Word Association: I say Trump. . .?

June 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Quinnipiac poll done last month had an item that I hadn’t seen before. The poll had the usual Favorable/Unfavorable  questions about Trump, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, and others. (Trump’s 35% Favorable / 58% Unfavorable was best in show.) But Quinnipiac then, in Item #9, asked for more specific reactions.
9. What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump? (Numbers are not percentages. Figures show the number of times each response was given. This table reports only words that were mentioned at least five times.)
Here the results. I have sorted them into Favorable and Unfavorable. (Some respondents may have used “president” as a neutral term. After all, even those who think unfavorably of Trump acknowledge that he is in fact the president, and that he is a rich businessman. But I’m going to assume that these all carry positive valences.)


(Click on the chart for a clearer view.)

The sheer numbers – 343 negative to 184 positive – reflect Trump’s unpopularity, of course. But what about the variety? Is this peculiar to Trump? Does he offer so many things to dislike? Or do we just generally have a richer vocabulary of negative adjectives? Is it harder to come up with different ways that we like someone?

Missing Fathers, Missing Jobs

June 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Millions of poor children and teenagers grow up without their biological father.”

Thus David Brooks begins a recent column. As usual, Brooks pays close attention to culture, psychology, and the dynamics of relationships while pretty much ignoring structure and economics.
                                                       
Brooks is correct in saying that the reasons men leave have more to do with the man-woman relationship than with the father-child relationship. Since this happens far more frequently among the poor, most people would probably focus on financial factors – lack of income, lack of jobs, lack of education.  Instead, Brooks focuses on the young man’s ideas.

Not David Brooks.

The fathers often retain a traditional and idealistic “Leave It to Beaver” view of marriage. They dream of the perfect soul mate. They know this woman isn’t it, so they are still looking.

But while the young father is “ stuck in a formless romantic anarchy,” the mother must necessarily be more realistic. The collision dooms the relationship.

Buried in the rigors of motherhood, the women, meanwhile, take a very practical view of what they need in a man: Will this guy provide the financial stability I need, and if not, can I trade up to someone who will?

The father begins to perceive the mother as bossy, just another authority figure to be skirted. Run-ins with drugs, the law and other women begin to make him look even more disreputable in her eyes.

Brooks is working from Doing the Best I Can : Fatherhood in the Inner City (2013), by Kathryn Edin and Timothy Jon Nelson, a study of men in Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. The authors note the dismal job market the men face. “By the 1970s, when the new-father ideology first came on the scene, the job prospects of those with no credentials beyond a high school diploma, including in Philadelphia and Camden, were already in free fall.”

Fifty years ago, Elliot Liebow surveyed this same territory – Black streetcorner men in Washington, DC – in Tally’s Corner.  Liebow saw that the central problem in marriages was the man’s inability to, as Brooks says, “provide financial stability.” But unlike Brooks, Liebow looked outward at the labor market for the reasons. The basic fact underyling the men’s lives – as husbands, fathers, friends, and lovers – was that the kinds of jobs that these men could get did not pay enough to allow a man to support a family.

Marriage is an occasion of failure. To stay married is to live with your failure, to be confronted by it day in and day out. It is to live in a world whose standards of manliness are forever beyond one's reach. where one is continuously tested and challenged and continually found wanting.

Or as Herb Gans, at around the same time, put it in his “Reflections on the Moynihan Report”

The Negro man . . .cannot provide  the economic support that. is a principal male function in American society. As a result, the woman becomes the head of the famly, and the man a marginal appendage who deserts or is rejected by his wife.

While work and income remain central to the problem of absentee fathers, other things may have changed. The man on Tally’s Corner in 1963 was, typically, ambivalent about his children, for the child, like the wife, was a reminder of his failure to live up to the role of breadwinner. The man moving in with someone else’s children was more likely to be affectionate towards them than towards his own biological children.

To soften this failure, and to lessen the damage to his public and self-esteem, he pushes the children away from him saying, in effect, “I’m not even trying to be your father so now I can't be blamed for failing to accomplish what rm not trying to do.”

According to Edin and Nelson, a cultural shift at all levels of US society has allowed men to have a different reaction to their children. I hope to take up in a later post.

False Equivalencies and the Distortion of History

June 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you want a good example of false equivalency, look no further than Ross Douthat’s column today (here).

The turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s generated segregationist terrorism on the right and a revolutionary underground on the left, but it did not produce much partisan terrorism, violence inspired simply by fear and hatred of the opposition party.


From the balancing of right and left in this sentence, you would never know that level of segregationist violence was several orders of magnitude greater than what the “revolutionary underground” committed. 

Douthat’s claim that segregationist terrorism was not “partisan” is also a bit of a stretch. Douthat’s main point is that until last week’s “attempted massacre of Republicans on a baseball field,” assassinations in the US have not been partisan. The killers may have acted on a political ideology, but they were not affiliated with a party or even a real movement. 

That may be true of a handful of assassinations and attempts directed at prominent elected officials – JFK, Reagan, RFK, and others. The shooters were lone wolves, and saw their targets as individuals rather than as representatives of a political party .

But much political violence, including killings, has been more organized and systematic. In the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the people who were doing the beating were often agents of the government. Those who committed murder, torture, arson, and other forms of terrorism knew that law enforcement was on their side and would do little to prevent or punish them. And their terrorism had a clear political purpose: to preserve White supremacy.

Douthat says that segregationist terror was not “inspired by fear and hatred of the opposition party.” This statement is true only in the very technical sense that there was no opposition party. The  fear and hatred were directed at people who were trying to create an anti-segregationist party or to eventually bend one of the major parties away from White supremacy policies.

The killers of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Viola Liuzzo, and other people who were working for civil rights; the people who burned churches; the sheriffs, the Klansmen, and the others – they were part of a political establishment, some as officials, others as constituents. If Douthat thinks that they are barely worth remembering, he is distorting history. If he thinks that they were were political oddballs and isolates on the order of Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, and Squeaky Fromme, he is drawing an egregiously false equivalency.

Did Comey Infer Or Did He Imply?

June 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Language prescriptivists – the people who tell us when our choice of words is wrong – are always on the losing side historically. Words come to mean what people use them to mean regardless (or irregardless) of what experts say. But sometimes the fuddy-duddies have a point.

