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Perspective on sociology’s academic hierarchy and debate

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Keep that gate. (Photo by Rob Nunn, https://flic.kr/p/4DbzCG)

It’s hard to describe the day I got my first acceptance to American Sociological Review. There was no social media back then so I have no record of my reaction, but I remember it as the day — actually, the moment, as the conditional acceptance slipped out of the fax machine — that I learned I was getting tenure, that I would have my dream job for the rest of my life, with a personal income in the top 10 percent of the country for a 9-month annual commitment. At that moment I was not inclined to dwell on the flaws in our publishing system, its arbitrary qualities, or the extreme status hierarchy it helps to construct.

In a recent year ASR considered more than 700 submitted articles and rejected 90% or more of them (depending on how you count). Although many people dispute the rationality of this distinction, publishing in our association’s flagship journal remains the most universally agreed-upon indicator of scholarship quality. And it is rare. I randomly sampled 50 full-time sociology faculty listed in the 2016 ASA Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology (working in the U.S. and Canada), and found that 9, or 18%, had ever published a research article in ASR.

Not only is it rare, but publication in ASR is highly concentrated in high-status departments (and individuals). While many departments have no faculty that have published in ASR (I didn’t count these, but there are a lot), some departments are brimming with them. In my own, second-tier department, I count 16 out of 27 faculty with publications in ASR (59%), while at a top-tier, article-oriented department such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (where I used to work), 19 of the 25 regular faculty, or 76%, have published in ASR (many of them multiple times).

Without diminishing my own accomplishment (or that of my co-authors), or the privilege that got me here, I should be clear that I don’t think publication in high-status journals is a good way to identify and reward scholarly accomplishment and productivity. The reviews and publication decisions are too uneven (although obviously not completely uncorrelated with quality), and the limit on articles published is completely arbitrary in an era in which the print journal and its cost-determined page-limit is simply ridiculous.

We have a system that is hierarchical, exclusive, and often arbitrary — and the rewards it doles out are both large and highly concentrated.

I say all this to put in perspective the grief I have gotten for publicly criticizing an article published in ASR. In that post, I specifically did not invoke ethical violations or speculate on the motivations or non-public behavior of the authors, about whom I know nothing. I commented on the flaws in the product, not the process. And yet a number of academic critics responded vociferously to what they perceive as the threats this commentary posed to the academic careers and integrity of the authors whose work I discussed. Anonymous critics called my post “obnoxious, childish, time wasting, self promoting,” and urged sociologists to “shun” me. I have been accused of embarking on a “vigilante mission.” In private, a Jewish correspondent referred me to the injunction in Leviticus against malicious gossip in an implicit critique of my Jewish ethics.*

In the 2,500-word response I published on my site — immediately and unedited — I was accused of lacking “basic decency” for not giving the authors a chance to prepare a response before I posted the criticism on my blog. The “commonly accepted way” when “one scholar wishes to criticize the published work of another,” I was told, is to go through a process of submitting a “comment” to the journal that published the original work, which “solicits a response from the authors who are being criticized,” and it’s all published together, generally years later. (Never mind that journals have no obligation or particular inclination to publish such debates, as I have reported on previously, when ASR declined for reasons of “space” to publish a comment pointing out errors that were not disputed by the editors.)

This desire to maintain gatekeepers to police and moderate our discussion of public work is not only quaint, it is corrosive. Despite pointing out uncomfortable facts (which my rabbinical correspondent referred to as the “sin of true speech for wrongful purpose”), my criticism was polite, reasoned, with documentation — and within the bounds of what would be considered highly civil discourse in any arena other than academia, apparently. Why are the people whose intellectual work is most protected most afraid of intellectual criticism?

In Christian Smith’s book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (reviewed here), which was terrible, he complains explicitly about the decline of academic civilization’s gatekeepers:

The Internet has created a whole new means by which the traditional double-blind peer-review system may be and already is in some ways, I believe, being undermined. I am referring here to the spate of new sociology blogs that have sprung up in recent years in which handfuls of sociologists publicly comment upon and often criticize published works in the discipline. The commentary published on these blogs operates outside of the gatekeeping systems of traditional peer review. All it takes to make that happen is for one or more scholars who want to amplify their opinions into the blogosphere to set up their own blogs and start writing.

