Tag Archives: economics

Pluralistic Ignorance and Retreat from the Confederate Flag

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The governors of Virginia and South Carolina have now taken stands against the Confederate battle flag. So have honchos at Wal*Mart, Sears, Target, and NASCAR.

NASCAR! How could this cascade of reversals have happened so rapidly? Did these important people wake up one morning this week and say to themselves, “Gee, I never realized that there was anything racist about the Confederacy, and never realized that there was anything wrong with racism, till that kid killed nine Black people in a church”?

My guess is that what’s going on is not a sudden enlightenment or even much of a change in views about the flag. To me it looks more like the process of “pluralistic ignorance.” What these people changed was not their ideas about the Confederacy or racism but their ideas about other people’s ideas about these matters. With pluralistic ignorance (a term coined by Floyd Allport nearly a century ago) everyone wants X but thinks that nobody else does. Then some outside factor makes it possible for people to choose X, and everyone does. Everyone is surprised – “Gee, I thought all you guys wanted Y, not X .” It looks like a rapid change in opinion, but it’s not.

A few years ago in places like Ireland and Europe, people were surprised at the success of new laws banning smoking in pubs and restaurants. “Oh, the smokers will never stand for it.” But it turned out that the smokers, too, were quite happy to have rooms with breathable air. It’s just that before the laws were passed, nobody knew that’s how other people felt because those people kept smoking.

The same thing happened when New York City passed a pooper-scooper law. “The law is unenforceable,” people said. “Cops will never see the actual violation, only its aftermath. And do you really think that those selfish New Yorkers will sacrifice their own convenience for some vague public good?” But the law was remarkably effective. As I said in this post from 2009:

Even before the new law, dog owners had probably thought that cleaning up after their dogs was the right thing to do, but since everyone else was leaving the stuff on the sidewalk, nobody wanted to be the only schmuck in New York to be picking up dog shit. In the same way that the no-smoking laws worked because smokers wanted to quit, the dog law in New York worked because dog owners really did agree that they should be cleaning up after their dogs. But prior to the law, none of them would speak or act on that idea.

In South Carolina and Georgia and Bentonville, Arkansas and elsehwere, the governors and the CEOs surely knew that the Confederacy was based on racist slavery; they just rarely thought about it. And if the matter did come up, as with the recent Supreme Court decision about license plates, they probably assumed that most of their constituents and customers were happy with the flag and that the anti-flaggers were a cranky minority.

With the support for letting that flag fade into history, it looks as though for a while now many Southerners may have been uncomfortable with the blatant racism of the Confederacy and the post-Reconstruction era. But because nobody voiced that discomfort, everyone thought that other Southerners still clung to the old mentality. The murders in the Charleston church and the subsequent discussions about retiring the flag may have allowed Southerners to discover that their neighbors shared their misgivings about the old racism. And it allowed the retail giants to see that they weren’t going to lose a lot of money by not stocking the flag.

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.

How Does a Movie Gain an Audience?

Saturday night, I went to the 7:30 showing of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” The movie had just opened, so I went early. I didn’t want the local teens to grab the all the good seats – you know, that thing where maybe four people from the group are in the theater but they’ve put coats, backpacks, and other place markers over two dozen seats for their friends, who eventually come in five minutes after they feature has started.

That didn’t happen. The theater (the AMC on Broadway at 68th St.) was two-thirds empty (one-third full if you’re an optimist), and there were no teenagers. Fox Searchlight, I thought, is going to have to do a lot of searching to find a big enough audience to cover the $6 million they paid for the film at Sundance. The box office for the first weekend was $196,000 which put it behind 19 other movies.

But don’t write off “Me and Earl” as a bad investment. Not yet. According to a story in Variety, Searchlight is looking that “Me and Earl” will be to the summer of 2015 what “Napoleon Dynamite” was to the summer of 2004. Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Me and Earl” was a festival hit but with no established stars and debt director (though Gomez-Rejon has done television – several “Glees” and “American Horror Storys”). “Napoleon” grossed only $210,000 its first week, but its popularity kept growing – slowly at first, then more rapidly as word spread – eventually becoming cult classic. Searchlight is hoping that “Me and Earl” follows a similar path.

The other important similarity between “Napoleon” and “Earl” is that both were released in the same week as a Very Big Movie – “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” in 2004, “Jurassic World” last weekend. That too plays a part in how a film catches on (or doesn’t).

In an earlier post I graphed the growth in cumulative box office receipts for two movies – “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Twilight.”  The shapes of the curves illustrated two different models of the diffusion of ideas.  In one (“Greek Wedding”), the influence came from within the audience of potential moviegoers, spreading by word of mouth. In the other (“Twilight”), impetus came from outside – highly publicized news of the film’s release hitting everyone at the same time. I was working from a description of these models in sociologist Gabriel Rossman’s Climbing the Charts.

