Tag Archives: media

Groups of people with more income are richer, Wilcox credulity edition


I’m having a hard time believing the latest Brad Wilcox marriage-promotion fake research event is as dumb as I think it is, but I think it really is. I don’t use such a judgmental word lightly, but rather with a heavy heart, because it means it’s time to waste another hour debunking him.

The new thing is a report published by the American Enterprise Institute and “launched” at an event they hosted (droning-strike video here). The report is called, “Strong Families, Prosperous States” (PDF). The news coverage was light, which is a good sign for our news media, with credulous reports showing up in the Washington Post wonkblog and the Deseret News (though with Ross Douthat on the panel, expect more ripples sooner or later).

The basic finding is that people with more money are richer. But Wilcox (with co-authors anti-gay activist Joseph Price and Robert Lerman) describe it like this:

Higher levels of marriage, and especially higher levels of married-parent families, are strongly associated with more economic growth, more economic mobility, less child poverty, and higher median family income at the state level in the United States.

Their analysis, using state data over time, calculates the relationship between the change in marriage rates and the change in income per capita, poverty rates, and family income (mobility is done differently, using a single cross section, and I’m setting that aside for now). Basically, all this would be true if the only difference between states with lots of marriage and states with less marriage is that the former had more high income families — which of course they would, because married-couple families have higher incomes. So, rich people are richer.

To show how dumb this is, I illustrate it using fictional states made up of real families, drawn from the 2013 American Community Survey (data from IPUMS.org). I took all the married-couple and single-parent families with children, and created four states: Heavcox, where everyone is married; Hellcox, where no one is married; and two states in between, Lowersham (86% married) and Highersham (40% married). The families were assigned to states randomly (with replacement, so some families are in more than one state).

Here are the four states, with their scores on the measures used by Wilcox:


Heavcox has the lowest poverty, the highest median family income, and the highest per capita income (which means increase in marriage would lead to higher growth in per capita income).

The point is this has nothing to do with states, it’s composition: married-couple families more income, so their states do, too. The report includes a lot of statistical controls, but none that affect this basic pattern (for example, racial composition, average education level, and crime and tax rates). This is mostly because the units used for income and poverty are families. I’m not taking the time to do this, but I am pretty sure it would work if you randomly assigned individuals to families as well, that is, if the difference between married couples and single people was literally just the number of adults in the household. And with per capita income, more married-couple families means more high-income individuals, so higher income states. (Of course, there are interesting reasons married couples are richer, but they don’t have to do with states: they have more high-income earners, because high earners are more likely to get and stay married, and to a much lesser extent, because marriage helps people earn more.)

There is a funny note in the report, which says:

While these comparisons are based on median family income, we find similar gaps when we look at median household income or median household income adjusted for household size.

The adjustment for household size would help a little, but it still wouldn’t change the basic pattern, since married couple families have more earners, not just more people. But I completely distrust “we find similar…” if the numbers aren’t reported, since we know Wilcox lies a lot (frankly, even taking un-replicated numbers from one of his reports is dicey — I wouldn’t want to build a life raft out of it — but that’s the risk we take).

So, sure: “states show especially positive economic outcomes when a larger majority of their families are headed by married parents.” This is not news.

This is another case of think-tank public relations hype successfully masquerading as research, with journalists and funders as the intended audience. The American Enterprise Institute, which has a legal obligation to waste money, wants media mentions; reporters need easy stories expertly told and packaged for public consumption (unlike most real research); and political partisans want to click on and share things that support their assumptions. It is understandable that some honest reporters and editors fall for this stuff (and again, I’m appreciative of the many who didn’t). Washington Post reporter Jim Tankersley may have been trying to boost the legitimacy of the new report when he wrote this:

There is a story gaining steam among some academics that suggests the institution of marriage — particularly marriage for parents of young children — could play an important role in strengthening the American economy. It is a story about growth and poverty, about responsibility and work ethic.

But there is no evidence for the “gaining steam” thing in the story, except the existence of an American Enterprise Institute PR event.

