Tag Archives: politics

Why I snarked on a 538 blog post (and I’m sorry)

Gaza. What does inequality have to do with it? (Photo by gloucester2gaza)

Gaza. What does inequality have to do with it? (Photo by gloucester2gaza)

The first thing that bugged me about this blog post by Jay Ulfelder at Five Thirty Eight was not the most important thing. The first thing I reacted to was that Ulfelder opened by asking whether “economic inequality causes political turmoil,” and then chastising, “Just because a belief is widely held, however, does not make it true,” before offering only evidence from economics studies. So I tweeted this obnoxious thing:

It was obnoxious, and I apologize. That response was part of my routine, defensive, complaining about how complex sociological work is neglected in favor of glib economics (e.g., here, here, here). But I do substantively object to the piece. If I had taken the time to figure out what really bugged me about it I could have sent a more constructive Tweet. Oh well, you never get a second chance to make a first snarky response.

What really bugged me is that the piece reduced this question of world-historic importance to a matter of microdata quality and measurement:

In fact, it’s still hard to establish with confidence whether and how economic inequality shapes political turmoil around the world. That’s largely because of the difficulty in measuring inequality…

Despite the slipperiness of “whether and how,”* Ulfelder’s point is definitely that we are “not there yet” on the question of “the belief that inequality causes political crises.” Still, maybe this is a case of trying to sell a narrow empirical piece as something bigger than it is — in which case it’s also a lesson in how people overreact when you do that.

I have to examine my own motives here, because this is one of those times when someone’s empirical claims threaten something that I don’t routinely subject to empirical testing. If there is an actual article of faith in my sociological worldview — and I would not really use the word faith to describe it, it’s more like a foundational understanding — it’s that inequality causes conflict, which causes social change. Ulfelder notes this is attributed partly to Marx, which is one reason why I and so many other sociologists hold it dear, but it’s also because it’s actually true. But that depends on what you mean by true, and here I think I disagree with Ulfelder, who writes:

With such incomplete and blurry information about the crucial quantities, why are so many of us so sure that economic inequality is a principal cause of political turmoil? Careful observation is one answer. Aristotle and Marx drew inferences about the destabilizing effects of inequality from their deep knowledge of the societies around them.

He never explains why this isn’t good enough, instead wandering into a critique of contemporary activist claims, based in part on an argument that “the seminal economic study” on the question is methodologically flawed (I’m sure it is).

This reducing of the question is too reductionist. I would be very interested to know whether within-country economic inequality, measured at the national level, if accurately measured, could help predict which countries would experience political turmoil, if that could be measured with a single indicator. But that’s not answering the question of whether inequality causes political turmoil — it’s one very narrow slice of that giant historical question, for which we have many sources of data and many affirmative answers.

Use a little of Marx’s “deep knowledge of societies” to consider, for example, the anti-colonial revolutions in many countries after 1945. Do you need to test a within-country economic inequality measure to know that such “turmoil” was one consequence of inequality? Of course, the timing and nature of those revolts is an interesting question to be addressed through research, but is such research asking whether inequality causes conflict?

What about slave revolts? What if someone found that harsher slavery regimes were not more likely to explode in revolt than those in which the slaves had enough food and water — would that tell you that inequality does not “cause” conflict? (Inequality causes conflict; that’s why they’re called slave revolts.)

Even, what about the civil rights movement, women’s movement, gay rights movement, or Black Lives Matter?

Does inequality cause conflict? Yes. Of course the relationship is not necessarily linear or simplistically univariate, which is the subject of lots of great sociology (and probably some minor work in other disciplines). But this is the kind of complex issue that data journalism nowadays loves to turn into yes-or-no, show-me-the-scatterplot short blog posts. I’ve done some of that myself, of course — and if I do it with something that’s a vital part of your analytical worldview, feel free to send me a snarky tweet about it.

* Nothing against this expression in general, it’s just slippery in this case because it might or might not be moving the goalposts from the opening question. 


