Category Archives: In the news

COVID lecture for Social Problems class

On March 2, I opened up my Social Problems class to questions on the emerging coronavirus epidemic. One of the things I did was show them a graph of worldwide cases on a log scale, and told them that it implied the world would have a million cases a month later. We hit that number to the day two days ago. Here are my notes from that day:

A month later, with school indeed canceled (which I had given only a 10-20% on March 2, I recorded this 28-minute lecture for them as an update. Feel free to use any part of it any way you like*:


* Two notes, having watched it over myself and gotten some feedback:

  1. At 4:40 I said of the graph shown: “The number of new cases confirmed by testing, every day, in the country, since February.” I should have said, “in the world” (as the figure is labeled).
  2. It’s been pointed out that social distancing and other responses to the outbreak are not the only thing that differentiate trajectories of the different outbreaks around the country. Also relevant is the demography of the area, including age, as well as health status and healthcare infrastructure. Those factors will emerge as the pandemic matures.

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Very important social scientist says — wait, Brad Wilcox did what now?

Last year Brad Wilcox gave a talk at Saint Vincent College, a monastic college just 8 minutes from the glass-lined tanks of old Latrobe. The talk was structured as a critique of Stephanie Coontz and her decadent view that marriage should be freely chosen.

I was skipping through it looking for his current definition of the “Gold Standard” family (“intact, married, biological family”), when I found this amazing piece of sophistry masquerading as incompetence (or maybe the other way around, hard to know). To lighten things up around here, I thought I’d share it.

This is the clip (It’s here on the full video), followed by the transcript:

Stephanie Coontz, who is a very prominent, progressive author, writer and scholar, has argued that ‘marriage has become more joyful, more loving, more satisfying.’ So what’s the evidence tell us about what actually happened? Well, looking just at those folks who were married, from the 70s to the 80s, and the 90s, and actually the 2000s [he’s looking up at his own graph here], there’s no evidence that marriage is becoming more joyful or more loving among those folks who managed both to get married, and in this case, to remain married. So we see a decline. It’s actually particularly precipitous for women, from the 70s to the 2000s. And when you factor in the fact that fewer and fewer folks were getting married, that’s particularly interesting. What’s this is telling us is that a smaller and smaller share of American adults both men and women were in a very happy marriage from the 70s to the 2000s. So, I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to sort of back up her idea that sort this newer, post-70s model, this more contingent model, was more successful.

Here’s a screengrab of the slide he’s looking at:

urkiddingbrad

Wow, that sure makes it seem like the percent of adults in a very happy marriage is a lot lower than it used to be, although rebounding strongly this decade. It also just doesn’t look anything like the many graphs of marital happiness I have seen, and made, from the General Social Survey, which is the data he’s using here. So, how exactly is Brad Wilcox completely wrong this time?

Two amazingly incompetent and/or disingenuous ways. First, he included people who aren’t married in his denominator, so the decline in “happy marriage” he shows is due to the decline in marriage altogether, not to any change within marriage. That’s like saying the percentage of people who love reading handwritten parchment scrolls has plummeted since the Middle Ages.

Second, that huge drop in the 2000s he shows is entirely due to the fact that most people weren’t asked the question in survey years 2002, 2004, and 2006, and he included them as not in “very happy” marriages. Brad could just as accurately have said the 19,000 happily married people in the GSS are the only happily married people on earth.

Here is the actual trend, with what he showed (which is trivially easy to reconstruct), showing the individual years instead of the decade grouping he used:

urkiddingbrad-twolines

I can’t think of something better to say than just showing this. (I didn’t bother with the gender breakdown, which isn’t the point.)

I hope this helps. Please stay at home if you can, and support those who can’t stay home as best you can.


Update: Stephanie Coontz writes on Facebook:

Thanks to Philip Cohen for showing how Brad Wilcox misuses data to criticize my claim that modern marriages are “more loving, more satisfying” than in the past. What I actually say is that when they work WELL, modern marriages are more intimate, fair & loving than marriages of the past. When they DON’T work well, they are more disappointing and seem less bearable because of our higher expectations. This makes our current crisis especially challenging, because we have to expect more of our partners, and can expect less from others, than usual.

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COVID-19 graphs, with data and code

Updated March 25.

Although I’m not an expert on pandemic analysis, I am naturally following the COVID-19 data as best I can. And because I always understand data better when I make the figures myself, I’ve been making and looking at COVID-19 trend data, and sharing it as I go.