Some reporters really try to check these stories out a little before running with them. But it’s hard for non-experts to do that, especially quickly. For example, Tankersley responded to a tweet I tweeted saying the report “appears to control for some of the factors you have raised flags about in the past.” Which is true, but this just shows the effectiveness of the PR, not the quality of the research. Which all means that as much as I don’t like the system we use to manage peer review, it’s still a good idea. There is nothing in this report that couldn’t have waited a few months for a real peer review before presenting it to the public.

If I’m wrong about this for some reason, and you can show my why — really show me, not just suggest other work I could do to check out your suspicions — I’ll be glad to admit it.

Aside: but why not?

You may be thinking, “sure, but isn’t it still the case that married couples are richer, so more people getting married would be good, right?” The first problem with that is that there is no known way to generate that outcome: the government’s marriage promotion has not worked at all, and I have seen no approach to trying that doesn’t impose religion or other values on people or shame them for their circumstances.

The second problem (which I wrote about a little here) is that the next marriage won’t bring the same benefits as the average existing marriage. If economics is one reason people don’t get married — and it is — then the economics of the currently-not-married will not be as beneficial as those experienced by the people who were in better shape to get married in the first place.


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Quick correction on that 90-percent-of-faculty-are-White thing

The other day I saw a number of anti-racist people tweeting that “nearly 90% of full-time professors are White.” As I have previously complained when 90% of the full professors at my then-school (UNC) were White, I was interested to follow up. Unfortunately, that popular tweet turns out to be a stretched description of a simple error.

The facts are in this Education Department report from May, which was reported at the time by The Ed Advocate, and suddenly started going around the other day for unknown reasons. The “nearly 90%” is the Ed Advocate’s description of 84%, which is the percentage White among full-time full professors, which the original report in one place accidentally describes as just full-time professors. Among all full-time instructional faculty, in fact, 79% are White. So the headline, “Study: Nearly 90 Percent of Full-time Professors Are White,” was a conflation of two errors. It presumably became popular because it put a number to a real problem lots of people are aware of and looking for ways to highlight.

Here is the original chart:


The problem of White over-representation among college faculty is not that apparent in this national 79% statistic. Consider, for example, that among all full-time, full-year workers age 40 and older (my made-up benchmark), 71% are non-Hispanic White. Among those with a Masters degree or higher, 77% are White. So faculty, nationally and at all levels, don’t look that different from the pool from which they’re drawn.

The 84% full professor statistic reflects the greater White representation as you move up the academic hierarchy. And that’s not just a question of waiting for younger cohorts with more non-White faculty to age into the professoriate. Because the pipeline isn’t working that well, especially for Black faculty. Which brings me back to my old UNC complaint, which focused mostly on Back under-representation. In 2010 I noted that the North Carolina population was 22% Black, while the UNC faculty was 4.7% Black. But full professors at UNC were just 2.4% Black, while the assistant professors were 7.5% Black. Is that the pipeline working? Well, only 4.5% of the recent faculty hires were Black.

I went back to check on things. As of the 2014 report (they’re all here), the update is that UNC has stopped reporting the numbers by rank, so now all they say is that 5.2% of all faculty are Black, and they don’t report the makeup of recent hires. So take from that what you will.

And what about further up the pipeline? I previously shared numbers showing a drop in Black representation among entering freshmen at the University of Michigan, from 10% to 5% over the 2000s. The trend at UNC is in the same direction:

unc black studentsOf course we always need to be cautious about numbers that support what we already know or believe. Some people will respond to this by saying, “but the point remains.” Right, but if the number is irrelevant to the point, there’s no need to use the number. Plenty of people can say, “In all my undergraduate years, I never had a Black professor,” or some other highly relevant observation.*

On the other hand, others of us need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that progress on under-representation is just happening out there because everyone thinks it should and it’s just a matter of time. That common assumption allows defensive administrators to do write thinks like this caption (from UNC’s 2011-2012 report):


This is misleading: There was a big increase in Hispanic students (North Carolina has a growing Hispanic population) and Asian students, and marked drops in Black and American Indian students. But “overall, steady increase” is an easy narrative to sell.