Filed under Politics

University paternalism and the outwardly-focused student movement

I’m not going to join  the criticism of the students at Yale, because I don’t know all that they’re going through. From a distance the symbolic things (like emails about Halloween costumes) that spark massive reactions often appear out of scale. Straws that break camels’ backs appear weightless.

So just two thoughts to share inspired by recent events.

Universities shouldn’t be in this business

A lot of people were taken aback by the casual way that Black students refer to Nicholas Christakis as the “master” of Silliman College. That archaic paternalism is not just linguistic.

I’ve previous argued that, although they do have legal and ethical obligations to respond to sexual assault on campus, colleges shouldn’t be in the business of investigating and punishing those crimes. They are terrible at it, their intervention downgrades sexual assault from crime to (student) women’s issue, and the campus system separates sexual assault (and its activists) on campus from the problem in the wider society. It’s a paternalistic system.

I’m equally skeptical about their role in protecting people from racism. One of the Yale students arguing with Nicholas Christakis, the “master” of one of the university’s residential colleges, in a widely shared video, said:

As your position as master it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman. … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!

In fact, when Christakis took the job, he was quoted as saying:

The residential college system is one of the most distinctive features of Yale. Its virtue lies in the way it provides an intellectual, social, and moral home for students, and Yale is remarkable for its commitment to this kind of education.

Colleges have ethical and legal obligations to prevent and respond to racist discrimination and harassment on their institutional terrain. But everyone deserves a safe space where they can develop their social and moral foundations, in which to build communities and from which to launch their interventions into the wider society. Should universities be the ones to provide it — do only those admitted to Ivy League schools need this? Aren’t students adults, capable of waging the struggles to create their own social spaces? Some people offer a similar argument about the college athletes that make billions of dollars for their universities and the entertainment industry. The university is providing them with moral uplift and team spirit (so paying them would only undermine the pure motives of that effort). But left to their own devices, couldn’t student athletes negotiate a better deal for themselves?

Living in dorms and university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities is bad enough. (When I showed up to the University of Michigan — three years out of high school — it was my great fortune to have a dog, my excuse for never living in a dorm.) A system of houses staffed by faculty moral overseers is a structural mechanism for the prolonging of adolescence. This retards students’ development as adults and sets them further apart from the wider community, people who don’t have paternalistic institutions devoted to the construction of their moral selves in safe spaces — people who build civic institutions, and rely on the law and politics to safeguard their interests. Students rely on the cloistered campus system at their own risk, and its a shame that this social isolation (for better and worse) is concentrated among elite students.

Turning outward

It’s possible this system also encourages students to turn their activism inward, toward themselves, rather than outward to the wider social world. Here I am speaking generally, and explicitly not talking about the Yale students currently in the news, the most visible of whom (as in the video I linked) may or may not be involved in organized politics, I don’t know.

I’m old enough to remember documentaries about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That was a protest movement that grew out of student civil rights activists who wanted to promote political causes on campus. In the most famous incident, Jack Weinberg – fresh off a summer trip to support the civil rights movement in the South – was arrested as he staffed a table on campus for the Congress of Racial Equality, and students blocked the police car he was in for 32 hours.

That student movement was inspiring partly because it seemed to represent the selfless attempt by college students to use their privileges – and the education they were receiving – to intervene progressively in the wider society, on issues like civil rights, war, labor, feminism, and the environment. They were fighting for their right to carry that outside work onto the campus. (In my day at Michigan, leftists opposed the deputization of campus police, and the implementation of a non-academic code of conduct, for fear they would be used to squelch student activism.)

One way to think about that distinction in today’s terms is adult versus adolescent. It was students’ engagement in those adult politics that germinated the alliances that were so threatening to the powers that were.

