Author Archives: jl2109

Medicare vs. National Health Care: How U.S. Seniors Do in Cross-National Perspective

“We need to get rid of Obamacare,” says Ed Gillispie in a NYT op-ed. The reason: Obamacare’s “gravitational pull toward a single-payer system that would essentially supplant private insurance with a government program.”

Gillespie, who lays out his credentials at the start of the article – he ran for Senate in Virginia and lost – notes that Obamacare is unpopular. But he omits all mention of a government-run single-payer system that happens to be very popular – Medicare. No Republican dare run on a platform of doing away with it. Gillespie himself accused Obamacare of cutting Medicare, a statement that Politifact found “Mostly False.”

So how are seniors doing? Compared to their pre-Medicare counterparts, they are  probably healthier, and they’re probably shelling out less for health care. But compared to seniors in other countries, not so well. A Commonwealth Fund survey of eleven countries finds that seniors (age 65 and older) in the U.S. are the least healthy – the most likely to suffer from chronic illnesses.* 

Over half the U.S. seniors say that they are taking four or more prescription drugs; all the other countries were below 50%:

And despite Medicare, money was a problem. Nearly one in five said that in the past year they “did not visit a doctor, skipped a medical test or treatment that a doctor recommended, or did not fill a prescription or skipped doses because of cost.” A slightly higher percent had been hit with $2,000 or more in out-of-pocket expenses. 

In those other countries, with their more socialistic health care systems, seniors seem to be doing better, physically and financially.  One reason that American seniors are less healthy is that our universal, socialized medical care doesn’t kick in until age 65. People in those other countries have affordable health care starting in the womb. 

Critics of more socialized systems claim that patients must wait longer to see a doctor. The survey found some support for that. Does it take more than four weeks to get to see a specialist? U.S. seniors had the highest percentage of those who waited less than that. But when it came to getting an ordinary doctor’s appointment, the U.S. lagged behind seven of the other ten countries.

There was one bright spot for U.S. seniors. They were the most likely to have developed a treatment plan that they could carry out in daily life. And their doctors  “discussed their main goals and gave instructions on symptoms to watch for” and talked with them about diet and exercise.

Gillespie and many other Republicans want to scrap Obamacare and substitute something else. That’s progress I suppose. Not too long ago, they were quite happy with the pre-Obamacare status quo. Throughout his years in the White House, George Bush insisted that “America has the best health care system in the world.” Their Republican ideology precludes them from learning from other countries. As Marco Rubio put it, we must avoid “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.”

But you’d think that they might take a second look at Medicare, a program many of them publicly support.

* Includes hypertension or high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung problems, mental health problems, cancer, and joint pain/arthritis.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

School Shootings: What’s Different About Europe?

Yesterday’s killing was the 39th school shooting in the U.S. this year.  Most of those got little press coverage. Unless someone is actually killed, a shooting might not even get coverage in the local news.

Yesterday’s did.

Why would an apparently happy kid shoot several classmates? That seems to be the question that’s getting the attention of the press and perhaps the public. “Struggling to Find Motive,” said one typical headline. That’s the way we think about school shootings these days.

It’s unlikely that any of the motives that turn up will be all that strange. Fryberg may have been upset by a racial comment someone had made the day before or by a break-up with a girl. He may have had other conflicts with other kids. Nothing unusual there.

But “why” is not the question that first occurs to me. What I always ask is how a 14-year old kid can get his hands on a .40 Beretta handgun (or whatever the weaponry in the shooting of the week is).  For Fryberg it  was easy. The pistol belonged to his father. Nothing strange there either.  Thirty million homes in the US, maybe forty million, are stocked with guns.

Do European countries have school shootings like this? Surely kids in Europe get upset about break-ups; surely they must have conflicts with their classmates; and surely, some of them may become irrationally upset by these setbacks.  So surely there must have been school shootings in Europe too.