If they scaled that chart from 0 to 12 and dropped Whites, “overall, steady increase” would look like this:


* I think I had three great Black professors at Michigan: Walter Allen, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Cecilia Green, each of whom changed my life forever. Sorry if I’m forgetting someone.

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Selfie culture, tourism, and the challenge of the authentic self

Just kidding — who would give a blog post a title like that?

The author on vacation.

The author on vacation.

Our family vacation this summer, to London and Paris, was my first since the Year of the Selfie Stick (which is this year). This is also the year in which 59% of “millennials” (only 40% of whom understand that they are millennials) answered “yes” when asked whether the phrase “self-absorbed” describes “people in your generation overall”?


At Admiralty Arch, London

I can’t add much nuance to the theory of selfie culture, which has already taught me a lot. For example, I learned on NPR that vanity isn’t vanity if it’s part of constructing your “personal brand” — so it’s OK to edit your selfies:

“I think that while a lot of people find it easy to say, ‘Well, you’re taking a photo of yourself, and you’re posting it online for people to sort of rate.’ I could see how that superficially looks like vanity,” she says. “At the same time, I think that it really gives a lot of the younger generation a platform to express themselves without being incredibly harshly judged — because the selfie is such a casual form of expression, no one is going to expect you to look absolutely perfect.”

What interested me is the intersection of artificiality and authenticity that the selfie brings to the experience of tourism. Taking 1,000 pictures of yourself in order to post just the right spontaneous look is the normal business of personal brand construction. It creates a presentation version of yourself. It’s an expected form of inauthenticity, just like most people expect you won’t post pictures of your kid crying at her birthday party.

But when you’re a tourist, selfies are about authenticity. They’re the picture that proves you were really there — and really in that mood at that moment that you were there. As the culture studies journal Forbes Leadership put it:

In the age of social media, authenticity for Postmoderns is characterized by a consistency and continuity between their online personas and their lives in the real world. The more congruence there is between the two, the more authentic the Postmodern appears to be.

You can’t have that unless the famous thing is clearly visible behind you. Which produces the endlessly entertaining spectacle of tourists taking and retaking selfies with every different expression and pose in front of popular monuments and attractions.


At Buckingham Palace.

Social media is social. We share pictures and updates with real people. Even when you’re alone, you’re not alone on social media. Which I think is great. But like the person staring at his phone through dinner, it seems antisocial when you do it publicly. The selfie-takers are alone in their Instagram bubbles in the middle of a sea of other people.


At Buckingham Palace.

And when you’re going in for the money shot — say, the Eiffel Tower at sunset — you can’t afford to mess around. It seemed like these people were oblivious to me setting up for a shot of them from 10 feet away. (Also, like driving, it seems that operating the selfie stick in different-sex couples is the man’s job.)

At the Eiffel Tower.

At the Eiffel Tower.

Or, in this case, the daughter totally not noticing that her parents are collapsing from boredom while she works up her umpteenth Buckingham Palace selfie.


I have nothing against all this. (Our story is that every moment of the vacation was deliriously fun, and we have the pictures to prove it.) Having a good time seeing new people and things without hurting anyone is what I love about tourism.


Still, it’s funny that people go to such trouble to get the perfect picture of themselves — creating at least a moment that is artificial — in their quest for an image of authenticity. What would this picture mean if I weren’t really in Paris, contemplating all there is to contemplate in exactly that spot?


As affirmed by the behavior of thousands of people crowding around to take pictures of famous paintings, perfect reproductions of which are available online for free, it has to be real or it’s nothing. A lie.


The fake-smile selfie is a lie, too. I guess it’s just not a very important one.

One disappointing thing, though, is that suddenly the ritual of strangers asking each other to take their pictures is disappearing. That was a nice part of tourism, because it involved strangers smiling at each other.

Note: Help yourself to these photos, which are in this Flickr folder.