One of my favorite speeches is Mario Savio’s from that movement, in 1964 (he starts at 0:22):

Savio was a Freedom Summer veteran who wanted to organize for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the Berkeley campus. In that speech, he’s objecting to the production by the university of students as commodities for future employers — objecting, in one sense, to the success of the university’s mission if it means severing the ties between student activists and their work in the wider world. That’s one movement at one moment, but it’s an important one.

Of course students need to advocate for themselves. The Free Speech Movement advocated their right to political activism. In contemporary activism, Black Lives Matter unites the struggles of college students with the plight of the Blacks facing police everywhere.

USA Today

USA Today

The argument for outward facing connects to the paternalism question, because the more students are integrated with the real world off campus for their social and moral community-building needs, the more their politics might be drawn outward as well — and the public might be more supportive of them in return.


Filed under Politics

Conservatives don’t have happier marriages

On Vice’s Munchies channel (who knew), Hillary Pollack links to an excruciating Fox News chat about how Republicans have happier marriages, which I wrote about the other day.

The Fox intro says, “According to a new study, Republicans are far happier, and more stable, than Democrats are.” (Then they inaccurately described the data as being about how “married couples who describe themselves…”, when the data are about individual spouses, not couples.)

I already showed the premise isn’t true, at least as far as expressed happiness in marriage. The two groups with the highest reported marriage happiness, with demographic controls, are strong Democrats and strong Republicans, and the difference between them isn’t statistically significant.

So we can take Brad Wilcox’s words of wisdom on the meaning of Republican marital bliss in that light — that is, not.


But there is another problem here, which is he is conflating party identification with political ideology. As when he tweeted this:


“Republican” is not the same as “conservative.” In fact, the General Social Survey — the data we’re using here — has a question on political ideology as well as party identification. (Thanks to Omar Lizardo for reminding me of this.) They ask whether you “think of yourself as liberal or conservative.” And 15% of people identifying as Democrats consider themselves conservative (Republicans are much more consistently conservative).


If you’re going to claim that “conservatives have happier marriages,” you should use the political views question.* And that is even worse for this theory than the party identification (which I’m sure has nothing to do with why Wilcox chose to use the variable he did). Here is my result from the other day, using political views instead**:


So, what was that about conservatives having happier marriages?

Extreme liberals are a small group, just 3% of the this GSS sample (compared with “strong Democrats, who are 12%). But that difference is big enough to be statistically significant, with control variables, from each of the other groups (at p<.05, except the extreme conservatives, p<.10, in two-tailed tests).

David Leonhardt and other journalists covering “reports” from Brad Wilcox should consider the merits of peer review or, absent that, checking around a little before serving up this bologna. I understand there isn’t time for our peer review system to vet every little partisan claim, and I’ve served up some non-peer-reviewed reports to the news media, too. I would always encourage journalists to at least check around before running with a splashy claim.


* This doesn’t mean ideology is always a better measure, of course. For example, when it comes to attitudes toward health care spending, this paper by Stephen Morgan and Minhyoung Kang shows that party identification is a strong predictor even controlling for ideology. But in this case the issue is conservative values, not some partisan policy matter.

** Use the code I posted the other day, but with POLVIEWS instead of PARTYID


Filed under In the news

Things are getting better/worse, and we’re not going to take it anymore

There is a whole social science to the optimal balance of victory and defeat in social movements and social change. Trying to sort that out recently reminds me of the time in 1980 when the Williams pinball machine company introduced Black Knight, which featured four flippers, 2- and 3-ball multiball™ play, and magna-save (don’t ask). And it talked. It was hard to get to sleep that week, with the ringing in my ears, the flashing lights burned into my eyes, and the endless strategic possibilities bouncing around in my head (though, looking at it now, I find this all hard to believe).