The figures below are the latest I made as of March 18 25 29, but you can click on the images to link to the current version. The figures, as well as data files and code, are in an Open Science Framework project, here: osf.io/wd2n6/, under CC0 license (free to use for any purpose). The project updates automatically as I go, but these figures won’t (because this is an old fashioned blog).

First, across countries:

country cases and deaths

For this one, to put the diverse US in perspective, in included US states in addition to selected countries. These are deaths.

countries and states since 10 deaths

State cases and deaths, per capita:

state cases and death rates bar

Finally, one with commentary: The first month, in numbers and Trump’s winning words:

Microsoft PowerPoint - first month of winning coronavirus.pptx

 

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11 trends for your New Decade’s holiday party

There’s a lot to do this decade, and only a few days to do it. You need to look smart doing it. The best way to look smart is to be smart, and that means ingesting meaningful bits of data and turning them into useful knowledge. When you display data bits at a holiday party, they merge with those from the other people there, to become the common knowledge we need to get things done in the next decade, which we will do.

So here are a few meaningful bits of demographic data, presented with trend lines and easy-to-memorize fact statements. These aren’t the most important or most interesting demographic trends of the decade, but they’re all meaningful and readily interpretable — plus I was able to gather them on short notice between other last-minute decadal deadlines. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Notes: We don’t have data through the end of the decade for all of these, so I just present the latest data. And I extend them back toward 1999 as far as I can for context. And I scaled them to show the change as clearly as possible, so watch out for y-axes that are compressed to the active range rather than starting at zero (file complaints here). If I don’t specify the time frame in the text, it refers to the last 10 years of data.

So just memorize the facts that interest you, and remember the associated images. Here goes.


Overdose deaths increased more than 80 percent.

od


Chlamydia cases increased by a third.

chlamydia


One-in-six 25-34 year-olds live with their parents

livhome


The share of college graduates majoring in sociology or history fell by more than a third.

histsoc


The percentage of new mothers who are married has risen back over two-thirds.

marbirth


For the first time in decades women over 40 may soon be more likely to have a baby than teenagers.

fertage


The divorce rate has fallen 20 percent.

divorce


People with college degrees are 19 percent more likely to be married than people without.

margap


International adoptions fell by more than two-thirds.

intadopt


Refugee admissions are at their lowest level since before 1980, and falling fast.

refugee


The newspaper industry was cut in half.

news


Happy New Decade!

 

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ASA’s letter against the public interest and our values

youdidwhat

Update 1: I submitted a resolution to the ASA Committee on Publications, for consideration at our January meeting. You can read and comment on it here.

Update 2: The Committee on Publications on January 23 voted to approve the following statement: “The ASA Committee on Publications expresses our opposition to the decision by the ASA to sign the December 18, 2019 letter.”

The American Sociological Association has signed a letter that profoundly betrays the public interest and goes against the values that many of us in the scholarly community embrace.

The letter to President Trump, signed by dozes of academic societies, voices opposition to a rumored federal policy change that would require federally funded research be made freely available upon publication, rather than according to the currently mandated 12-month embargo — which ASA similarly, bitterly, opposed in 2012. ASA has not said who made the decision to sign this letter. All I know is that, as a member of the Committee on Publications, I wasn’t consulted or notified. I don’t know what the ASA rules are for issuing such statements in our name, but this one is disgraceful.

The argument is that ASA would not be able to make money selling research generated by federal funding if it were required to be distributed for free. And because ASA would suffer, science and the public interest would suffer. Like when Trump says getting Ukraine to help him win re-election is by definition in the American interest — what helps ASA is what’s good for science.

The letter says:

Currently, free distribution of research findings is subject to a 12-month embargo, enabling American publishers to recover the investment made in curating and assuring the quality of scientific research content. … The current 12-month embargo period provides science and engineering society publishers the financial stability that enables us to support peer review that ensures the quality and integrity of the research enterprise.

That is funny, because in 2012 ASA director Sally Hillsman (since retired) said the 12-month embargo policy “could threaten the ability of scholarly societies, including the ASA, to continue publishing journals” and was “likely to seriously erode and eventually jeopardize our financial ability to perform the critical, value added peer review and editorial functions of scientific publishing.”