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Sex ratios as if not everyone is a college graduate

Quick: What percentage of 22-to-29-year-old, never-married Americans are college graduates? Not sure? Just look around at your friends and colleagues.

Actually, unlike among your friends and colleagues, the figure is only 27.5% (as of 2010). Yep, barely more than a quarter of singles in their 20s have finished college. Or, as the headlines for the last few days would have it: basically everyone.

The tweeted version of this Washington Post Wonkblog story was, “Why dating in America is completely unfair,” and the figure was titled “Best U.S. cities for dating” (subtitle: “based on college graduates ages 22-29”). This local news version listed “best U.S. cities for dating,” but never even said they were talking about college graduates only. The empirical point is simple: there are more women than men among young college graduates, so those women have a small pool to choose from, so we presume it’s hard for them to date.* (Also, in these stories everyone is straight.) In his Washington Post excerpt the author behind this, Jon Birger, talks all about college women. The headline is, “Hookup culture isn’t the real problem facing singles today. It’s math.” You have to get to the sixth paragraph before you find out that singles means college and post-college women.

In his Post interview the subject of less educated people did come up briefly — if they’re men:

Q: Some of these descriptions make it sound like the social progress and education that women have obtained has been a lose-lose situation: In the past women weren’t able to get college educations, today they can, but now they’re losing in this other realm [dating]. Is it implying that less educated men are still winning – they don’t go to college but they still get the pick of all these educated, more promiscuous women?

A: Actually, it’s the opposite. Less educated men are actually facing as challenging a dating and marriage market as the educated women. So for example, among non-college educated men in the U.S. age 22 to 29, there are 9.4 million single men versus 7.1 million single women. So the lesser-educated men face an extremely challenging data market. They do not have it easy at all.

It’s almost as if the non-college-educated woman is inconceivable. She’s certainly invisible. The people having trouble finding dates are college-educated women and non-college-educated men. By this simple sex-ratio logic, it should be raining men for the non-college women. Too bad no one thought to think of them.

Yes, the education-specific sex ratio is much better for women who haven’t been to college. That is, they are outnumbered by non-college men. But it’s not working out that well for them in mating-market terms.

I can’t show dating patterns with Census data (and neither can Birger), but I can show first-marriage rates — that is, the rate at which never-married people get married. Here are the education-specific sex ratios, and first-marriage rates, for 18-34-year-old never-married women in 279 metropolitan areas, from the 2009-2011 American Community Survey.** Blue circles for women with high school education or less, orange for BA-holders (click to enlarge):


Note that for both groups marriage rates are lower for women when there are more of them relative to men — the downward sloping lines (which are weighted by population size). Fewer men for women to choose from, plus men eschew marriage when they’re surrounded by desperate women, so lower marriage rates for women. But wait: the sex ratios are so much better for non-college women — they are outnumbered by male peers in almost every market, and usually by a lot. Yet their marriage rates are still much lower than the college graduates’. Who cares?

I don’t have time to get into the reasons for this pattern; this post is media commentary more than social analysis. But let’s just agree to remember that non-college-educated women exist, and acknowledge that the marriage market is even more unfair for them. Imagine that.***

* I once argued that this could help explain why gender segregation has dropped so much faster for college graduates.

** It was 296 metro areas but I dropped the extreme ones: over 70% female and marriage rates over 0.3.

*** Remember, if we want to use marriage to solver poverty for poor single mothers, we have enough rich single men to go around, as I showed.

A little code:

I generated the figure using Stata. I got the data through a series of clunky Windows steps that aren’t easily shared, but here at least is the code for making a graph with two sets of weighted circles, each with its own weighted linear fit line, in case it helps you:

twoway (scatter Y1 X1 [w=count1], mc(none) mlc(blue) mlwidth(vthin)) ///

(scatter Y2 X2 [w=count2], mc(none) mlc(orange_red) mlwidth(vthin)) ///

(lfit Y1 X1 [w=count1], lc(blue)) ///

(lfit Y2 X2 [w=count2], lc(orange_red)) , ///

xlabel(30(10)70) ylabel(0(.1).3)


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That Sunday New York Times Style section trend piece

Just folks trying to survive their divorces.