So, too, in the last week. Consider two political cartoons by Mike Luckovich. This from June 21:


And this one from June 25:


Did he really just demand the removal of the Confederate flag and then mock people who would celebrate its removal? Is that how much things change in a week? But in periods of social change, moving the goal posts is what it’s all about. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Charleston massacre was a horrific reminder of how it seems some things never change. But they do change. Dylann Roof was caught and may be put to death, legally. And it turned out that, not only had the Confederate flag only been flying at the South Carolina capitol for a few decades, but it actually could be taken down in response to public outrage. And yet, that’s not the end of racism. (Four flippers, three balls, magna-save.)

Anthea Butler, a religion and Africana studies professor at Penn, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, was on the On Point radio show last week. She was talking to host Tom Ashbrook, when she got this:

Tom Ashbrook: If you ask me, I understand that feeling and that vivid response. At the same time, I, and maybe you, Anthea Butler, Dr. Butler, don’t want to lose, or not recognize, or lose the progress that has been made. And this is nowhere near paradise…

Anthea Butler: But what kind of progress? What kind of progress? This is what we keep talking about. And I don’t understand, when you say, “We’ve made progress.” How have we made progress when the president of the United States has been constantly questioned because he is partially a Black man? And so you talk progress — and this is the kind of talk we’re going to hear all week long after this.

TA: But he’s president, madam.

AB: He is president.

TA: Well, that’s a pretty big deal…

AB: That is a big deal, but to some people in this country, like Dylann Roof, that is the end of this country. That’s why you had the kind of phrase that he said, that all your politicians, the right Republican politicians have been saying, “Take our country back.” And so, I want to talk about the rhetoric that’s happened…

Ashbrook has a point about progress, of course, but it’s just the wrong time to say that, days after a racist massacre that seems as timeless as a Black-church burning. At that moment there could be no progress.

For whatever reason, Ashbrook turned to progress on the interpersonal level:

TA: We did see White people in South Carolina, in Charleston, pour into the churches alongside African Americans over this weekend.

AB: Yes we did. But you need to understand the distinction here. I don’t doubt that there are well-meaning, good White people, good White Christians, who are appalled at this. I understand that. But when you have a structural system that continues to do this kind of racial profiling, the kinds of things that are going on with the police in this country, the kinds of issues that we’ve had. The problem becomes this: you can talk about progress all you want, but reality is another thing altogether.

Again, it’s progress, but focusing on it at that moment is basically #AllLivesMatter. President Obama also tried to keep his eyes on the prize, in his appearance on the WTF podcast:

Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.

Outrage ensued about his use of “nigger,” but White House Press Secretary Josh “earnest non-racist white guy” Earnest doubled down:

The President’s use of the word and the reason that he used the word could not be more apparent from the context of his discussion on the podcast.  The President made clear that it’s not possible to judge the nation’s progress on race issues based solely on an evaluation of our country’s manners.  The fact is that we’ve made undeniable progress in this country over the last several decades, and as the President himself has often said, anyone who lived in this country through the ‘50s and the ‘60s and the ‘70s and the ‘80s notes the tremendous progress that we’ve made.  That progress is undeniable. But what’s also undeniable is that there is more work that needs to be done, and there’s more that we can do.  And the fact is everyone in this country should take some inspiration from the progress that was made in the previous generation and use that as a motivation and an inspiration to try to make further progress toward a more perfect union.

Now is no time to talk about progress, some say. With Black church members being gunned down and churches burning, and one appalling, outrageous video after another showing the abuse of Black citizens by police, having a Black president is not a victory. So much so that maybe he’s not really Black at all. Frank Roberts writes of Obama’s “Amazing Grace” moment:

With Obama … blackness has been reduced to a theatrical prop; a shuck-and-jive entertainment device that keeps (black) audiences believing that the President “feels their pain” — at precisely the same time that he fails to provide a substantive policy response to black unemployment, over-incarceration, and/or racialized state violence.

The social scientist in me objects, because the rate of progress is not determined by the victory or tragedy of the moment, or by the blackness of a man. And Obama probably has done more than any other president (at least recently) to address Black unemployment, incarceration, and racialized state violence. That’s not a moral or political statement — and it doesn’t imply “enough” — it’s an empirical one.

