it, they would pay tax on it – and nobody objects on principle to taxing the money people get by working. But money they get because someone gave it to them gets preferable treatment. Mankiw dodges this issue by talking about “families,” as though the family were still the same as it was before the death of the one who made the money – as though the money hadn’t really changed hands.

The same logic would shield income in the paychecks that someone got by working in the family business. And who knows? Maybe Republicans will propose making income from the family business tax-free. The Trump kids would get a free ride. After all, if we don’t want a death tax, why would we allow a parenthood tax?

*Another post on Mankiw and taxes is here. Other posts about Mankiw in this blog are here and here.

(A day after I posted this, Matt Levine made basically the same criticisms of the Mankiw piece. Levine writes for Bloomberg, so his post probably had a few more readers.)

Trigger Warnings

September 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I posted a trigger warning last week, the first one I have ever used.

I begin the semester contrasting individual facts with social facts, and the example I use is Durkheim’s study of suicide – suicide rates and social integration as social facts. In each of the past two semesters, a student has told me weeks later that he or she (one of each) had recently experienced the suicide of someone they were close to, and the topic still upset them. I had had no idea that I was tromping around on someone else’s understandably sensitive toes. For the remainder of the course, in selecting examples to illustrate sociological ideas in the remainder of the course, I tried to avoid suicide.

This semester, before the first class meeting, I posted an announcement on Canvas (or “course management system”):

(Click for a larger view.)

The University of Chicago does not approve. In a now-famous letter sent to incoming students last month, the Chicago Dean of Students Jay Ellison said

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings.’

I’m not sure why the Dean thinks it’s a good idea to spring disturbing material upon students without any advance notice. Maybe when it comes to movies he doesn’t like the MPAA warnings either. I do.

One evening long ago when I was a student, I went with some friends to see a new movie that they said had gotten good reviews and was by an important director.  Back then, before DVD, VHS, HBO, etc., if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the theater before the movie finished its run.
The movie was “Straw Dogs.” It’s another version of the adolescent boy’s fantasy that used to grace the inside covers of comic books.

(Click for a larger view.)

In “Straw Dogs,” instead of the bully kicking sand in the boy’s face while the girlfriend watches, the bullies rape the girl. And instead of merely returning to punch out one bully, the hero dispatches a septet of baddies using variously a fire poker, a shotgun, boiling oil, a nail gun, and a bear trap.

Immediately after seeing the movie, I was upset – angry at the movie, even angry at my friends. It was not the stupidity of the movie that disturbed me.  I’d seen the basic plot not just in comic book ads but in many American films. We American guys just loves us some justifiable revenge violence. What upset me was that the violence was viscerally arousing. The movie was rated R, but I had seen plenty of R movies. I just hadn’t seen any that put violence on the screen so effectively.* My reaction, I realized later, was probably like some people’s reaction to sex in the movies – it’s arousing in a way that they don’t want to be aroused, at least not by a movie. (They don’t want others to be aroused by it either, but that’s a separate issue.)

If someone had told me beforehand what to expect, my reaction to and against the film would not have been as strong, nor would I have been as pissed off at my friends for selecting the film. Maybe when film classes at Chicago show “Straw Dogs,” they remove the R rating and generally keep students in the dark. Apparently Dean Ellison would prefer it that way. Me, I’d warn the students in advance and risk being scoffed at as politically correct.

* Making violence arousing is something that Peckinpah is very good at. Pauline Kael famously said of “Straw Dogs” that it was “a fascist work of art.”     

Labor Day - Unions on Film

September 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A guy I know who hates teachers unions equates them with the corrupt and violent Longshoremen’s union portrayed in “On the Waterfront.” True, the union comes off badly in this movie. When Brando, having testified against union boss Johnny Friendly says, “I’m glad what I done to you, Johnny Friendly,” the audience is glad too. But what about other films?

Hollywood is much more likely to give us business executives than workers. The corporate biggies are usually corrupt and evil, but at least they’re up there on the screen. Workers, not so much.

I tried to think of American movies (non-documentary) where a union or even the idea of a union had an important role. The list I came up with on the spur of the moment was very short
  • Norma Rae (1979)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Putting the question out to my Facebook friends brought only a few more to the list (ht: Philip Cohen).
  • Matewan (1987)
  • Hoffa (1992)
  • Salt of the Earth (1954)
Googling “movies about unions” added
  • The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)                                   
  • F.I.S.T. (1978)
  • Bread and Roses (2000)
  • Blue Collar (1978)
  • Won’t Back Down (2012)
  • The Garment Jungle (1957)
  • Black Fury (1935)
Given the Hollywood depiction of corporated bosses as bad guys, I expected that movies would also portray unions as  virtuous organizations helping virtuous workers.  That’s sort of true of 40s and 50s, though obviously “Waterfront” is an exception.* But in “Hoffa,” “F.I.S.T.,” “Blue Collar,” and “Won’t Back Down,” unions don’t come off so well.  Of movies from the last 30 years, only “Matewan” is unambiguously pro-union, and it was a low-budget indie. So much for the idea that Hollywood is dominated by leftists and liberals.

My favorite nomination – one ignored even by Google – came from my cousin, who wasn’t even born till about twenty years after the movie came out: “The Pajama Game” (1957).

* The point of “Waterfront” was to make a virtue out of testifying to the government against the team you used to be on. Both the writer and the director, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, respectively, had testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and had ratted out other Hollywood people – naming names and ruining careers. Kazan acknowledged the parallel – he was glad what he done to his former associates. But Schulberg denied that the movie had anything to do with HUAC investigations.