Just folks trying to survive their divorces.

Does it matter which one?

You know it from the opening paragraphs:

The women are architects, film industry executives, skin care consultants, product managers at tech companies, psychologists. They have worked in finance, publishing and television, though some had scaled back or left the work force when their children were born.

Divorce is what they have in common. Their stories are varied: the breadwinner wife whose husband’s career hadn’t quite taken off and who found comfort in an affair; the husband who never really adapted to parenthood; the wife with Ivy League degrees who stayed home with her child but lost her way in the marriage while the husband thrived in his international career.

Really. Divorce is what they have in common? How hard would it be to include a single mention of how rich and privileged these women are compared to the typical woman getting divorced? Penelope Green’s story never mentions the possibility.

Here is what a five-minute effort would have looked like:


These 10 occupations account for 25% of all women age 40+ who reported getting divorced in the previous year.

In addition, 34% of those just-divorced, 40+ women are not non-Hispanic Whites (14% Black, 13% Hispanic, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander).

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Research on teen crashes confirms that reporters selling books on phone risks hype phone risks

Using phones while driving is dangerous and should stop. But the focus on this issue distracts us from other dangers in driving (which have — you’d never believe from the news — declined rapidly in recent decades). And it distracts us from the broader danger of relying on motor vehicle transportation.

I dwell on this subject because it offers lessons beyond its substantive importance (see all the posts under the texting tag). Today’s lesson is about conflicts of interest in the news media.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety published a study of about 1,700 moderate or severe car crashes in which people ages 16-19 were driving. To identify possible causes of the crashes, they used cameras and motion sensors in the cars, and analyzed the seconds before each crash. The headline result probably should have been that 79% of the crashes occurred when teens were driving too fast. But that’s apparently not news, so the AAAFTS and all the news media reporting the story focused on the fact that 59% of the crashes showed distraction as a likely cause.

The report website highlighted the data on distractions, and that’s reasonable. One of their findings is that distractions in their survey account for a greater proportion of accidents than are reported officially — something we’ve assumed but have had trouble establishing empirically. So that’s useful. They used this graphic:


By this accounting, phones were involved in 12% of crashes, second only to interacting with passengers. But this is an artifact of the way the categories are binned. And a lot of smaller categories are left out of the figure, such as eating and drinking (2%), operating vehicle controls (3%), looking at another vehicle (4%), or smoking-related distractions (1%). (Note also that one crash can have multiple related distractions, but they don’t report the overlaps so you can’t do anything about them.)

So I redid the categories. I don’t see why eating and drinking should be a separate category from grooming, or why singing/dancing should be separate from adjusting the radio. So I made a new category called “physically doing something besides driving,” which includes eating or drinking, using an electronic device (besides phone), grooming, reaching for an object, smoking-related activity, operating vehicle controls, and singing/dancing to music. Also, for some reason their figure lists “looking at something outside the vehicle” but only includes “attending to unknown outside vehicle” in that category. I added two other types of distraction to that category, “attending to another vehicle” and “attending to person outside” — bumping up the outside distraction substantially.

Here’s my new version of their figure based on the same data (from table 13 in the report). It’s more comprehensive but uses fewer categories:


Now cellphones are fourth. So that’s a lesson about using arbitrary category collapsing and then ranking the categories. (This happens all the time with occupations, for example, where people say, “The top X occupations…” but the occupations reflect different levels of granularity.)