Infer/Imply. These words often appear on lists of terms that people misuse. To imply is to suggest something indirectly. To infer is to draw a conclusion from the available information. Most of the time, you can figure out from context what the speaker or writer really meant. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two words can be important.

Look at the this sentence in a story today at the Independent Journal Review, a right-leaning news site, (here):

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
(The link at “heavily inferred” does not go to a language Website.)


At first, I thought that Comey, using his powers of deduction and the information available at the FBI, had concluded that the special counsel was conducting an obstruction investigation. But no, what the writer meant, I think, was that Comey had implied that the special counsel was investigating possible obstruction of justice. 

The distinction is relevant. As written, the sentence means that Comey didn’t know and was just guessing. But if the writer meant imply rather than infer, it means Comey already knew and was dropping a big hint to the committee and to the world. That’s especially important because the main Republican talking point is that there is no case for obstruction.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, maybe someone will explain why imply doesn’t rhyme with simply.

This Is Your Deaprtment of Justice On Drugs

June 14, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Attorney General Jeff Sessions showed us yesterday in his Senate testimony, he is a master of misdirection. Session the indignantly defended his honor, vigorously denying things that nobody had accused him of. As for specifics, he mostly refused to answer.

Sessions is using a similar strategy in his letter to Congress  (written on May 1 but made public two days ago) urging Congress to let him punish states that allow medical marijuana.

I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.

A third grader could see the flaw in this argument.
  • We’re in the midst of a drug epidemic.
  • Marijuana is a drug
  • Therefore marijuana is part of the epidemic.
Can a politician still get away with tossing anything he doesn’t like into the catch-all bin labeled “drugs”? As most people who are not the Attorney General know, the epidemic consists mostly of opiods, not weed. If there is any connection between medical marijuana and opioid death and addiction, that connection is negative. States that allow medical marijuana have lower rates of opioid problems.

Medical marijuana legalization was associated with 23% (p = 0.008) and 13% (p = 0.025) reductions in hospitalizations related to opioid dependence or abuse and OPR overdose, respectively. [From the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependency, April 1, 2017 (behind a paywall here)]

Earlier articles from JAMA and NBER reached similar conclusions.  (See this WaPo article for summaries and links.).   

Research on individuals reaches the same conclusion as state-level data.

    •  Cannabis use was associated with 64% lower opioid use in patients with chronic pain.
    •  Cannabis use was associated with better quality of life in patients with chronic pain.
    •  Cannabis use was associated with fewer medication side effects and medications used. [From an article in the Journal of Pain, 2016 (here).]

None of these findings should be surprising. We have long known that marijuana is effective for people who are in pain, and it is far safer than opioids. If people can treat their pain with weed rather than heroin, fentanyl, etc., they’ll be less likely to wind up addicted or dead. If the government makes it harder to get medical marijuana, opioid problems will likely increase.

Scientific American (here) today presents similar evidence today, as did the journal Science (here)  year ago). Of course, scientific Americans and science have little influence in the Trump administration. To head the White House commission on drug addiction Trump appointed Chris Christie, a man whose views of marijuana are similarly without basis in fact. (See this earlier post.)

Getting Inequality Wrong

June 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Imagine that you earn $125,00 a year; your spouse earns $75,000. Not so hard to imagine. I probably know a lot of couples in this range. Their $200,000 income puts you in the top fifth of US households.

Who do you feel closer to – socially and economically: the family whose income is $60,000 or the family bringing home $1.4 million? The $60,000 is  the average household incomes for those in the middle of the distribution. The $1.4 million is the average of the 1%.

If you thought you were closer to the average American, you’re kidding yourself. So says Richard Reeves in a New York Times article that, to judge from my Twitter and Facebook feeds, has been getting a lot of attention. Your perception, says Reeves, isn’t just misguided, it’s “dangerously self-serving.”

The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy six-figure incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.

From the end of World War II until about 1980 income inequality in the US had been narrowing. Since then, overall inequality has been increasing. In support of this idea that it’s the top fifth and not just the 1% whose incomes are responsible, Reeves looks at income changes since 1979.

the upper middle class is solidifying. This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution, with an average annual household income of $200,000, has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.


It’s not surprising that the 1% got less than half the increase, but they got a lot more than 1%. Their incomes grew far more rapidly than did incomes of the rest of the top fifth.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

The above graph comes from a Brookings publication co-written by the same Richard Reeves. The graph certainly makes it look as though the real separation is between the 1% and the rest of US households. Yes, the top fifth is getting richer – more so than the middle-income households. But the differences can still be shown on the same graph. By contrast, the line for the top 1% is so far away from the others that in order to show the increase of the 81st to 99th, Reeves has to remove the 1% from the graph.




Now we can see that yes, the incomes of the rest of the top fifth increased  - from about $120,000 to nearly $190,000. But the average income for the 1% went from about half a million to over $1,400,000. Here’s a graph of those percentage increases – 192% (i.e., nearly triple) for the 1%, 70% (less than double) for the rest of the top fifth.


It’s misleading to talk about “the upper fifth” as though those at the 85th percentile had a lot in common with the 1%, even within the 1%, the differences are striking. In a 2013 blog post (here), Dan Hirschman converted Piketty-Saez data to show increases for different sectors of the top 10%, Most of us would consider all of these folks to be rich, but some got more richer than others.

 


Here is a clearer breakdown of incomes in the top fifth in 2016.

(HT: Philp Cohen)

What’s happened since the 1980s, is that the top 0.01% have pulled away. They have become the super-rich. In 1970, if you were in the 1% pulling down $1 million a year, Mr. and Ms. .01% might have lived in a somewhat larger house down the street. Now, theyr’e so far away you need Google Earth to find their estate.

Reeves seems to be deliberately fudging over the real gaps in income (and wealth, which he mentions not at all). That’s too bad because his point about the upper-middle class is not about inequality – their economic distance from the middle. It’s about mobility. In their effort to ensure a better, or at least equal, economic future for their children, they are making class boundaries more rigid. In effect, they are building a wall – sometimes, as with gated communities, a literal wall – to keep their families in and others out. Fewer and fewer of those coming from less affluent will be able to get in. 

Making the Facts Not Matter

June 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People get a clearer picture if you tell them what someone or something is rather than telling them what it isn’t. I’ve said that a few times in this blog (here, for example) in connection with writing. But it’s something that Donald Trump seems to know instinctively.  Here are two True/False items.

True or False: Donald Trump is president of the United States.
True or False: Donald Trump is not president of the United States.