Note he is complaining about people criticizing published work, yet believes such criticism undermines the blind peer-review system. This fear is not rational. The terror over public discussion and debate — perhaps especially among the high-status sociologists who happen to also be the current gatekeepers — probably goes a long way toward explaining our discipline’s pitiful response to the crisis of academic publishing. According to my (paywalled) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “publish” is “to make public.” And yet to hear these protests you would think the whisper of a public comment poses an existential threat to the very people who have built their entire profession around publishing (though, to be consistent, it’s mostly hidden from the public behind paywalls).

This same fear leads many academics to insist on anonymity even in normal civil debates over research and our profession. Of course there are risks, as there tend to be when people make important decisions about things that matter. But at some point, the fear of repression for expressing our views (which is legitimate in some rare circumstances) starts looking more like avoidance of the inconvenience or discomfort of having to stand behind our words. If academics are really going to lose their jobs for getting caught saying, “Hey, I think you were too harsh on that paper,” then we are definitely having the wrong argument.

“After all,” wrote Eran Shor, “this is not merely a matter of academic disagreements; people’s careers and reputations are at stake.” Of course, everyone wants to protect their reputation — and everyone’s reputation is always at stake. But let’s keep this in perspective. For those of us at or near the top of this prestige hierarchy — tenured faculty at research universities — damage to our reputations generally poses a threat only within a very narrow bound of extreme privilege. If my reputation were seriously damaged, I would certainly lose some of the perks of my job. But the penalty would also include a decline in students to advise, committees to serve on, and journals to edit — and no change in that lifetime job security with a top-10% salary for a 9-month commitment. Of course, for those of us whose research really is that important, anything that harms our ability to work in exactly the way that we want to has costs that simply cannot be measured. I wouldn’t know about that.

But if we want the high privilege of an academic career — and if we want a discipline that can survive under scrutiny from an increasingly impatient public and deepening market penetration — we’re going to have to be willing to defend it.

* I think if random Muslims have to denounce ISIS then Jews who cite Leviticus on morals should have to explain whether — despite the obvious ethical merit to some of those commands — they also support the killing of animals just because they have been raped by humans.

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Family Inequality week in review

Some things I read, shared, or came across this week.

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Trump facts (demography and demagoguery)

The other day I listed some must-know basic demographic facts. If Chuck Todd on Meet the Press had practiced them he could have caught this from Donald Trump (if he wanted to). Trump said this (transcript here) on Sunday:

But listen, Chuck, you have 60, 70, 80 million people out there that want to work that aren’t getting jobs.

First clue to a big lie is he scaled it up by 33% in 0.5 seconds. Second clue is it’s ridiculous.

How far can you get to debunking this with just our basic demography lesson? The U.S. population is 323 million, and 23% are children under 18. So that leaves 249 million. Remember that 48 million (15% of the population) is age 65 or older. Round numbers, that leaves 200 million. If kids and seniors don’t want jobs, that means 40% of working-age adults want jobs but can’t get them (80 million out of 200 million). So, off the top of your head, either things are literally worse than ever, or that’s wrong.

To get a better estimate of the answer will take five minutes at IPUMS.org’s Current Population Survey online data tool. Here’s the query you need, showing who has a job, and who of those who don’t wants a job (it’s not complicated — the Bureau of Labor Statistics asks them). The people who meet Trump’s criteria highlighted, all 16 million of them.

trumpno

About 10.4 million are unemployed — that is, no job and actively seeking one — so they are NIU (not in universe) for the “do you want a job” question, but by definition they want a job. Another 5.6 million are out of the labor force (no job, not looking), and when asked say they would rather have a job. So that’s 16 million.*

Of course an interviewer can’t fact check everything on the fly. But a big claim, off by a factor of 5-to-1, should give a good journalist pause.**

You know who’s really hurting?

Lots of people are really hurting. But come on.

I wrote earlier about the mingling of racism and masculinism in Trump’s rhetoric. I hate that the racism is an issue that people bring up sometimes but then shelve when they talk about other issues. That’s no way to understand America. One way they do this is talking in race-neutral terms about how people support Trump because they’re economically insecure. OK, but you just have to add, “and White” for that to make sense.

Here is the exchange from the final segment of Meet the Press. Chuck Todd asks Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, “What’s fueling Trump?” He gives him a lead in about stagnating wages, and then they have this exchange:

ROBERT COSTA

I was flipping through my notebook the other day, and I found that the most enthusiastic Trump supporters are white males who lack a college education between the ages of 35 and 55.

CHUCK TODD:

They’re getting it. This economy is killing them.