Anyway, back to cellphones

The New York Times reporter Matt Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on distracted driving. And he published a book — A Deadly Wandering — that tells the tragic story of a driver who killed someone while he was texting. Unfortunately, he is prone to hyping the problem of texting, which his audience is unfortunately prone to fixating on. I previously pointed out that, on the website promoting his book, his publisher uses an extremely wrong statistic, claiming that texting “continues to claim 11 teen lives per day.” He has mentioned this statistic (or its variant, that texting kills more teens than drunk driving) on Twitter, and also in media appearances. I pointed out that this number is more than all the teens killed in motor vehicle accidents, so it’s obviously baloney. I emailed Richtel about this, and he told me he would “get it fixed.” I emailed the publisher. I emailed the Times. I emailed the Diane Rehm show. No one changed anything. Cellphone crashes are like child abuse: people will believe any statistic about how bad it is and attack anyone who’s skeptical.

Of course I don’t want to minimize the problem of distracted driving, and there’s nothing wrong with telling people it’s dangerous. And it’s not my area of expertise. So I’ve only given the issue a few hours. But playing into a public hysteria about a very narrow, behaviorally-driven problem, rather than exposing the systemic problem that it reflects, is not good.

And now that Richtel is selling a book about texting, he’s got a conflict of interest — if he hypes the problem in his NYT stories, he makes more money. So here’s the NYT headline on his story:


And this is his lead paragraph:

Memo to parents: Distracted driving by teenagers is riskier than previously thought, particularly when it comes to multitasking with a cellphone.

Again, it is true the report finds cellphone distraction causes more accidents than police reports have shown — so this is not irrelevant — though, of course, even with the new accounting they still cause orders of magnitude less than Richtel’s own promotional site claims. But mentioning phones in the headline sets the NYT apart from most of the coverage of this report:

  • Washington Post: “AAA: 58 percent of teens involved in traffic crashes are distracted”
  • ABC News: “Distractions a Problem for Teen Drivers, AAA Study Finds”
  • Houston Chronicle: “Distraction a factor in 6 in 10 teen driver crashes”
  • Chicago Tribune: “Distracted driving a key contributor to teen crashes, study shows”

On my first page of Google News searches, only the LA Times also mentioned phones: “Teen drivers distracted by cellphones, talking in most crashes.”

Who cares?

Some people who are tired of me complaining about this think you can’t have too much hype about safe driving, so who cares? But the distraction matters. The evidence that phones are a fundamental cause — a social cause — of accidents and deaths is very weak, although they are certainly the proximate cause in many cases. But we don’t have randomized controlled trials to test the effects of phones. I suspect the people crashing while futzing with their phones are mostly the same people who would be crashing for some other reason if cellphones didn’t exist.

When I look at the video compilation the AAA put out to accompany their report — which mostly shows teens crashing while using their phones — I am struck by what terrible drivers they are. They look down for three seconds and drive straight off the road without noticing. In contrast, I routinely see people driving on the freeway completely absorbed in their phones — driving obnoxiously slowly but using their peripheral vision to keep going straight. They are at grave risk of an accident if something crosses their path or traffic stops, but they’re not veering all over the road. Their slow speed probably mitigates their risk of crashing. I AM NOT RECOMMENDING THIS, I’m just saying: bad drivers cause accidents, and if you give them a phone they’ll use it to cause an accident.

Did you know teen driving fatalities have fallen by more than half in the last decade? (During that time incidentally, teen suicides have risen 45%.) Did you know that, from 1994 to 2011, mobile phone subscriptions increased more than 1200% while the number of traffic fatalities per mile driven fell 36% (and property-damage-only accidents per mile fell 31%)? Don’t count on Matt Richtel to tell you about this.

And yet, of course, thousands of people die in car accidents every year in the U.S. — at rates higher than the vast majority of other rich countries. But as long as people drive, there will be bad drivers. If we really cared, we would replace individual cars with mass transit (or self-driving cars) — putting transport in the hands of computers and professionals. Nothing’s perfect, of course, but preventing car accidents isn’t rocket science, and blaming a systemic problem on the individual behavior of predictably error-prone drivers doesn’t seem likely to help.


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Vox interview on the Moynihan chilling effect

Jenée Desmond-Harris from Vox.com interviewed me about the Moynihan backlash post. The piece is here. In it she links to this blog, but not to the specific post. If you’re looking for that, it’s here.

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