The current letter, at least with regard to ASA, tell this whopper: “we support open access and have a strong history of advancing open access through a broad array of operational models.” They literally oppose open access, including in this letter, and including the current, weak, open access policy.

The ASA-signed letter is very similar to one sent about the same time by a different (but overlapping) large group of publishers, including Elsevier, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claiming the rumored policy would hurt ‘merica. But there are subtle differences. The ASA letter refers to “the current proven and successful model for reporting, curating and archiving scientific results and advancing the U.S. research enterprise,” which should not be tampered with. The other letter warns of the danger of “step[ing] into the private marketplace” in which they sell research. Knowledge philosopher Peter Suber offered an excellent critique of the market claims here in this Twitter thread:

ASA and the other money-making societies really want you to believe there is no way to do curation and peer review without them. If we jeopardize their business model, ASA says, the services they provide would not happen. In fact, the current subscription models and paywalls stand in the way of developing the cheaper, more efficient models we could build right now to replace them. All we need to do is take the money we currently devote to journal subscriptions and publisher profits, and redirect it to the tasks of curation and peer review without profits and paywalls — and free distribution (which is a lot cheaper to administer than paywalled distribution).

The sooner we start working on that the better. In this effort — and in the absence of leadership by scholarly societies — the university libraries are our strongest allies. This is explained by UNC Librarian Elaine Westbrooks in this Twitter thread:

Compare this forwarding thinking librarian’s statement with Elsevier. In proudly sharing the publishers’ statement, Elsevier vice president Ann Gabriel said, “Imagine a world without scientific, medical societies and publishers who support scholarship, discovery and infrastructures for peer review, data archiving and networks.” Notice two things in this statement. First, she does not mention libraries, which are the academy-owned institutions that do literally all this as well. And second, see how she bundles publishers and societies. This is the sad reality. If instead of “societies and publishers” we had “societies and libraries” maybe we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, our societies, including the American Sociological Association, are effectively captured by publishers, and represent their interests instead of the public interest, and the values of our community.

I remain very pessimistic about ASA, which is run by a professional group with allegiance to the paywall industry, along with mostly transient, naive, and/or ineffectual academics (of which I am certainly one). But I’m torn, because I want to see a model of scholarly societies that works, which is why I agreed to serve of the ASA Committee on Publications — which mostly does busy work for the association while providing the cover of legitimacy for the professional staff.

Letter of opposition

So I posted a letter expressing opposition to the ASA letter. If you are a sociologist, I hope you will consider sharing and signing it. We got 100 signatures on the first day, but it will probably take more for ASA to care. To share the letter, you can use this link: https://forms.gle/ecvYk3hUmEh2jrETA.

It reads:

In light of a rumored new White House Open Access Policy, the American Sociological Association (ASA), and other scholarly societies, signed a letter to President Trump in support of continued embargoes for federally-funded research.

We are sociologists who join with libraries and other advocates in the research community in support of federal policy to make the results of taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public for free. We endorse a policy that would eliminate the current 12-month waiting period for open access to the outputs of taxpayer-funded scientific research. Ensuring full open access to publicly-funded research contributes to the public good by improving scientific productivity and equalizing access — including international access — to valuable knowledge that the public has already paid for. The U.S. should join the many other countries that already have strong open access policies.

We oppose the decision by ASA to sign this letter, which goes against our values as members of the research community, and urge the association to rescind its endorsement, to join the growing consensus in favor of open access to to scholarship, including our own.

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The continuation of babies

There is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size.

Anna Louie Sussman wrote an essay in the New York Times, given the unfortunate title “The End of Babies” (about which more below). I like a lot of it, and I have substantial disagreements with the framing.

It’s about falling fertility and capitalism. This is a great summary, though I would replace “not necessarily a bad thing” with “usually a very good thing”:

Declining fertility typically accompanies the spread of economic development, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.

At its worst, though, it reflects a profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible; of our collective ability to solve the climate crisis so that children seem a rational prospect; of our increasingly unequal global economy. In these instances, having fewer children is less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavory circumstances.

Sussman sees the “bigger picture” as this:

Our current version of global capitalism … has generated shocking wealth for some, and precarity for many more. These economic conditions generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide. A lifetime of messaging directs us toward other pursuits instead: education, work, travel.

This paragraph uses a sort of 1% versus 99% framing with is exaggerated but not unreasonable. This, however, is just exaggerated:

It seems clear that what we have come to think of as “late capitalism” — that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities — has become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive.