Regardless of what you wanted the answer to be, the second statement took you a fraction of a second longer to get. Positive statements are clearer and more quickly understood .

The same principle applies in political combat as well. When the news or opponents point out that Trump is lying or that he’s done something worse, Trump doesn’t spend much time denying. He prefers to go on the attack, making counter accusations. Or he makes positive claims about himself. It doesn’t matter that these accusations and claims are without a basis in reality.*

The front pages of New York’s tabloids the day after James Comey appeared before a Senate committee illustrate the strategy of Trump and his supporters both in the Senate and at the New York Post.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The Daily News lists the Trump lies suggested by Comey’s testimony. (For some reason, the News omitted Trump’s statements about Comey and the FBI, statements that Comey said were “lies plain and simple.”)

The Post puts “liar” in quotes, highlights Republican criticisms o fComey, Loretta Lynch, the Clintons, and the New York Times, and quotes the Trump camp’s curiously sunny view of the testimony.

Trump did not respond to the Daily News headline. He did not say, “I am not a liar.”** As we’ve learned from Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” that kind of denial turns the spotlight on precisely the question the speaker wants the public to ignore. That denial would link “Trump” with “liar” just as surely as Nixon’s denial linked his own name with “crook.”
                                                                           
If you can get people to make that association – person and trait – even though they may not be fully convinced that it’s true, you’ve gained a lot of ground. Trump senses this. It’s the basis of his name-calling strategy: Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco repeated endlessly. We can already see where Trump is going in the Comey matter. If he hasn’t been tweeting it out yet, it’s probably because he can’t decide between “Leakin’ Comey” or “Leaker Comey.” If Trump can get people to think that Comey is a bad guy – a leaker – they will more easily ignore whatever factual information Comey provides.

The larger point is that, at least in the short run and maybe longer, the facts are less important than overall image. Once we have a mental image of someone or something, we will filter the facts in a way that keeps that picture intact. If Trump can convince his followers (and perhaps others) that the mainstream media is “fake news,” they can more easily discount or ignore any facts reported by CNN, NBC, USA Today.

------------------------------

* Last week, Trump said “Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it's doing very well.” In fact, there was no tax bill. His administration had not sent a bill to Congress. He also issued a tweet blaming Democrats for the large number of unfilled positions in his administration. But as Politico pointed out, “The Trump administration has formally nominated just 63 candidates – 39 of which have been approved – for 559 key positions that require Senate confirmation.”

*The next day, Trump did deny that he had said some of the things that Comey reported, but more important he said that he would testify under oath. (Don’t hold your breath. Trump has also said that he’d release his taxes, remember?  Anyway, the Congressional committees where Trump would testify are controlled by Republicans. Would they call Trump in to testify under oath when Democrats as well can ask questions?)

Boom Goes London, and Boom Par-ee

June 3, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ben and Jerry’s response to Trump and the Paris Accords is dripping with irony (irony in the literary sense that they mean the opposite of what they are actually saying).


Here’s reason #3.



The irony (the other kind of irony) is that many Americans agree. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 after I’d seen Randy Newman at Carnegie Hall (the full post is here):
“Political Science,” written at least 35 years ago, still sounds like the voice of American foreign policy based on American exceptionalism – a belief in our inherent goodness and innocence, a disregard for the decent opinions of other countries, and a readiness to use violence on those who disagree.

    No one likes us. I don't know why
    We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
    But all around, even our old friends put us down
    Let's drop the big one and see what happens

    We give them money-but are they grateful?

    No, they're spiteful and they're hateful
    They don't respect us-so let's surprise them
    We'll drop the big one and pulverize them.

It’s a more closely reasoned version of John McCain’s “Bomb, bomb Iran.”

Here’s the full version from a 2011 London concert.


(You can hear t he original recording by a much younger sounding Newman on “Sail Away” (1972), his third album (here).

Here we have the US, well-intentioned but misunderstood, and if all those other countries refuse to understand and refuse to do what we want, well, whatever happens, they’ve got it coming.  (“They all hate us anyhow, so let’s drop the big one now.”) It’s possible that this view of the relation between the US and the rest of the world has lost some of its strength since Newman wrote this song. (Most Americans were born after this song was written.) The song seemed out of date in the Obama years. Still, the persona Newman adopted for this song nearly a half century ago sounds much like our current Commander-in-Chief, the person we selected to be in charge of US foreign policy.*

------------------
* Before the 2012 presidential election, Newman released “I’m Dreaming.” It was four years premature. Here’s the last stanza. (Listen to Newman sing it here.)

I’m dreaming of a white President
‘Cause things have never been this bad
So he won’t run the hundred in ten seconds flat
So he won’t have a pretty jump shot
Or be an Olympic acrobat
So he won’t know much about global warming
Is that really where you’re at?
He won’t be the brightest, perhaps
But he’ll be the whitest
And I’ll vote for that

Elections Have Consequences . . . for Norms Too

June 1, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Did Donald Trump’s campaign and election cry havoc and unleash the dogs of racism?

Last June, hauling out Sykes and Matza’s concept of “neutralization,” I argued (here) that Trump’s constant denigration of “political correctness” allowed his supporters to neutralize norms against racism. If PC means that the people who condemn racism are wrong or bad, then what they are condemning must be OK. The logic might not be impeccable, but it works. I wasn’t sure that Trump had caused an increase in racist attitudes, but he gave people a license to express those attitudes.

Aziz Ansari made a similar point on Saturday Night Live  the day after the inauguration. (Apologies if you have to wait through an ad.)


Ansari’s version is much better than mine, and it reached a slightly larger audience. But there’s another important difference. I was talking about the message Trumpistas took from Trump himself before the election. Ansari is talking about the message they got from the electorate. The election changed their perceptions of the norms about expressing anti-immigrant views.

It’s as though minds of half the country had been clouded by “pluralistic ignorance.” That’s the scenario where each person thinks X but assumes that everyone else thinks Y, so everyone keeps their true ideas to themselves. Then something happens that reveals those previously hidden preferences, and suddenly everyone feels liberated. From the Trumpista perspective, Trump was Dorothy throwing a bucket of water to dissolve the Wicked Witch of Political Correctness, and now all the Munchkins were free to express their feelings about Mexicans and Muslims (and perhaps others).

