Saturday, July 25, 2015

Fortunate sons (and daughter)

American politicians have always liked to talk about how they were born in a log cabin (or the contemporary equivalent) and worked their way up.  In anticipation of hearing a lot of tales of upward mobility, I did a systematic search for information on the class background of the 16 Republican candidates.  I'll consider the father's job for all except Ben Carson, who was raised by his mother.  In cases of fathers who changed careers, I took the job when the candidate was about 10, which means that Jeb Bush's father is counted as a businessman and Rand Paul's as a doctor.

I distinguished three classes:  working class (employed doing manual work), middle class (manager, professional, or own a business or farm), and upper class (large employer).  By this definition, only four of the candidates can claim the coveted working-class background.  They are Ben Carson (mother had various unskilled jobs, including domestic servant), John Kasich (father was a mail carrier), Mike Huckabee (father was a firefighter), and Marco Rubio (father was a bartender).  Ten had middle-class backgrounds, and two (Bush and Trump) had upper class backgrounds.  At the time the candidates were growing up, in the country as a whole I think the breakdown would have been about 60% working class, 40% middle class, and only a few (less than 1%) upper class, so the middle and upper classes are over-represented among the candidates, which isn't surprising.  I was struck by the fact that at least seven of the fathers were self-employed (I don't know about Chris Christie's).  That makes sense given the ideology of the Republican party, but it may apply to both parties:  since a politician in the United States is a kind of entrepreneur, children of self-employed people may have an affinity for the profession.

While I was at it, I also recorded the universities that the candidates had attended.  Five had undergraduate degrees from Ivy League colleges, and one from Stanford.  Except for Huckabee, all of the others had attended at least moderately selective colleges, as defined here.

PS:  a spreadsheet with the occupations is here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

More discrimination

In 1971, a Harris survey asked "In general, to what extent do you feel blacks are discriminated against in this country--do you feel they are discriminated against a great deal, somewhat, only a little, or not at all?"  In 1997 and 1999, ABC News Polls asked an almost identical question:  "Do you think blacks are discriminated against in this society a lot, somewhat, a little, or not at all?"  The results:

                     1971    1997    1999
A lot/great deal      26%     22%    26%
Somewhat              37%     49%    43%
Little                19%     20%    19%
Not at all            15%     8%     11%

On the average, people saw more discrimination in the 1990s than in 1971, mostly because of a decline in the percent choosing "not at all" (the differences are statistically significant).  As far as I can tell, the original data are available only for 1997:  in that year, the percents among non-Hispanic whites were 17, 53, 21, and 9, and among blacks were 44, 44, 9, and 3.  Given the relative shares of blacks and whites in the population, it's safe to say that whites saw more discrimination against blacks in the 1990s than they did in 1970.  

I've had several posts on this general topic (see the list at the end of this post). Although there are a reasonable number of repeated questions, none of them are repeated regularly over a long period of time.  But they all seem to point in the same direction, with one possible exception:  whites perceive more discrimination against blacks (and less against whites) than they used to.  The possible exception is this one.  I have a hypothesis about that, which I hope to check in the next few weeks.   

Related posts:





Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When no one cares

Sociologists don't get nearly as much attention in the media as other social scientists (Justin Wolfers gives some data and Syed Ali has a more general discussion).  Many eminent sociologists have tried to explain this situation.  On the surface, they offer a wide variety of answers, but at a deeper level they agree:  it's because too many sociologists don't do the sort of research that the author does.  If the author does qualitative work, the reason is that there's too much quantitative research; if the author  does quantitative work, the reason is that there's too little quantitative research (a variant is that sociologists have poor quantitative skills, so when we do quantitative research it isn't very good).  If the author favors "engaged" scholarship, the reason is that too many sociologists try to be above the fray and avoid talking about things that matter to people; if the author favors "scientific" scholarship, the reason is too many sociologists offer nothing more than political advocacy.