Lost in this, by now, is all the good parts about falling fertility mentioned previously. Remember, contraceptives are good, and most people use them deliberately to help control their lives, and they do it because social and environmental conditions have made it possible to have more control over one’s life than ever before, while offering unprecedented opportunities for women beyond child-rearing.

In short, I agree with Sussman’s description of how some people in rich societies would like to have more children than they do, I just don’t think it’s anything like a universal or even general experience in our era. And there is a puzzle confounding the premise: within rich countries, or at least the USA, privileged people, who presumably have more control over their lives and destinies, still have fewer children than those who are more powerless. I once wrote:

There is an argument that Americans are having fewer children than they want to because of our stone age work-family policies, especially poor family leave support and the high costs of good childcare. I’m sure that’s happening to some degree, but it’s still the case that more privileged people, who should be able to overcome those things more readily — people with college degrees and Whites — have lower fertility rates than people who are getting squeezed more.

Like a lot of work in this area, Sussman’s assessment that people want more children — which generates the image of the “reproductive malaise [that] has settled over,” in this case, Denmark — is based on surveys showing people’s “ideal” family size is larger than the average number of children actually born per family. But the interpretation of this gap is not so straightforward. Maybe people think three is the ideal number of children, but they also think a PhD is the ideal amount of education, and so they compromise, with some having one kid and a PhD, and some having three kids and a no college degree. This is an empirical question. What’s historically unprecedented and still so new that we don’t know what to make of it socially is the fact that this is a choice at all for so many people.

As I previously reported, the proportion of US women whose “ideal” number of children is higher than they number they had by age 40 has risen, from less than 15% among women born in the 1930s to almost a quarter for women born in the early 1970s. If you break that trend down by BA/no-BA education level, you can see that women with BA degrees are pushing it upward:

ideal fam size gss ba

So maybe college graduate women are having fewer than their ideal number of children like I’m earning less than the ideal amount of money — I think I could be making more money, but then I wouldn’t be able to sit around in my pajamas blogging with my dog, so I compromise. Of course, like some of the people in Sussman’s piece, a lot of people are justifiably unhappy about this, feeling they can’t compromise between forces pulling them in opposite directions. And so the result is dissatisfaction, maybe even malaise. I just don’t think we know how many people feel that way, or even whether the feeling is much more prevalent than it used to be.

Denmark

Sussman uses Denmark as one case study. This is her summary:

If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months’ paid family leave and highly subsidized day care. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark’s fertility rate, at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land.

But where is the evidence for this malaise? Denmark’s fertility rate has been low and relatively stable, while it is the USA’s that has plummeted since 2007, which is why the countries are now at the same level. The malaise that is settling is here — Denmark’s has already settled.

To elaborate on Denmark: There was a rapid drop in fertility from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, followed by a rebound, and then relative stability for about 25 years. During that time, as the population continued to grow slowly, women were reaching age 40 with between 1.8 and 1.9 children on average. Rather than slipping into a chasm, it looks more like the affluent people of Denmark have settled into a moderately low-fertility regime.

denmark.xlsx

“Replacement” fertility, of about 2.1 births per woman, doesn’t mean a society is healthy or happy. Maybe late capitalism with a decent welfare state is not “hostile to reproduction,” maybe it just doesn’t quite get to 2.1.

How bad is that? Like the USA (see my last projections), Denmark will have population decline if they keep on this path, discounting immigration. Because they have been at low fertility for a while, the country is close to seeing actual decline based on birth rates alone. Here is what would happen over the next hundred years if current trends persist and there are no immigrants: The population would eventually contract 31%.

denmark.xlsx

A 31% population drop a century from now would make for a pretty different Denmark (as will another few feet of sea-level rise). But there is time to get there — the drop would only be 6% in the next three decades. And of course if they don’t want this, they could easily cushion the fall with immigration. In any event, there is nothing here that suggests the “end of babies” or the abandonment of reproduction — families would continue having an average of 1.8 children each, as they have for the last several decades.

A population below replacement fertility might seem diseased, but it might also just be the aggregation of a lot of people exercising their newfound freedoms in newly discovered ways, including having fewer or no children. I agree with Sussman when she writes:

The problem, to be clear, is not really one of “population” …. Hundreds of thousands of babies are born on this planet every day; people all over the world have shown they are willing to migrate to wealthier countries for jobs. Rather, the problem is the quiet human tragedies, born of preventable constraints — an employer’s indifference, a belated realization, a poisoned body — that make the wanted child impossible.