ROBERT COSTA:

And Trump talks about scarred landscapes across the Rust Belt. He talks about factories being taken down. I mean, that is connecting with these voters. And they’re not ideological. They like Trump because he seems to have answers.

This economy is killing who, now? White men, 35-55, with no college degree. This economy is tough for them. Almost as tough — but not really — as it is for Black men, age 35-55, with no college degree. Here are their employment rates for the last decade:

trumpvotersemp

By this theory of the Trump voter, shouldn’t it be Black men who are lining up for Trump?***

* Note This is just non-institutionalized people. (In the unlikely event Trump is counting prisoners, you could add another 2 million, since they’d probably rather be out and employed.)

** John Hipple at the Bureau of Labor Statistics just wrote a short piece on why people don’t have jobs, such as retirement, disability, attending school, and so on, but he didn’t include this handy “do you want a job” question, which gets right to Trumps point.

*** This reminds me of Brad Wilcox’s description of the “classic working class or lower middle-class American,” which he clarified meant people in the lower-middle part of the income distribution who are “both white and Hispanic.”

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Must-know current demographic facts

Here’s an update of a post I wrote two years ago, with some additions.

One reason you, and your students, need to know these things is because they are the building blocks of first-line debunking. We use these facts, plus arithmetic, to ballpark the empirical claims we are exposed to all the time.

This followed my aggressive campaign to teach the undergraduate students in my class the size of the US population (I told you sociology isn’t an easy A). If you don’t know that — and some large portion of them didn’t — how can you interpret statements such as, “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States.” In this case the source followed up with, “Over the course of a year, that equals more than 12 million women and men.” But, is that a lot? It’s a lot more in the United States than it would be in China. (Unless you go with, “any rape is too many,” in which case why use a number at all?)

statscartoon

I even updated the cartoon!

Anyway, just the US population isn’t enough. I decided to start a list of current demographic facts you need to know just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed — or, in the case of journalists or teachers or social scientists, not to allow your audience to be grossly misled or misinformed. Not trivia that makes a point or statistics that are shocking, but the non-sensational information you need to know to make sense of those things when other people use them. And it’s really a ballpark requirement (when I tested the undergraduates, I gave them credit if they were within 20% of the US population — that’s anywhere between 258 million and 387 million!).

I only got as far as 25 facts, but they should probably be somewhere in any top-100. And the silent reporters the other day made me realize I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. I’m open to suggestions for others (or other lists if they’re out there).

They are rounded to reasonable units for easy memorization. All refer to the US unless otherwise noted. Most of the links will take you to the latest data:

Fact Number Source
World Population 7.3 billion 1
US Population 323 million 1
Children under 18 as share of pop. 23% 2
Adults 65+ as share of pop. 15% 2
Unemployment rate 5.0% 3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-2015 4% – 11% 4
Labor force participation rate, age 16+ 63% 4
Labor force participation rate range, 1970-2015 60% – 67% 4
Non-Hispanic Whites as share of pop. 62% 2
Blacks as share of pop. 13% 2
Hispanics as share of pop. 17% 2
Asians as share of pop. 5% 2
American Indians as share of pop. 1% 2
Immigrants as share of pop 13% 2
Adults with BA or higher 29% 2
Median household income $53,000 2
Total poverty rate 15% 8
Child poverty rate 21% 8
Poverty rate age 65+ 10% 8
Most populous country, China 1.4 billion 5
2nd most populous country, India 1.3 billion 5
3rd most populous country, USA 323 million 5
4th most populous country, Indonesia 256 million 5
5th most populous country, Brazil 204 million 5
Male life expectancy at birth 76 6
Female life expectancy at birth 81 6
National life expectancy range 50 – 85 7

Sources:
1. http://www.census.gov/popclock/

2. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

3. http://www.bls.gov/

4. Google public data: http://bit.ly/UVmeS3

5. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html

6. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_02.pdf

7. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

8. https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/

Now with handy PDF: Family Inequality Must-Know Demographic Facts

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Once more, with feeling: Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

Can we have art and literature, some with magic, as well as science, rationality, gifts, and a modicum of equality all in one modern society? These are the things I worry about.

This kind of joy-killing is extra necessary in this year of a very-early Hanukkah, when the Jewish kids have already gotten tired of their presents before the so-called “Holidays” are even really here. The other reason to dwell on this kind of anti-Christianity is just to undermine its taken-for-granted nature. Today an entire Virginia public school district closed rather than teach a single lesson about Islam. WhiteChristian terrorism still doesn’t really count. And out-atheist politicians are as rare as unicorns.