Movements use good news for legitimacy, and bad news for urgency.  When something goes well, they need to claim credit and also make sure their supporters know there is more work to be done. When something awful happens they place the troubles in the context of a narrative of struggle, but they don’t want to appear powerless because that saps support as well, and undermines morale.

Case in point, marriage equality

In that old psychology study of lottery winners and paraplegic accident victims, the researchers concluded that we put too much weight on the fleeting reactions of others to good or bad events, falsely assuming that these events will define them permanently. Since gay marriage will not actually make their lives worse, I have to assume that the doom-and-gloom gang on pathetic display in a mordantly morose, delightfully depressive, symposium on the Supreme Court decision at the religious conservative First Things site will soon again return to being their sunny selves.*

And these people will go back to being miserable soon enough. (Photo by James Buck)

And these San Francisco Pride marchers will go back to being miserable soon enough. (Photo by James Buck)

In the meantime, the family right will use SCOTUS to stoke their movement — after an oh-so-dramatic display of what Jeffrey Toobin called a “religiously themed retreat into victimology.”

But the anti-equality right has to be careful, or their nattering negativity will undermine their appeal, especially among young people who haven’t yet given up all hope of being the change they want to see. For Ted Cruz to call this — that is, people getting married — “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history,” to declare a “day of mourning,” or to see a vision of Jesus weeping, all may be a little much for the youth vote. (Not that kids these days know how to spell anymore, but I think they’ll get the difference between “morning” and “mourning” in America.) It’s one thing for religious conservatives to entice others to join them on the holier-than-them side of the fence with a little martyrdom (after all, whole religions have been built on it). But who wants to join a movement — much less have Thanksgiving dinner — with a guy who wallows in his own defeat like this?

While many have pointed to the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade as an obvious historical analogue for the Obergefell decision, to my mind, the insistence that all must conform to the new, official definition of marriage that no civilization has ever endorsed until yesterday seems to be more aptly compared to life under Communism. … The “monopoly of violence” possessed by the State is now a main weapon in perpetuating this lie, and will be used mercilessly and without cessation against those who persist on pointing out that it seeks to perpetuate a lie. But violence will serve as a last resort, merely backstopping the education system, the economic players, and even family members who will work to correct wayward thinkers.

That poor persecuted soul, by the way, is a tenured professor.

Four flippers, three balls, magna-save.

* The First Things symposium was linked without explicit endorsement by Ross Douthat, who on marriage equality day did not pause to congratulate a gay couple (whose wedding he would rather not attend anyway) before mean-spiritedly besmirching the movement by speculating on the coming legalization of polygamy.


Filed under Politics

Women in parliaments, by income

Say what you want about the United States of America, but we don’t have the world’s lowest percentage of women in the national legislature.

Here are the countries with at least 5 million people in 2013, arrayed by income and percentage of women in parliament (click to enlarge)*:


Source: My figure form http://wdi.worldbank.org

On the plus side, the USA leads the world in per capita income among countries with fewer than 19 percent women in its national legislature (except for the United Arab Emirates.)

* Note: Rwanda, with per-capita income of $1,430, has 64% women in parliament, but I didn’t include it because expanding the scale that far shrank the rest of the graph too much. Also note Canada is accidentally mislabeled as Cameroon.


Filed under In the news

That marriage-reduces-poverty-82-percent statistic

With PolitiFact addendum at the end.

If you’ve heard about Marco Rubio saying we need more marriage to reduce poverty, you might wonder where his factoid came from.

Rubio said:

The greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.

Rubio, Rector

Rubio, Rector

That insight came from this piece by a Heritage Foundation guy, Robert Rector, who is the cartoon-villain embodiment of partisan hackery (see this previous post for some details). Rector wrote:

According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with children was 6.8 percent. Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.