To the extent those tragedies occur, we should prevent or ameliorate them. And to the extent they are concentrated among people or groups who already experience marginalization, isolation, or exploitation, it’s a social problem that’s part of our burgeoning inequality suite. Healthcare, housing, education, and family leave all come to mind as helpful, even if they can’t solve the existential crisis of late capitalism. But two cautions. First, I’m not convinced such tragedies are more common than they used to be, just because people are having fewer children than they used to. Remember, we also have fewer people trapped into having large families they don’t want (forced-birther policies notwithstanding).

And second, crucially, even if we address these issues of self-determination, there is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size. We may eventually have to learn to live with fewer people, locally and globally, even if we’re all happy with the number of children we have.

What comes around

In the meantime, I think it’s confusing and ultimately unhelpful to confound what are essentially orthogonal issues. We should care about the problems Sussman raises regardless of population trends.

And that brings me to an aside on New York Times coverage. It was just 11 years ago, in 2008, that a different New York Times story about the existential threat of falling fertility, this one in the Magazine and titled “No Babies?”, singled out Scandinavian countries — with total fertility rates of 1.8 — as positive examples, bucking the trend toward “lowest-low” fertility demonstrated by Southern European countries, due to their “vigorous social-welfare systems.” That’s the same social welfare system, and the same total fertility rate, that Sussman characterizes as a “reproductive malaise” in Denmark today.

And there are illustrations of children playing alone in both cases. Because “the end of babies” and a world with “no babies” is best illustrated with a picture of the last child on earth alone in a playground. Great illustrations — just not of our societies.

nytchildrenalone

That said…

You can’t really pin sudden fertility swings on things like “late capitalism,” which are decades in the making. It was just February of 2009 that I was writing one of my first blog posts, “Why Are American Women Having More Children?” as U.S. total fertility rose to 2.1 for the first time since 1971. I think it was late capitalism, too, but the U.S. TFR was 13% higher than Denmark’s (they are now the same), and everyone was talking about American mothers “opting out” of the labor force to stay home with their four children. On the other hand is socialist Finland — a country with a lot of what I want from social policy, including low inequality and poverty, and lots of family leave — which has seen a fertility decline since 2010 that could reasonably be called a crash. The government estimates the TFR in 2019 is 1.32-1.34, down from 1.86 a decade ago!

Here are the trends in select countries:

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

Does this mean the people in Finland are suddenly much less happy  relative to those in Denmark, which has seen a recent uptick in fertility rates? I have no idea. I can make population projections if you tell me the fertility rate, but I can’t tell you what the fertility rate will be in the future (and neither can you). A tiny bit humbling, honestly.

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AEI panel on ‘demographic decline’

I was on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute, titled, “Demographic decline: National crisis or moral panic?” The event featured Lyman Stone, who argued that “demographic decline” in the U.S. is a national crisis, and my reply. Nick Eberstadt from AEI also offered comments. The moderator was AEI’s Karlyn Bowman.

The video of the event (which was on CSPAN) is below.

In my presentation I used the projections and other material I described earlier, here (where you can also link to the data and package I used). The gist of my talk is that with immigration we don’t have an issue of declining population.

I also emphasized the political implications of catastrophic “demographic decline” talk, which are based on a combination of doomsday demographics and increasing race/ethnic diversity. For that part I included these two figures, which I worked up for the next edition of my textbook. The first shows Census Bureau projections of the U.S. population by race/ethnicity, which is the basis for the White supremacist panic. (Important caveat about this figure is the assumptions about the ethnic identity of the descendants of today’s Latinos, see Richard Alba.)

re-forecast

For the politics of immigration, which is a giant topic, I presented this very simple figure showing the rise of Latin American and Asian immigration since 1965.

imre-history

Here is the video on YouTube. If you prefer the CSPAN production style (or don’t want to give AEI click), theirs is here. My talk is 15 minutes, starting at 13:40.

Happy to hear your responses, including on the dicey issue of whether to participate in an AEI event.

(In the YouTube comments, the first person calls me a “Jewish supremacist” and demands to know my view on Israeli immigration policy, and another says, “This guy is through and through an open borders globalist.” So that’s the dialogue, too.)

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