I'm going to take another approach and ask what kind of social scientific research gets attention in the media.  I haven't made a systematic count, but it seems that journalists are very fond of two related types of studies--those that find that an apparently small or irrelevant factor has a big influence on something important (e. g., unconscious gender stereotypes influence hurricane deaths!) and those that find a small intervention has a big impact (e. g., a 15 minute conversation leads to lasting change in support for same-marriage! and even affects the opinions of other people in the household!).  You can see why these would appeal to journalists:  there's a story that's easy to tell and surprising.

Sociologists are inclined to think that everything is connected and that any important  social condition has deep roots in social structure and/or culture.  We also tend to be reluctant to put that aside and try "cute little models that one hoped yielded surprising insights" (as Paul Krugman described his own style of work).  As a result, sociologists are less likely to come up with the kind of findings or claims that appeal to journalists.

This inclination has some good consequences.   First, it tends to prevent truly lame-brained research. More important, it encourages us to be serious about considering alternative explanations and controlling for other variables.  A sociologist is not going to ask "does my theory suggest a reason to control for variable z?"; he or she is going to ask "if I don't control for z, will somebody complain that I should have?"  The answer to that second question is probably yes, so the sociologist will control for z, and while they're at it maybe take a look at what happens with the log of z.....

But the inclination also has some negative consequences.  When it comes to generalizations, sociologists have a tendency to go for  "no difference/no change" or "no simple generalization is possible."  These shade into each other:  often it's no definitive evidence plus the principle that  "no difference" or "no change" should get the benefit of the doubt.*  With policy issues, sociologists have a tendency to say that you can't have a real solution  without changing a lot of other things, which would mean a fundamental transformation of society.  As a result, we avoid making gross mistakes, but miss the opportunity to make a contribution.

*This principle can be methodological (an appeal to "Ockham's razor"), or political/social (you shouldn't lull people into complacency by suggesting that things are getting better).

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Whose idea?, part 2

The Eurobarometer survey mentioned in my last post shows more support for the Euro among more affluent, more educated, and younger people.  There was also more support among people who reported reading the newspaper or talking about politics more often.  Men were quite a bit more favorable than women--I expected some difference in that direction, since men tend to follow politics more closely than women, but the gap was surprisingly large.

As far as attitudes, support for the Euro was higher among people who agreed with the statement "In order to save energy, it has been proposed to increase taxes on energy consumption, and decrease other taxes by the same amount. We should therefore not have to pay any more than now."  Economists, and people who've been influenced by economists, tend to be favorable to this kind of thing on the grounds that it gives an incentive to use less but doesn't dictate people's choices.  Ordinary people, however, are often opposed--I think that's mostly because they think it's unfair to put special taxes on something people need.  Support for the Euro was also higher among people who said "yes" to "In your opinion, is it very important, important, not very important or not at all important to help the people in poor countries in Africa, South America, Asia, etc. to develop."

Support for the Euro didn't have much connection to self rated political ideology (the Eurobarometer asks people to pick a place on a ten-point scale going from left to right).  In some nations, support was higher on the left, in others it was higher on the right, but  the connection wasn't very strong in any nation.  I thought there might be a pattern in which support was higher near the center and lower on the extreme left or right.  There was evidence of that in a few countries, notably France, but not in most of them.  So my impression that "right-thinking" (progressive, well-informed) people supported the Euro was correct.  Unfortunately, this may have been another case in which the clever fellows were wrong and the damned fools were right.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Whose idea was this?

An interesting feature of the discussions of the negotiations between Greece and the EU is that all right-thinking people seem to assume that the Euro must be preserved.  For example, Roger Cohen  starts a column by saying "doing things differently in a currency union that is not also a political union is almost impossible. So there is a fundamental question about democracy in the eurozone. The degree to which it exists is questionable."  That's a pretty damning criticism of the current arrangement.  The natural conclusion seems to be that since political union isn't likely to happen in the near future, the Euro should be scrapped and nations should go back to having their own currencies.  But Cohen doesn't even raise that as an argument to be refuted--he just assumes that protecting the Euro is an important goal.