So you can consider this my overreaction. This essay isn’t perfect, but I haven’t come up with a revision yet, so reposting it for this Xmas season will have to do.

 


December 2014

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897 and barely updated here, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him.” That’s the substance of it. It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.

Science

From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened.

Here are the details:

PR_14.12.15_Christmas-05

So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey GSS has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and,”The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Those “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.

Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

Children’s ways of knowing

A little reading led me to this interesting review of the research on young children’s skepticism and credulity, by Woolley and Ghossainy (citations below were mostly referred by them).

It goes back to Margaret Mead’s early work. In the psychological version of sociology’s reading history sideways, Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels social evolution. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea of believing in Santa as indicative of a state of innocence.

In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [“traditionally” here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds. These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Richard Dawkins has speculated that religion spreads so easily because humans have an adaptive tendency from childhood to believe adults rather than wait for direct evidence of dangers to accumulate (e.g., “snakes are dangerous”). That is, credulity is adaptive for humans. But Woolley and Ghossainy review mounting evidence for young children’s skepticism as well as credulity. That, along with the obvious survival disadvantages associated with believing everything you’re told, doesn’t support Dawkins’ story.

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In this figure, adapted from Woolley and Ghossainy, true judgment is in green, errors are in red.

whatchildrenthink

We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

It is perplexing that a young child could believe that his or her knowledge of the world is complete enough to deny the existence of anything new. It would seem that young children would understand that there are many things that exist in the real world that they have yet to experience. As intuitive as this seems, it appears not to be the case. From this perspective, development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information.

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in germs or vaccines or evolution just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to inhabit the green boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s NYT essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving — for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf. According to Google Trends, interest in this concept has increased 100-fold since 2008. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

Foucault is not amused. Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like these handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on:

elfwarning

So is this non-rationalize gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.

Inequality

What does all this mean for inequality? My developmental question is, what is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? In other words, how long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? Where do these curves cross?

santaclass

Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get. Of course, I’m not the first to think of this:

santapoormeme

Conclusion

I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses.

Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?

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Trump’s manhandling

The Internet is full of hate, but it’s not random hate.

Some Trump supporters like to yell “Sig Heil!” and, “Light the motherfucker on fire!” at Black protesters, but not that many of them, so that’s not it. His people are younger, less educated, and less Evangelical than the typical Republican primary voter. But what motivates them besides, presumably, racism? It’s not necessary, or really possible, to answer whether Trump is a true fascist in a literal sense, but what he brings out is a mix of racism, nationalism, and masculinity that has something in common with the old fascisms (and here I’m influenced by some old work I read by George Mosse, which I can’t really vouch for, as I haven’t kept up with the masculinity/fascism literature).

This is salient in the U.S., of course, where racism, nationalism, and masculinity are three peas in a pod (see lynching, etc.). Anyway, this came home a little during last night’s Republic primary debate.

After Bush attacked Trump for his lack of foreign policy knowledge and said he was “not a serious kind of candidate,” Trump lashed out (transcript here):

Look, the problem is we need toughness. Honestly, I think Jeb is a very nice person. He’s a very nice person. But we need tough people. We need toughness. We need intelligence and we need tough. Jeb said when they come across the southern border they come as an “act of love.”

That is true, by the way. In another era – early 2014 – when Bush said this about some immigrants:

Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.

But what struck me was the repetition of “tough” and it’s juxtaposition with “love.” The contempt with which Trump said it, obviously a prepared line. After they got done interrupting each other, Trump continued:

We need a toughness. We need strength. We’re not respected, you know, as a nation anymore. We don’t have that level of respect that we need. And if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.

trump-bush-debate This is a line of attack Trump has used against both Bush and Hillary Clinton before. This is from a couple weeks ago:

“They only understand strength,” Mr. Trump said [about people the president has to deal with]. “They don’t understand weakness. Somebody like Jeb, and others that are running against me — and by the way, Hillary is another one. I mean, Hillary is a person who doesn’t have the strength or the stamina, in my opinion, to be president. She doesn’t have strength or stamina. She’s not a strong enough person to be president.”