The 20% increase in hate crimes after the election certainly suggests that racists felt liberated by the election. Unfortunately, because of the uncontrolled variables and the small sample size,* this bit of evidence is hardly conclusive.

But we now have some experimental evidence on the topic. In the two weeks before the election, three economists** surveyed Mechanical Turkers in eight very Red states. The MTurkers were asked, in addition to other on-topic questions, if they would authorize the economists to make a donation on their behalf to a strongly anti-immigrant group, FAIR.  Mturkers were told, “The founder of FAIR is John Tanton, author of `The Immigration Invasion' who wrote ‘I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.’”

For half the MTurkers, the donation question included this:

Note: just like any other answer to this survey, also your donation decision will be completely anonymous. No one, not even the researchers, will be able to match your decision to your name. [emphasis in original]

The other half were told:

Important: in order to ensure the quality of the data collected, a member of the research team might personally contact you to verify your answers to the next question and the following ones. [emphasis in original]

In addition, some of the people were told that Trump was certain to win their state. Others were given no information.

The results strongly support the idea that norms – or at least people’s perceptions of the norms – makes a big difference. People who thought their choice would be public were much less likely to make the anti-immigrant donation – 34% vs. 54%. But that difference held true only for people who were not told how popular Trump was in their state. Among the people who were told basically, “Trump is a sure thing to win your state,” knowing that their donation would be public (i.e., known to the surveyors) made no difference in their willingness to donate.

If the researchers had stopped there, they would have been able to say
  • there seems to be a norm against giving money to anti-immigrant groups
  • the knowledge of that norm makes people less willing to make a donation to blatantly racist anti-immigrant group if even one stranger can know about that donation
  • if people think that many others in their state support an anti-immigrant candidate, they no longer feel that they need to keep their anti-immigrant views to themselves 
The results of the election gave the researchers a natural experiment to find out if the norms – or at least perceptions of the norms – had changed. Had Trump’s victory caused the scales of pluralistic ignorance to fall from the eyes of these Red-state Turkers?

The answer was yes. The election had the same effect as did the information about Trump support in the person’s state. It obliterated the difference between the public and private conditions.


To people who were reluctant to let their agreement with FAIR be known, Trump’s victory said, “It’s OK. You can come out of the closet. You’re among friends, and there are more of us than you thought.”

-------------------------------
* The sample size is essentially one. As Duncan Watts says in Everything Is Obvious. . . Once You Know the Answer, the difficulty in assessing cause and effect in a historical event is that history is run only once.

** Leonardo Bursztyn, Georgy Egorov, Stefano Fiorin, “From Extreme to Mainstream: How Social Norms Unravel,” NBER, May 2017 (here)

In Japan, Butthead Is a Really Smart Detective

May 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When my son was still a toddler, someone gave us a copy of Everyone Poops by Taru Gomi. It took a refreshingly good-humored approach to the topic.



Was this typically Japanese? I remembered that when I was in Japan decades earlier, the government had tried to get Japanese men to stop the practice of public urination. It was not uncommon to see a man, back turned discreetly, peeing at the roadside. The government’s concern was not the effect on sanitation but on tourism. They were afraid that Western visitors would be turned off.

Some Westerners might have a similar reaction to today’s high-speed-train version – instead of an “Occupied” sign on the door of the toilet compartment, there’s a window. Even without reading, passengers can see if someone is using the urinal. Cultural anthropologist Dave Barry explains:

[On the train] there are men’s rooms with with urinals and convenient windows on the doors so that people walking past in the corridors can look in, apparently to determine whether the room is occupied. I found this out by accident when I went into one of these rooms and closed the door behind me, without noticing the window. I was facing the wall, engaging in standard rest-room activities, when I happened to glance around, assuming that I would see a nice, solid, totally opaque door, and instead-YIKES I saw three schoolgirls about eighteen inches away, causing me to whirl back toward the wall and become grateful that I was wearing dark pants, if you catch my drift. [Dave Barry Does Japan, 2010]






    

















And now Japan has fiction in the spirit of Everyone Poops – Oshiri Tantei, (tr. The Butt Detective), currently the most popular children’s book series in Japan. This Japanese answer to Nate the Great has a head that looks like a butt, with an eye on each cheek. Like any detective, Oshiri Tantei gets a call, finds the clues, uses Sherlock-like logic to solve the crime, and tracks down the bad guys. The story usually ends with him confronting the criminal and blowing him away – not with his gat/roscoe/heater, but with a fart. The title of each book begins with “Pu Pu” (fart, fart), e.g., Pu Pu, The Riddle of the Disappearing Lunch Box. Here’s a 40-second promo for the books.




For a full story – a jewel heist – go here . (Spoiler alert, the diamond was heisted by three snakes.)

Maybe the Japanese do have a generally more accepting and less fraught view of children and excretory functions. This cartoon video for kids gives an idea of how the Japanese approach potty training. It seems remarkably similar in tone to Everyone Poops and Oshiri Tantei.

Somewhat Likely to Mess Up on the Likert Scale

May 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ipsos called last night, and I blew it. The interviewer, a very nice-sounding man in Toronto, didn’t have to tell me what Ipsos was, though he did, sticking with his script. I’d regularly seen their numbers cited (The latest “Reuers/Ipsos” poll shows Trump’s approve/disapprove at 37%/57%.)

The interviewer wanted to speak with someone in the household older than 18. No problem; I’m your man. After all, when I vote, I am a mere one among millions. The Ipsos sample, I figured, was only 1,000.  My voice would be heard.

He said at the start that the survey was about energy. Maybe he even said it was sponsored by some energy group. I wish I could remember.

 After a few questions about whether I intended to vote in local elections and how often I got news from various sources (newspapers, TV, Internet), he asked how well-informed I was about energy issues Again, I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but my Likert choices ranged from Very Well Informed to Not At All Informed.

I thought about people who are really up on this sort of thing – a guy I know who writes an oil industry newsletter, bloggers who post about fracking and earthquakes or the history of the cost of solar energy.  I feel so ignorant compared with them when I read about these things. So I went for the next-to-least informed choice. I think it was “not so well informed.”

“That concludes the interview. Thank you.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I don’t get to say what I think about energy companies? Don’t you want to know what bastards I think they are?”
“I’m sorry, we have to go with the first response.”
“I was being falsely modest.”
He laughed.
“The Koch brothers, Rex Tillerson, climate change, Massey Coal . . .”
He laughed again, but he wouldn’t budge. They run a tight ship at Ipsos.