This reminded me of the situation when the Euro was introduced.  I didn't give it much thought, but my inclination was to think that it would be a bad thing, for the reason Cohen mentioned.  But it seemed like there was a consensus among "mainstream media" commentators that of course it was a good thing.  I wondered this reflected the views of professional economists, and found a useful paper by Lars Jonung and Eoin Drea entitled "The Euro:  It Can't Happen, It's a Bad Idea, It Won't Last,  US Economists on the EMU, 1989-2002. "  The title gives a good summary of its findings:  American economists ranged from  skeptical to definitely negative.  Jonung and Drea didn't look systematically at European economists, but suggested that they basically followed the American lead, although they might have been somewhat more favorable.

So what kinds of people did support the Euro?  A Eurobarometer survey from 1996 asked "Are you for or against the European currency in all member states, including (OUR COUNTRY)?
That is, replacing the (NAME OF NATIONAL CURRENCY) by the European currency, that is the Euro?"  The possible answers were very much for, somewhat for, somewhat against, and very much against (some people volunteered that they were neutral).  To start with, here are average opinions by nation, counting very much for as +2, somewhat for as +1, neutral as 0, somewhat against as -1, and very much against as -2.

Italy           +0.92
Ireland         +0.79
Luxembourg      +0.75
Spain           +0.71 
Netherlands     +0.66
Greece          +0.66
Portugal        +0.44
France          +0.43
Belgium         +0.40
Austria         -0.20
W. Germany      -0.20
E. Germany      -0.26
UK              -0.51
Sweden          -0.52
Finland         -0.64
Denmark         -0.65

Although I didn't actually do any analysis, it seems that support was higher in (a) smaller countries (b) less affluent countries and (c) countries in which the government had a reputation for being less efficient and honest.  That's not surprising, since people in those countries could expect to see more benefits.   The UK, Denmark, and (so far) Sweden have stayed out, but Austria, Germany, and Finland joined despite generally negative opinion.

[Data from GESIS--Leibiz Institute for the Social Sciences]

Saturday, July 4, 2015

More conventional wisdom

When the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was passed, opinion was pretty evenly divided, but most polls showed more opposed than in favor.  Five years later, the situation is pretty much the same.  This is in contrast to earlier programs like Social Security and Medicare, on which opinion was divided when the were passed but soon became overwhelmingly favorable.  At least that's what I've always thought about those programs, and it seems to be the conventional view.  However, Theda Skocpol and Lawrence Jacobs say that "Social Security remained politically vulnerable until the 1950s and did not become broadly popular or embedded in economic life until reforms under President Richard M. Nixon raised benefits for the poor and the middle class."

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935, the same year that the Gallup Poll began, and the first check was issued in 1940.  This is a pretty complete list of opinion questions about Social Security asked in the early years:   

Dec 1937.  "The present Social Security law does not cover household help, sailors, farm workers, and employees in small shops. Do you think the law should be extended to include these workers?" yes:  74%   no:   26%

Dec 1937:  "Do you approve of the present Social Security tax on wages?"
yes:  73%  no:  27%

yes:  78%  no:  18%

April 1943 (NORC):  "As you may know, under the present Social Security Law, workers in certain occupations have to save money so when they are too old to work they will receive money from the government, like insurance. Do you think this is a good idea or a bad idea?"
good idea:  95% bad idea 3%

Debate over domestic issues was muted during the war, so to be fair I'll add a question from 1946.  There was a sharp move to the right in that election, with Republicans winning control of both houses of Congress (one of the new members of the House was Richard Nixon):

Dec 1946 (Roper/Fortune):  "Would you like to see Social Security extended so that more people will get payments under it, changed so that fewer people will get payment under it, or left about as it is now? "
more:  49%  fewer:  2%  same 34%

Social Security was clearly "broadly popular" long before Nixon became president.  Unfortunately, it's not possible to say whether it was popular when first proposed or whether it became popular soon after it was enacted.  With Medicare, there was a shift--opinion was pretty evenly divided when it was proposed but swung in favor.  

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]