I went to Wikipedia and looked for school shootings since 1980 (here and here).  I eliminated shootings by adults (e.g., Lanza in Sandy Hook, Brevik in Norway). I also deleted in-school suicides even though these were done with guns and were terrifying to the other students. I’m sure my numbers are not perfectly accurate, and the population estimate in the graph below  is based on current numbers; I didn’t bother to find an average over the last 35 years. Still the differences are so large that I’m sure they are not due to technical problems in the data.

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Does the U.S. have a much greater proportion of kids who are mentally unstable? Do our schools have more bullying? Are European kids more capable in dealing with conflicts? Are they more stable after break-ups? Do they spend less time with violent video games? Do their schools have more programs to identify and counsel the potentially violent?  I’m not familiar with the data on these, but I would guess that the answer is no and that our kids are no more screwed up than kids in Europe. Or if there are differences, they are not large enough to explain the difference in the body count.

No, the important difference seems to be the guns.  But guns have become the elephant in the room that nobody talks about.  Even asking about access to guns seems unAmerican these days.  Thanks to the successful efforts of the NRA and their representatives in government, guns have become a taken-for-granted part of the landscape. Asking how a 14-year old got a handgun is like asking how he got a bicycle to ride to school.

When the elephant’s presence is too massive not be noticed – for example, when the elephant kills several people –  the elephant’s spokesmen rush in to tell us that “No, this is not the time to talk about the elephant.”  And so we talk about video games and psychological screening and parents and everything else, until the next multiple killing. But of course that too is not the time to talk about elephants.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Four years ago, twenty-three economists (mostly conservative) signed a letter to Ben Bernanke warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy – adding billions of dollars to the economy – would be disastrous. It would “debase the currency,” create high inflation, distort financial markets, and do nothing to reduce unemployment.

Four years later, it’s clear that they were wrong (as Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us). Have they changed their beliefs?

Of course not.

Bloomberg asked the letter-signers what they now thought about their prophecy.  Here’s the headline: “Fed Critics Say ’10 Letter Warning Inflation Still Right.”
This despite the actual low inflation:

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I don’t know why I assume that high-level economists would be more likely than some ordinary people to change their ideas to adjust for new facts. Fifty years ago, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed that even in areas like chemistry and physics, scientists cling to their paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts. Why should big-shot economists be any different? It also occurs to me that it’s the most eminent in a profession who will be more resistant to change.  After all, it’s the people at the top who have the greatest amount invested in their ideas – publications, reputations, consultantships, and of course ego. Economists call these “sunk costs.”

So how do they maintain their beliefs?

Most of the 23 declined to comment; a few could not be reached (including Ronald McKinnon, who died the previous day).  Of those who responded, only one, Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, came close to saying, “My prediciton was wrong.”

“All of us, I think, who signed the letter have never seen anything like what’s happened here.”

Most of the others preferred denial:

“The letter was correct as stated.” (David Malpass. He worked in Treasury under Reagan and Bush I)

“The letter mentioned several things… and all have happened.” (John Taylor, Stanford)

“I think there’s plenty of inflation — not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.” (Jim Grant of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” Kinda makes you wonder how closely he’s been observing interest rates.)

Then there was equivocation. After Thursday night’s debacle – Giants 8, Pirates 0, knocking Pittsburgh out of the playoffs– someone reminded me, “Hey, didn’t you tell me that the Pirates would win the World Series?”

“Yes, but I didn’t say when.”

Some of the letter-signers used this same tactic, and just about as convincingly.

“Note that word ‘risk.’ And note the absence of a date.” (Niall Ferguson, Harvard)

“Inflation could come…” (Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation)

The 1954 sociology classic When Prophecy Fails describes group built around a prediction that the world would soon be destroyed and that they, the believers, would be saved by flying saucers from outer space.  When it didn’t happen, they too faced the problem of cognitive dissonance – dissonance between belief and fact. But because they had been very specific about what would happen and when it would happen, they could not very well use the  denial and equivocation favored by the economists. Instead, they first by claimed that what had averted the disaster was their own faith. By meeting and planning and believing so strongly in their extraterrestrial rescuers, they had literally saved the world. The economists, by contrast, could not claim that their warnings saved us from inflation, for their warning – their predictions and prescriptions – had been ignored by Fed. So instead they argue that there actually is, or will be, serious inflation.