Trump’s tone and the masculinist references to toughness (and strength, and stamina*), as opposed to love, prompted me to tweet this:

It seemed he was saying it without saying it. Weak, not tough, lovey-dovey — gay. Am I reaching? A number of my Twitter readers seemed to agree. But then, after a little while, the Tweet started to get liked and retweeted by a bunch of Trump supporters, including some far-right, racist and nativist types, like these:

ttwit1

ttwit2

One of the responses I got from this Obama hating guy was a picture created by the Patriot Retort, a site that mocks Bush for his pro-Latino rhetoric and use of Spanish:

forrestbush

Forrest Gump was not gay, but I don’t have to try to hard to connect this dig to homophobia, because Patriot Retort has this on the same page:

Bush-Unveils-Campaign-Logo

Anyway, I could go on following this trail, but you get the point: they want Trump to call him gay. 

New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza Tweeted this clip from Back to the Future, in which bully Biff tortures George McFly, which he said the Trump-Bush interaction called to mind:

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You don’t have to be gay (George McFly wasn’t) to be tarred with the not-masculine brush, of course. It’s a series of associations. And in the Trump situation, they’re really blooming.

* Note: Trump’s recent medical report specifically stated his “strength and stamina are extraordinary.”)

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No, poverty is not a mysterious, unknowable, negative-spiral loop

I don’t have much to add on the “consensus plan” on poverty and mobility produced by the Brookings and American Enterprise institutes, referred to in their launch event as being on “different ends of the ideological spectrum” (can you imagine?). In addition to the report, you might consider the comments by Jeff Spross, Brad DeLong, or the three-part series by Matt Bruenig.

My comment is about the increasingly (to me) frustrating description of poverty as something beyond simple comprehension and unreachable by mortal policy. It’s just not. The whole child poverty problem, for example, amounts to $62 billion dollars per year. There are certainly important details to be worked out in how to eliminate it, but the basic idea is pretty clear — you give poor people money. We have plenty of it.

This was obvious yet amazingly not remarked upon in the first 40 minutes of the launch event (which is all I watched). In the opening presentation, by Ron Haskins — for whom I have a well-documented distaste — started with this simple chart of official poverty rates:

offpov-brookingsaei

He started with the blue line, poverty for elderly people, and said:

The blue line is probably the nation’s greatest success against poverty. It’s the elderly. And it basically has declined pretty much all the time. It has no relationship to the economy, and there is good research that shows that its cause at least 90% by Social Security. So, government did it, and so Social Security is the reason we’re able to be successful to reduce poverty among the elderly.

And then everyone proceeded to ignore the obvious implication of that: when you give people money, they aren’t poor anymore. The most unintentionally hilarious illustration of this was in the keynote (why?) address from David Brooks (who has definitely been working on relaxing lately, especially when it comes to preparing keynote puff-pieces). He said this, according to my unofficial transcript:

Poverty is a cloud problem and not a clock problem. This is a Karl Popper distinction. He said some problems are clock problems – you can take them apart into individual pieces and fix them. Some problems are cloud problems. You can’t take a cloud apart. It’s a dynamic system that is always interspersed. And Popper said we have a tendency to try to take cloud problems and turn them into clock problems, because it’s just easier for us to think about. But poverty is a cloud problem. … A problem like poverty is too complicated to be contained by any one political philosophy. … So we have to be humble, because it’s so gloomy and so complicated and so cloud-like.

The good news is that for all the complexity of poverty, and all the way it’s a cloud, it offers a political opportunity, especially in a polarized era, because it’s not an either/or issue. … Poverty is an and/and issue, because it takes a zillion things to address it, and some of those things are going to come from the left, and some are going to come from the right. … And if poverty is this mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop that some people find themselves in, then surely the solution is to throw everything we think works at the problem simultaneously, and try in ways we will never understand, to have a positive virtuous cycle. And so there’s not a lot of tradeoffs, there’s just a lot of throwing stuff in. And social science, which is so prevalent in this report, is so valuable in proving what works, but ultimately it has to bow down to human realities – to psychology, to emotion, to reality, and to just the way an emergent system works.

Poverty is only a “mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop” if you specifically ignore the lack of money that is its proximate cause. Sure, spend your whole life wondering about the mysteries of human variation — but could we agree to do that after taking care of people’s basic needs?

I wonder if poverty among the elderly once seemed like a weird, amorphous, confusing problem. I doubt it. But it probably would if we had assumed that the only way to solve elderly poverty was to get children to give their parents more money. Then we would have to worry about the market position of their children, the timing of their births, the complexity of their motivations and relationships, the vagaries of the market, and the folly of youth. Instead, we gave old people money. And now elderly poverty “has declined pretty much all the time” and “it has no relationship to the economy.”

Imagine that.

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