Next time they ask, whatever the topic, I’m a freakin’ expert.

Whose History Is This Anyway

May 24, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Karl Oliver’s Facebook post went viral, and not in a way he wanted. Oliver is the Mississippi state legislator who went on record with his views about Lousiana governor Mitch Landrieu for removing that statue of Robert E. Lee and other monuments to the Confederacy.



Of course it’s “LYNCHED!” that’s providing  Oliver his fifteen minutes of Internet fame. Oliver later apologized: “I acknowledge the word ‘lynched’ was wrong. I am very sorry. . .   I do not condone the actions I referenced, nor do I believe them in my heart.”  In other words, he didn’t want to see anyone actually lynched. He just put the word in all caps because at the time it seemed like le mot juste. As indeed it was. It perfectly expressed his thoughts and sentiments.

But the full racism of the message comes from the pairing of “lynch” with one of the other all-caps words – OUR in “our history”. To Oliver, and no doubt many others, the category “Southern Americans” contains no Black people. It’s not just that he would like to return to the days when the only people who counted were White, the days when you could lynch someone who offended the total dominance of Whites. But even today, when he looks at Mississippi and the South, he sees only White people among his “fellow Southern Americans,” at least the ones who matter. The population of Mississippi is 40% non-White, but for the Karl Olivers of the South the numbers are no more important than they were back in the days of the Confederacy when Blacks were a clear majority in the state.

Or maybe he thinks Black people in Mississippi share his reverence for the Confederacy. Maybe he’s like Jusice Scalia, who thought that Jews would be honored if a monument to the war dead of their religion and other religions were decorated with a cross.

Gov. Landrieu took a more inclusive view of the history those monuments honored.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism, as much as burning a cross on someone's lawn. They were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

And for the record, the monuments are not being “destroyed,” as Oliver says. They are being quarantined. Robert E. Lee will still be there on horseback, probably in some museum, for anyone to see. What has changed is the symbolism about whose South and which history is being honored.*

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*Mitch Landrieu and Louisiana may be outliers. Mississippi will probably not take similar actions, even with the embarrassment that Karl Oliver has brought. As Bryan Stephenson, a Black lawyer, says in a recent interview with Ezra Klein (here):

In this country, we don't talk about slavery. We don't talk about lynching. Worse, we've created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious.

In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis's birthday is a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We don't even have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. They're both 90-some percent African-American. If we don't think it matters, then I think we're just kidding ourselves.

The “Will & Grace” Conjecture That Won’t Die

May 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“It’s very hard to say are we changing the culture or is the culture changing us.” So said Ezra Klein recently on the podcast “I Think You’re Interesting.” Todd VanDerWerff, the show’s host, had raised the question in connection with “Will & Grace.”
If you look at attitudes about gay people, when 'Will & Grace' comes on the air, attitudes about gay people start to shift towards the more positive."  You can’t prove that “Will & Grace did that. But that correlation  – and obviously correlation is not causation . . .
Klein seemed to agree, but he amplified the causality caution about what’s changing what.
It’s very hard to say when something is a leading or a lagging indicator. . .  You can make the argument that “Will & Grace” only happened because it was in a country that was ready for “Will & Grace” to happen.
Alas, apparently neither VanDerWerff nor Klein had read my blog post of four years ago (here) on this very question. True, causality is hard to prove. But if you have data tracing attitudes over time, you can make a better guess. And in fact, we have the data. The GSS, since almost day one (i.e., 1973), has asked people about homosexuality.

What about sexual relations between two adults of the same Sex?
1 Always Wrong
2 Almost Always Wrong
3 Sometimes Wrong
4 Not Wrong at All

(I have collapsed the first three responses into a single category – “Wrong.”
Besides, “Almost Wrong” and “Sometimes Wrong” combine for only about 10-15% of the total.)

The change in attitudes about gays happens in about 1991. Nothing in the graph supports the idea that “Will & Grace” had a big a-impact on these attitudes – not when it hit the screen in 1998 nor in its highest rated years (2001 - 2005).

VanDerWerff was mistaken about the importance of “Will & Grace” just as Joe Biden was five years ago. Ditto for Dan Quayle in 1992 about the impact “Murphy Brown” on out-of-wedlock births, a view repeated twenty years later by Isabel Sawhill (here) who should know better.  I suspect that they are all using the “availability heuristic,” our tendency to attribute undue importance to things that come quickly to mind – things like television shows – and to discount less salient sources – like the General Social Survey.

Flashback Friday: Has Anybody Here Seen A Kelly?

May 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last Thursday, the lead article in the Arts section of the Times was about Ellsworth Kelly. Near the end of the article was this:

The current two exhibitions, with works priced between $3 million and $5 million, bring the gallery’s tally to 19 solo shows of the painter’s work.



It reminded me that ten years ago I had written here about a $5 million Kelly. I repost it here, partly because of the coincidence, partly because I still like the title I gave it, even though I suspect that few people then, and fewer now, will know that song.

April 20, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Social context influences how we judge and respond to a piece of art (or anything else for that matter). That was the message of the previous post in this blog. It was based on a Washington Post article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” about virtuoso Joshua Bell busking in the DC metro. Everybody who was in on the stunt thought that people would recognize Bell or that at the very least, some people would recognize the quality of the performance. In fact, almost nobody stopped to listen, and many commuters, when interviewed later, didn’t even recall that there was a violinist in the station that morning.

But one person wasn’t surprised and did realize the importance of context—Mark Leithauser, curator at the National Gallery of Art.

Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: “Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.”




One reason for the art curator’s wisdom might be that in his field, the connection between artistic value and monetary value is so tenuous. And he knows it. Monetary value is based on what collectors are willing to pay. They’ll pay $5 million because that canvas is a genuine Kelly. The same canvas painted by a nobody would be bring only $150.

Of course, if someone decided to hang the nobody’s canvas in a major museum or an upscale gallery, its price would skyrocket. Location, location, location.

It’s not about the art, it’s about economics. And in this case, as in Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University, all you need to know about economics is “supply ana demand.” Here’s a Kelly print.


It costs $8,000 signed. Unsigned, it might go for less than $1,000. It’s from a limited edition, the supply is limited to 45. If Kelly had printed and signed several hundred, it would still be the same piece of art and have the same artistic value. But it’s price would be less.