The other tactic that the millenarian group seized on was to start proselytizing – trying to convert others and to bring new members into the fold.  For the conservative economists, this tactic is practically a given, but it is not necessarily a change.  They had already been spreading their faith, as professors and as advisors (to policy makers, political candidates, wealthy investors, et al.). They haven’t necessarily redoubled their efforts, but the evidence has not given them pause.  They continue to publish their unreconstructed views to as wide an audience as possible.

That’s the curious thing about cognitive dissonance. The goal is to reduce the dissonance, and it really doesn’t matter how.  Of course, you could change your ideas, but letting go of long and deeply held ideas when the facts no longer co-operate is difficult. Apparently it’s easier to change the facts (by denial, equivocation, etc.). Or, equally effective in reducing the dissonance, you can convince others that you are right. That validation is just as effective as a friendly set of facts, especially if it comes from powerful and important people and comes with rewards both social and financial.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

What Predicts NFL Arrest Records: Position or Disposition?

When sports stories wind up in the headlines and network news, something’s usually very wrong. The news biz, whether print or TV, usually keeps athletes confined in the sports section.  So now we have the network anchors talking about Adrian Peterson leaving welts on the flesh of his son, age four, or showing us the video of Ray Rice coldcocking his fiancee in the elevator. Other NFL domestic violence stories, previously ignored (no superstar players, no video), are now mentioned since they fit the news theme.

These incidents all suggest that maybe football players are just violent people – men with a streak of violence in their dispositions. This personality trait that allows them to flourish on the field, but too often it gets them in trouble after they leave the stadium.

This is the kind of psychological “kinds of people” explanation that I ask students to avoid or at least question, and to question it with data. Conveniently, we have some data. USA Today has the entire NFL rap sheet, and it looks like a long one – more than 700 arrests since 2000.  Nearly 100 arrests for assault, another 85 or so for domestic violence. And those are just the arrests. No doubt many battered wives or girlfriends and many bruised bodies in bars didn’t make it into these statistics. Are football players simply violent people – violent off the field as well as on?

Well, no. The largest category of arrests is drunk driving  – potentially very harmful, but not what most people would call violent.  And besides, NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than are their uncleated counterparts – men in their late twenties.

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This suggests that the violence we see in the stadiums on Sunday is situational (perhaps like the piety and moral rectitude we encounter elsewhere on Sunday).  The violence resides not in the players but in the game.  On every down, players must be willing to use violence against another person. Few off-the-field situations call for violence, so we shouldn’t be surprised that these same men have a relatively low rate of arrest (low relative to other young men).

But let’s not discard the personal angle completely. If we look at arrests within the NFL, we see two things that suggest there might be something to this idea that violence, or at least a lack of restraint, might have an individual component as well.  First, although NFL arrests are lower for all crimes, they are much, much lower for non-violent offenses like theft. But for domestic violence, the rate is closer that of non-footballers.  The NFL rate for domestic violence is still substantially lower than the national average – 55 NFL arrests for every 100 among non-NFL men. But for theft, the ratio is one-tenth of that – 5.5 NFL arrests per 100 non-NFL. Also on the higher side are other offenses against a person (murder, sex offenses) and offenses that might indicate a careless attitude toward danger – DUI, guns.

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Second, some positions have a disproportionate number of offenders. The graphs below show the percent of all arrests accounted for by each position and also the percent the position represents of the total NFL roster.  For example, cornerbacks make up about 10% of all players, but they accounted for about 14% of all arrests. (The difference is not huge, but it’s something; there would be a very slight overlap in the error bars if my version of Excel made it easy to include them.)

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The positions disproportionately likely to be arrested are wide receivers and defensive tackles. Those most under-represented in arrests are the offensive linemen.

This fits with my own image of these positions. The wide-outs seem to have more than their share of free-spirits – players who care little for convention or rules. Some are just oddball amusing, like Chad Ochocinco formerly of the Bengals. Others are trouble and get traded from team to team despite their abilities, like Terrell Owens of the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals.