That’s it! (37.1 – 6.8) / 37.1 = .82, so marriage reduces poverty 82%. You don’t get to be the “intellectual godfather of welfare reform” without knowing a thing or two about statistics.

By the same logic, he should have said, “The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year” — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.

Discussing why this is or isn’t wrong could be a nice methods class exercise.

PolitiFact addendum

PolitiFact evaluated the Rubio statement, and aside from a few insignificant quibbles determined it was true, so they gave it a rating of “Mostly True.” They wrote, in explanation:

We should note that some critics have taken issue with the implications of the statistic Rubio cited. Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, wrote on his blog, “By the same logic, (Rubio) should have said, ‘The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year’ — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.”

Meanwhile, the liberal group Think Progress pointed to a blog post from a few days earlier by the Council on Contemporary Families, a group of academics that study family policy, that said a “nationally representative study of more than 7,000 women found that approximately 64 percent of the single mothers who married were divorced by the time they reached age 35-44. More importantly, single mothers who marry and later divorce are worse off economically than single mothers who never marry.”

These may be valid points. However, in his comments, Rubio did not suggest that government pursue any specific government policies to directly promote marriage. He also said that being a two-parent family “decreases the probability of child poverty,” which sounds to us like a mathematical analysis of the existing data, rather than a suggestion that changing policies to encourage marriage will actually reduce poverty that already exists.

For this reason, we are analyzing the mathematics that underlie his comment question, not the conclusions that can, or can’t, be drawn from the statistic.

It’s not about policy or math, though: the error is about causality. If we made a law that only rich people could get married, the Census data would give you a similar result. And by this reasoning PolitiFact would say it’s OK to claim marriage “decreases the probability of child poverty,” because the math is right. That’s not right.


Filed under In the news, Politics

All opposed? (to family change)

Over on his Iranian Redneck blog, Darren Sherkat has an interesting series of posts on religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage, using new data from the 2012 General Social Survey (fundamentalism, denominations, young Republicans 2x, race, and the 2004-2012 trend) — all extensions of his academic work on the subject (2x). All of this shows that, in addition to political conservatism, religious fundamentalists and people in sectarian Christian denominations are (or were) driving opposition to marriage rights.

But same-sex marriage (homogamy) is only one aspect of growing family diversity. I was reminded of a survey the Pew Research Center did with Time in 2010, called “The Changing American Family,” which asked a question I like:

These days there seems to be a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in. Overall, do you think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or don’t you think it makes a difference?

I’m not sure what to make of the people who think it’s “good” versus those who think it makes “no difference.” But the people who think family diversity is a “bad thing” — 28% of the population — might be the definition of family conservatives. So who are they (or, who were they in 2010)? Think of them as the sky-is-falling set.

Couple looking up

The good people at Pew offer a data download, which (once you get it out of SPSS format) is pretty easy to use. Using religion, political affiliation, education, race/ethnicity, and some other demographic variables, I made a simple regression model that explained 19% of the variance in “bad thing” attitude. Rather than show the regression table, here are the bivariate relationships between “bad thing” and those characteristics (I also labeled the blocks with how much of the variance they independently explained).

bad-thingAs with Sherkat’s findings for same-sex marriage, the most important predictors of opposition to family diversity are religion and political affiliation – but religion is by far the strongest. For example, people who don’t think family diversity is bad were about 3-times more likely to never attend religious services. The absolute majority – 54% of people who chose “bad thing” – described themselves as born again Christians, and a quarter of them attend church more than once per week. The counter-stereotypical findings are:

  • Latinos are less likely to oppose family diversity than anyone else.
  • Those with high school education or less are the least likely to say “bad thing.” (In the multivariate model, college graduates also choose “bad thing” less, making the some-college crowd the most conservative.)

This is not a scientific study, but an illustrative exploration. I don’t know enough about the data collection to know how well these data could withstand peer review, or whether this could be done with a more rigorous dataset such as the General Social Survey. But I like the question, so figured I’d share the results.


Filed under Me @ work, Politics