(Maybe you think you yourself could produce these works with a $1.89 roll of masking tape and three cans of paint. But that just shows what a Philistines you are.)

People who work in the art world probably take it for granted that judgments and evaluations will be influenced by extrinsics — rarity, authorship, a signature, and location— rather than the intrinsic qualities of the painting. It’s a lesson the rest of us, social scientists included, are continually learning.

“black-ish” – Voluntary Conformism

April 30, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

 “Freedom of opinion does not exist in America,” said DeTocqueville 250 years ago. He might have held the same view today.

But how could a society that so values freedom and individualism be so demanding of conformity?  I had blogged about this in 2010 (here) with references to old sitcoms, but for my class this week I needed something more recent. Besides, Cosby now carries too much other baggage. ABC’s “black-ish” came to the rescue.

The idea I was offering in class was first, that our most cherished American values can conflict with one another. For example, our desire for family-like community can clash with our value on independence and freedom. Second, the American solution to this conflict between individual and group is often what Claude Fischer calls “voluntarism.”  We have freedom – you can voluntarily choose which groups to belong to. But once you choose to be a member, you have to conform.  The book I had assigned my class (My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan*) uses the phrase “voluntary conformism.”
 
On “black-ish”** this week (S3, E22: “All Groan Up,” April 26, 2017), the oldest daughter, Zoey, must choose which college to go to. She has been accepted at NYU, Miami, Vanderbilt, and Southern Cal. She leans heavily towards NYU, but her family, especially her father Dre, want her to stay close to home. The conflict is between Family – family togetherness, community – and Independence. If Zoey goes to NYU, she’ll be off on her own; if she stays in LA, she’ll be just a short drive from her family. New York also suggests values on Achievement, Success, even risk-taking (“If I can make it there” etc.)

Zoey decides on NYU, and her father immediately tries to undermine that choice, reminding her of how cold and dangerous it will be. It’s typical sitcom-dad buffonery, and his childishness tips us off that this position, imposing his will, is the wrong one. Zoey, acting more mature, simply goes out and buys a bright red winter coat.

The argument for Independence, Individual Choice, and Success is most clearly expressed by Pops (Dre’s father, who lives with them), and it’s the turning point in the show. Dre and his wife are complaining about the kids growing up too fast. Pops says, “Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this why you both worked so hard - movin’ to this White-ass neighborhood, sendin’ her to that White-ass school so she could have all these White-ass opportunities? Let. Her. Go.”  


That should be the end of it. The final scene should be the family bidding a tearful goodbye to Zoey at LAX. But a few moments later, we see Zoey talking to her two younger siblings (8-year old twins – Jack and Diane). They remind her of how much family fun they have at holidays. Zoey has to tell them that New York is far, so she won’t be coming back till Christmas – no Thanksgiving, no Halloween.


Jack reminds her about the baby that will arrive soon. “He won’t even know you.”

In the next scene, Zoey walks into her parents room carrying the red winter coat. “I need to return this.”

“Wrong size?” asks her father.

“Wrong state.”

She’s going to stay in LA and go to USC.

Over a half-century ago, David McClelland wrote that a basic but unstated tenet of American culture is: “I want to freely choose to do what others expect me to do.” Zoey has chosen to do what others want her to do – but she has made that individual choice independently. It’s “voluntary conformism,” and it’s the perfect American solution (or at least the perfect American sitcom solution).
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* Not her real name.

** For those totally unfamiliar with the show, the premise is this: Dre Johnson, a Black man who grew up in a working-class Black neighborhood of LA, has become a well-off advertising man, married a doctor (her name is Rainbow, or usually Bow), and moved to a big house in an upscale neighborhood. They have four children, and the wife is pregnant with a fifth.

Ella

April 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today is Ella Fitzgerald’s centennial – she was born April 25, 1917 – and this my only Ella story.

One night I was sitting at the bar in Bradley’s with two pianists who had been accompanists for great singers – Dave Frishberg, who worked briefly with Carmen McRae and Anita O’Day, and Tommy Flanagan, who for many years was Ella’s musical director.  “I can’t play in sharp keys,” Frishberg said, exaggerating, and Tommy agreed. Jazz musicians prefer flat keys. That’s what they’re familiar with.*

“Did you ever try to change a key with Ella?” Frishberg asked.

“Yeah, if she did a song in A, sometimes I’d try playing the intro in A♭” Tommy said. “And she’d look over at me. ‘Is that my key?’”

In addition to everything else, she had perfect pitch.

Here are Ella and Tommy doing Errol Garner’s “Misty.” Ella does the first eight bars in B♭ but then moves up to the key of B (five sharps) for the remainder of the song.




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*Rock, folk, bluegrass and other guitar-based music is usually in sharp keys – G, D, A, E. Anyone who starts guitar learns those chords; they’re easy because of the open strings. But jazz is horn-based. Jazz musicians are more likely to be playing tunes in five flats (D♭ major) than in one sharp (G major).

The Judge’s Snap Judgement

April 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is this racist? I asked in the previous post. While on jury duty, I had guessed that a Black man in the court building hallway was the defendant in the case and that a White man in a wheelchair was not. I was wrong. The Black man was the prosecutor. The wheelchair-bound White man was the killer.

In that post, I mentioned a similar case of a White man wrongly assuming that a Black man in court was the defendant and not the attorney. The man making the assumption was not a potential juror. It was the judge. Here is how The African American Athlete described it. 

This is a perfect case study regarding the perceptions some people have of the African-American community. Bryan Stevenson, a noted civil rights attorney who happens to be black, arrived for court early in order to prepare for an upcoming case.

This was the first appearance in this court for Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He sat down at the defense counsel table as he had hundreds of times in his career, and awaited the arrival of his client. The presiding judge walked in and saw Stevenson sitting there.  He admonished Stevenson, telling the attorney that he never lets ‘defendants’ sit alone in his courtroom without their lawyer.

Stevenson responded by identifying himself as a lawyer.  The judged laughed.  The prosecutor laughed. Stevenson laughed, too but only because he felt he had to in order to give his client the best opportunity in front of the judge.



You have to sympathize with Stevenson. For his client’s sake he had to make nice to a judge who had thoughtlessly insulted him, and who, as far as we know, was not even apologetic about it, just slightly embarrassed.

The incident raises an obvious question:

What Stevenson, a Harvard educated lawyer, dressed professionally in a suit and tie, wanted to know was why the judge would simply assume he was the defendant?