As for the linemen, the arrest differential down in the trenches also might be expected.  Back in the 1970s, a psychiatrist hired by the San Diego Chargers noted this difference on his first visit to the locker room. It wasn’t the players – the offensive and defensive lineman themselves looked about the same (huge, strong guys) – it was their lockers. They were a metaphor for on-the-field play.  Defensive linemen charge, push, pull, slap – whatever they can do to knock over opponents, especially the one holding the ball. Their lockers were messy, clothes and equipment thrown about carelessly. Offensive lineman, by contrast, are more restricted. Even on a run play, their movements are carefully co-ordinated, almost choreographed. Watch a slo-mo of the offensive line on a sweep, and you’ll see legs moving in chorus-line unison.  Correspondingly, their lockers were models of organization and restraint.

Maybe these same personal qualities prevail off the field as well. Those offensive lineman get arrested at a rate only half of what we would expect from their numbers in the NFL population. Arrests of defensive linemen and wide receivers are 50% more likely than their proportion on the rosters. That can’t be the entire explanation of course. Running counter to this “kinds of people” approach are the other hard-hitting defensive players – defensive ends and linebackers. According to the principle of violent people in violent positions, they should be over-represented in arrest figures just like the  defensive tackles and cornerbacks. But they are not.

If this were a real article, a journal article, this final paragraph would be where the author calls for more data. But the trend in NFL arrests has been downward, and if fewer arrests means less data but also less domestic violence, that’s fine with me.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Why Don’t Religious People Know More About Religion?

Economist Robin Hanson has an “it isn’t about” list. It begins:

  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort

Also on the list is:

  • Church isn’t about God

Maybe church isn’t about religious ideas either.

I was reminded of this recently when I followed a link to a Pew quiz on religious knowledge. It’s a lite version of the 32-item quiz Pew used with a national sample in 2010.  One of the findings from that survey (the full report is here) was that people who went to church regularly and who said that religion was important in their lives didn’t do much better on the quiz than did those who had a weak attachment to church and religion.

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The strongly committed averaged 17 correct answers out of the 32 questions; the uncommitted, 16.  This same pattern was repeated in the more recent 15-question quiz.

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The committed may derive many things from their church attendance and faith, but knowledge of religion isn’t one of them.

To be fair, the quiz covers many religions, and people do know more about their own religion than they do about others.  “What was Joseph Smith’s religion?” Only about half the population gets that one right, but 93% of the Mormons nailed it. Mormons also knew more about the Ten Commandments. Catholics did better than others on the transubstantiation question.  But when it came to knowing who inspired the Protestant Reformation, Protestants got outscored by Jews and atheists.

Overall, nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons did much better than did Protestants and Catholics.

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One reason for their higher scores might be education – college graduates outscore high school or less by nearly 8 points out of 32.

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It may be that nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons are more likely to have finished college. Unfortunately, the Pew report does not give data that controls for education.

But another reason that these groups scored higher may be their position as religious minorities. Jews and Mormons have to explain to the flock how their ideas are different from those of the majority. Atheists and agnostics too, in their questioning and even rejecting,  have probably devoted more thought to religion, or more accurately, religions. On the questions about Shiva and Nirvana, they leave even the Jews and Mormons far behind.

For Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, learning detailed information about their religion is not as crucial. Just as White people in the US rarely ask what it means to be White, Christians need not worry about their differences from the mainstream. They are the mainstream. So going to church or praying can be much more about feelings – solidarity, transcendence, peace, etc.  That variety of religious experience need not include learning the history or even the tenets of the religion itself. As Durkheim said, the central element in religion is ritual – especially the feelings a ritual generates in the group. Knowing the actual beliefs might be a nice addition, but it’s not crucial.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Watch London Cops Subdue, Not Kill, a Man Yelling and Swinging a Machete

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened (see this account in The Atlantic). Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away? 

The video is all over the Internet, including the link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video, then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man in 2011.  In St. Louis, Powell had a steak knife and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.  The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.


Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started. By the time the recording begins, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.  According to The Economist:

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The article includes this graphic:

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I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.<

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Ross Douthat is puzzled. He seems to sense that a liberal policy might actually help, but his high conservative principles and morality keep him from taking that step. It’s a political version of Freudian repression – the conservative superego forcing tempting ideas to remain out of awareness.

In his column, Douthat recounts several anecdotes of criminal charges brought against parents whose children were unsupervised for short periods of time.  The best-known of these criminals of late is Debra Harrell, the mother in South Carolina who let her 9-year-old daughter go to a nearby playground while she (Debra) worked at her job at McDonald’s. The details of the case make it clear that this was not a bad mom – not cruel, not negligent. The playground was the best child care she could afford.

One solution should be obvious – affordable child care.  But the U.S. is rather stingy when it comes to kids. Other countries are way ahead of us on public spending for children.

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Conservatives will argue that child care should be private not public and that local charities and churches do a better job than do state-run programs. Maybe so. The trouble is that those private programs are not accessible to everyone. If Debra Harrell had been in France or Denmark, the problem would never have arisen.

The other conservative U.S. policy that put Debra Harrell in the arms of the law is “welfare reform.”  As Douthat explains, in the U.S., thanks to changes in the welfare system much lauded by conservatives, the U.S. now has “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.”

That’s the part that perplexes Douthat. He thinks that it’s a good thing for the government to force poor women to work, but it’s a bad thing for those women not to have the time to be good mothers. The two obvious solutions – affordable day care or support for women who stay home to take care of kids – conflict with the cherished conservative ideas: government bad, work good.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

As he says, it’s a distinctive challenge, but only if you cling so tightly to conservative principles that you reject solutions – solutions that seem to be working quite well in other countries – just because they involve the government or allow poor parents not to work.

Conservatives love to decry “the nanny state.”  That means things like government efforts to improve kids’ health and nutrition. (Right wingers make fun of the first lady for trying to get kids to eat sensibly and get some exercise.)

A nanny is a person who is paid to look after someone else’s kids. Well-off people hire them privately (though they still prefer to call them au pairs). But for the childcare problems of low-income parents, what we need is more of a nanny state, or more accurately, state-paid nannies.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws that Corporations Allow?

We refer to Senators and Congressional representatives as “lawmakers.” We democratically elect these people so that they can write and enact laws. But every so often the curtain parts, and we get a glimpse of who’s writing the laws, though these are usually laws that don’t make headlines. There was that time during the Bush years when corporate lobbyists were sitting right next to elected representatives – mostly Republican – at a committee hearing, telling them what to say.  The GOP defenders got all huffy at those who had pointed out who was really running the legislation show.

Last week’s New York Times has an article (here) about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.  Three-quarters of the way through the story, we get this paragraph (emphasis added):

Elaine C. Kamarck, the co-chairwoman of a bipartisan coalition of businesses and organizations that support a tax overhaul, says the only way a tax bill will pass is to use any savings derived from closing corporate loopholes solely to lower the overall corporate tax rate. The companies that have joined the coalition, which include Boeing, AT&T, Verizon, Walmart and Walt Disney, have agreed to put every loophole on the table, she said, because they believe “a low enough basic tax rate is worth giving up exemptions.”

The message is clear: our elected representatives can change the law only if a handful of corporations agree. Ms. Kamarck tells us that these corporations have selflessly allowed their tax dodges to be put “on the table.” Presumably, had they not been so magnanimous,  these corporations would not allow Congress to change the law.  She also implies that if the tradeoff – fewer exemptions but lower rates — doesn’t benefit the corporations, they’ll take their loopholes off the table and stop our elected representatives from changing the law.

Nice. I think that educators are so valuable to society that their income should not be taxed. But that table Ms. Kamarck mentions – the one where you tell Congress which tax rules you’ll accept – I can’t get anywhere near it.  So I pay my taxes. In fact, last year, I paid more in taxes than did Verizon and Boeing combined.  They, and several other huge corporations, paid zero.

I am, of course, naive to think that it was really Congress that wrote the laws that allow these corporations to pay nothing, and not the corporations themselves. How else?

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.