Does this judge look at all black men, no matter what their attire, no matter what their educational background, or life experiences and character references are, in the same manner?


The AAA answer to their own question, presumably, is: Yes, the judge looks at all Black men as though they are criminals.

The incident may show implicit racism, but I’m not sure that it’s “the perfect case study.”  Instead, it illustrates the snap judgment that we all use when we see someone for the first time. We instantly form an impression, based on our implicit biases but also on the context and on our experience. That initial impression shapes what we then see. And don't see. The judge, obviously, could not see Stevenson’s Harvard degree or the life experiences and character references that the AAA refers to. But how could the judge in a juvenile court look at a man in his early 50s wearing a suit and think that he was a defendant?

Here’s my guess. What the judge saw first was race (and probably gender). I suspect that most of us do that. The judge did not see Stevenson’s nice suit or his age. (If you wonder how people can not see something that is so obvious, please try the “Count the Passes” awareness test. *

The judge forms his impression in a quick glance. That’s what we all do. We are not Sherlock Holmes gathering all the available bits of information and then putting them together to reach a conclusion.

What’s also crucial is the context – it’s the judge’s courtroom. The judge has never seen Stevenson before, and as far as we know,  the judge was not advised that a new lawyer would be in court that day. Most courts like this have a regular cast – the same lawyers and the same prosecutors. So the judge walks in, looks over at the defense table, and sees someone who is not one of these regulars. That person is Black.

How many times has the judge seen a Black male he doesn’t know at the defense table? A lot. How many of these unfamiliar Black males are defendants? All of them. Maybe some of these defendants even show up in a suit, probably at the urging of their lawyers or parents.

If the judge had seen Stevenson at a PTA meeting or a restaurant or just walking down the street, would he have assumed that a Black man, fiftyish and wearing a suit, was a criminal? I don’t think so.
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*This incident also calls to mind Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t see color.” For another example of what we see and don’t see, including color, watch this:


   

Who’s Who in the Courtroom? Think Again.

April 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


It was getting close to lunchtime in the large jury room where two hundred or so people sat trying to stave off boredom. The clerk called forty names. Mine was one of them. He told us that when we got back from lunch we were to go to a courtroom on another floor where we would be “voir dired” for a trial.

The courtroom was still locked when we got there, and we waited in the hall. After a while the people involved in the case came back from their lunch – a couple of White men, age forty or fifty, wearing suits; a younger, very stocky Black man (thirty?), also in a suit but one that was too tight for his body; and, in a wheelchair pushed by one of the suited White men, a gray-haired White man, slender almost frail looking, wearing a plain open-collar shirt.

I chatted with a couple of me fellow jurors.  We figured that the Black guy in the ill-fitting suit was the defendant, that the man in the wheelchair must be a victim or a witness, and that the others were lawyers. 

When we were finally seated in the courtroom, the judge told us that this was a murder case. He introduced the defense counsel – one of the suited White guys; the assistant district attorney – the Black guy in the suit; and the defendant – the man in the wheelchair.

This happened many years ago, but I recalled it  after reading this article at The African American Athlete that someone on Facebook linked to.  It’s about a Black lawyer, Bryan Stevenson  who shows up early in the courtroom and takes his seat at the defense table. Soon the judge and other lawyers walk in.

And when the judge saw me sitting at the counsel table, he looked at me and he said, “Hey, hey, hey, you get out of here. I don't want any defendant sitting in my courtroom until their lawyers get here. You go back out there in the hallway and wait for your lawyer.”*


I supposed I should submit the question to Yo, Is This Racist? On the face of it, the answer in both courtrooms is Yes. White people mistook a Black attorney for a criminal defendant. You could even argue that my fellow jurors and I were doubly bigoted, for we assumed that a disabled, wheelchair-bound person was not equally capable of killing someone.**

In my defense, I would ask this: of those four people coming through the hall and into the courtroom, which one was statistically most likely to be the defendant?  I would remind those who would judge us that we had only their physical appearance to base our assumptions on. Unfortunately, this same entangling of racism and statistical probabilities comes into play in more important questions, and I find it frustrating that so often neither side takes seriously the arguments, evidence, or ideas of the other.

The incident also illustrates the power of the first impression. Once I had looked at these people and mentally cast them in their parts, I didn’t bother to check my assumptions. If I had, I would have realized that the man in the wheelchair could not have been a victim or witness. Victims and witnesses do not come to the courtroom for voir dire. They appear only for the actual trial. I’d been on jury duty enough times to know that. But this truth was so inconvenient to my first impression that it did not enter my mind.

The other incident illustrates these same dynamics: racism perhaps, but also two more general processes that affect how we see other people. First, we quickly form impressions, and these may be based on statistical realities and on our own particular experiences. And second, those impressions once formed can filter and distort any subsequent information.

I hope to have more on this and on the judge and the Black lawyer in a subsequent post.

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* This excerpt is not from the African American Athlete article. It’s from an NPR interview with Stevenson three years ago.

** There was no doubt that he had shot and killed the victim. The question would be whether it was murder or self-defense. I was not selected for the jury, so I never learned all the details of the case or the verdict. 

Those LIberal Hollywood Bullies

April 16, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tim Allen has it rough. As he told Jimmy Kimmel,  “You get beat up if you don’t believe what everybody believes. This is like ‘30s Germany.” Allen was of course referring to the many beatings and other persecutions for his political conservatism that he has suffered at the hands of Hollywood liberals. It’s amazing that he’s still standing.

Many conservatives, especially those outside the business, share Allen’s views of Hollywood. One conservative who disagrees is Rob Long.* Long lives and works inside Hollywood, mostly tilling the sitcom fields as writer, producer, and show-runner from “Cheers” to “Kevin Can Wait.” He is also an outspoken conservative (being a regular on a conservative political podcast counts as speaking out).

Recently on KCRW’s “The Business,” host Kim Masters asked Long if he shared Allen’s perceptions and experiences.

Masters: Do you find that people are negatively dealing with you because you’re a conservative
Long: Maybe. That is possible. I have never experienced it. Never. Quite the reverse. I could probably sit here and with enough time, enough memory, look through my diary and figure out how much money in Hollywood I’ve made not because I was conservative, but because my politics were somehow helpful to the work I was doing.

I usually find people in Hollywood in general to be remarkably open and interested . . .  They like to talk about politics. They like to argue about politics. They like to mix it up. But I’ve never felt that anybody said, y’know “Not him. Can’t have him around because he represents some political viewpoint I disapprove of.” It’s never been played back to me, and I don’t feel I’ve ever had any setbacks in my career, certainly none that I didn’t cause myself. I can only say my experience has been no, been fine.

I think that when politics are mentioned on screen, in a story or a script, they’re kind of  uniformly left-wing, but big deal, so what.


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*I highly recommend Long’s own podcast “Martini Shot,” where he offers his insights on Hollywood, mostly the TV business. He’s gently funny, as you might expect from a guy who wrote “Cheers” episodes, and each installment of the podcast runs only 3½ minutes

Political Baseball – Whose Fans Are Happy?

April 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Are conservatives happier than liberals. Arthur Brooks thinks so. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. And he’s happy, or at least he comes across as happy in his monthly op-EDS for the Times.  In those op-EDS, he sometimes claims that conservatives are generally happier.

When he makes those claims to the hundreds of thousands of Times readers, I point out, to the readers of this blog (hundreds on a good day), that when you’re talking about the relation between political views and happiness, you ought to consider who is in power. Otherwise, it’s like asking whether Yankee fans are happier than RedSox  fans without checking the AL East standings. (Those posts are here and here.)

Now that the 2016 GSS data is out, we can compare the happiness of liberals and conservatives during the Bush years and the Obama years. The GSS happiness item asks, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days –  would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” 
                                                           
(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

On the question of who is “very happy,” it looks as though Brooks nailed it, if you can call a difference of 5-10 percentage points nailing it. More of the people on the right are very happy in both periods. But also note that in the Obama years about 12% of those very happy folks (five out of 40) stopped being very happy.

But something else was happening during the Obama years. It wasn’t just that some of the very happy conservatives weren’t quite so happy. The opposition to Obama was not about happiness. Neither was the Trump campaign with its unrelenting negativism. What it showed was that a lot of people on the right were angry. None of that sunny Reaganesque Morning in America for them. That feeling is reflected in the numbers who told the GSS that they were “not too happy.”



Among extreme conservatives, the percent who were not happy doubled during the Obama years. The increase in unhappiness was about 60% for those who identified themselves as “conservative” (neither slight nor extreme).  In the last eight years, the more conservative a person’s views, the greater the likelihood of being not too happy. The pattern is reversed for liberals during the Bush years. Unhappiness rises as you move further left.

The graphs also show that for those in the middle of the spectrum – about 60% of the people – politics makes no discernible change in happiness. Their proportion of “not too happy” remained stable regardless of who was in the White House.  Those middle categories do give support to Brook’s idea that conservatives are generally somewhat happier. But as you move further out on the political spectrum the link between political views and happiness depends much more on which side is winning. Just as at Fenway or the Stadium, the fans who are cheering – or booing – the loudest are the ones whose happiness will be most affected by their team’s won-lost record.

Blaming the Bishops

April 5, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People who write op-eds sometimes attribute their own opinions and ideas not to themselves but to “the public” or “America.” “The public seems to be angry about values,” wrote David Brooks in 2010, though as I pointed out in this post, surveys at the time showed that values ranked low among the issues the public was concerned about. In January, 2016, during primary season, Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat was projecting his own feeling about “decadence” onto supporters of Trump and Bernie Sanders (here) .

Thomas Groome, who came to the US from Ireland in 1972, has a similar intuition about US Catholics and why they are no longer the loyal Democrats they once were. In a Times op-ed (here) he writes:

This was due at least in part to the shift by many American Catholic bishops from emphasizing social issues (peace, the economy) to engaging in the culture wars (abortion, gay marriage). Along the way, many Catholics came to view the Democrats as unconditionally supporting abortion.

The logic of the argument is this:
  • When bishops emphasized Church’s position favoring change on social issues, Catholics sided with Democrats because the Democrats too emphasized social issues.
  • When bishops emphasized the Church’s position against abortion, Catholics sided with Republicans because the Republicans opposed abortion.
Obviously, Groome doesn’t like the bishops’ shift in focus.  But has it really driven Catholics to abandon the Democrats? Protestants, too (White Protestants, that is), have become less Democratic, and surely they are not paying much attention to Catholic bishops.


Some of the letters that the Times printed letters in response to Groome’s op-ed agreed that the Democrats’ support of abortion rights was losing them the Catholic vote. (“I’m an Irish-Italian Catholic who would normally vote Democratic, but the incessant and strident pro-abortion stance of the Democratic Party sickens me and perhaps others in the country.”)
 
This argument assumes that anti-abortion sentiment is more widespread among Catholics, regardless of whether the bishops were responsible for it. But the GSS and other surveys show little difference between Protestants and Catholics on this issue. 


Perhaps there is a difference in salience, with more Catholics, like the letter writere, making abortion their primary political concern. Unfortunately, the GSS hasn’t asked about that in thirty years, and I know of no other survey that allows for Protestant-Catholic comparisons on this question. What the mid-80s GSS found was that Catholics were indeed more likely to assign a great deal of importance to abortion. However, those Catholics were still a 20% minority. For the large majority of Catholics and Protestants, abortion was less important.


Besides, even if the views of the bishops were being relayed by parish priests, there were fewer Catholics in the pews to hear the message. Catholics have become less religious. The percent who say they never go to mass has increased while those who attend regularly has declined.


A better explanation seems to be that what the bishops say matters far less than do demographic trends. On things like income, education, urban/suburban/small town, etc. White Catholics resemble White Protestants. In presidential elections, Protestant-Catholic differences in voting have usually been only two or three percentage points. In the two most recent elections, the Republican candidate did better among White Catholics than among White Protestants (59-57% for Romney,  60-58% for Trump).

What’s significant is not that church doctrine these days has so little sway in the political views of US Catholics. We are long past the time when anyone thought that Catholic politicians would be “taking orders from the Pope.”  So it’s not surprising that Catholic voters are not taking orders from the bishops. More interesting is that religious identity has become so divorced from political identity. In 1960, Kennedy got 78% of the Catholic vote. Forty-four years later, Catholics preferred the WASP George W. Bush over Catholic John Kerry 52-47. (And if you factor out Hispanics, among White Catholics, Kerry lost by an even larger margin – 56-43.)

From Kennedy 78% to Kerry 43% is a big drop. But it’s unlikely that the bishops or even abortion had much to do with it.