You can see these patterns again in the box office charts for the two movies from the summer of  2004 – “Harry Potter/Azkaban” and “Napoleon Dynamite.” (I had to use separate Y-axes in order to get David and Goliath on the same chart; data from BoxOfficeMojo.)

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“Harry Potter” starts huge, but after the fifth week the increase in total box office tapers off quickly. “Napoleon Dynamite” starts slowly. But in its fifth or sixth week, its box office numbers are still growing, and they continue to increase for another two months before finally dissipating. The convex curve for “Harry Potter” is typical where the forces of influence are “exogenous.” The more S-shaped curve of “Napoleon Dynamite” usually indicates that an idea is spreading within the system.

But the Napoleon curve is not purely the work of the internal dynamics of word-of-mouth diffusion. The movie distributor plays an important part in its decisions about how to market the film – especially when and where to release the film. The same is true of “Harry Potter.”

The Warner Bros. strategy for “Harry Potter” was to open big – in theaters all over the country. In some places, two or more of the screens at the multi-plex would be running the film. After three weeks, the movie began to disappear from theaters, going from 3,855 screens in week #3 to 605 screens in week #9.

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“Napoleon Dynamite” opened in only a small number of theaters – six to be exact.  But that number increased steadily until by week #17, it was showing in more than 1,000 theaters.

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It’s hard to separate the exogenous forces of the movie business from the endogenous word-of-mouth – the biz from the buzz.  Were the distributor and theater owners responding to an increased interest in the movie generated from person to person? Or were they, through their strategic timing of advertising and distribution, helping to create the film’s popularity? We can’t know for sure, but probably both kinds of influence were happening. It might be clearer when the economic desires of the business side and the preferences of the audience don’t match up, for example, when a distributor tries to nudge a small film along, getting it into more theaters and spending more money on advertising, but nobody’s going to see it. This discrepancy would clearly show the influence of word-of-mouth; it’s just that the word would be, “don’t bother.”

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.

Buy a Joe Strummer Replica Guitar with Your Sex Pistols Credit Card Because Layers Upon Layers of Irony

Ah, capitalism.

The thing about our time is that we just might value individuality more than at any other point in the history of human life and, yet, at the same time, we have more capacity to mass produce goods and ideas than ever.

Enter: the marketing of mass-produced individuality. That is, the new Sex Pistols-themed Mastercard. Now available at virginmoney.com/virgin/credit-cards/rebellion.

Now that is a URL of the times.

Their slogan? “Bring a bit of rebellion to your wallet.”

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I know almost nothing about punk music but I know that the Sex Pistols were foundational and that the message of the music was anti-establishment. So, the appearance of the band on credit cards with an APR of 18.9% is, sociologically speaking, hilarious.

Hey, maybe you can buy a replica of a famous punk musician’s guitar with it! It comes pre-stressed, so it totally looks like you play it a lot and probably treat it like shit because who the fuck cares. And it also comes with some stickers that look vaguely anarchical and you can make it your own depending on which stickers you choose and where you put them!

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Sociologist Brady Potts wrote a post about this guitar a few years ago. He asked: “What can we unpack from this guitar?” And wrote:

Pretty much the history of modernity. You start with “the guitar” – an instrument traditionally produced by artisans called luthiers. But this particular style of guitar – the Fender Telecaster – is the first commercially successful mass-produced solidbody electric guitar. (Henry Ford:Driving::Leo Fender:Rocking.) Introduced in 1950 as the Esquire… assembled on a factory line from mass-produced interchangeable parts, sold in stores and catalogs, heard most often via media and broadcast for most music consumers, the 1966 Fender Telecaster is truly a Modern guitar.

And now you can buy it with a Sex Pistols credit card. Nope, looks like they’re sold out. Sorry, you’ll just have to buy your identity somewhere else.

Thanks to @NotDrSnit for the tip!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Reversing a 100 Year Trend, Men are Staying in the Workforce Longer

In response to company pensions, employer age limits, shifts in the economy, and the initiation of social security, men have increasingly enjoyed a little 20th century social invention called “retirement.” In 1860, more than 80% of men age 70 to 74 worked, but by around 2000, that number had dropped to below 20%.

As of the 2000s, this more-than-100-year-trend of increasing numbers of men enjoying their “golden years” has reversed. This is your image of the week:

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Over at Made in America, from where I borrowed this graph, sociologist Claude Fisher explains the reversal of the trend (citations at the link):

The private sources of retirement support, such as company pensions and investments, have weakened; [and] public sources of aid are under strain from a lower birth rate, a stagnating economy, and political retrenchment. And the years that such support must cover are growing. In 1990 a 65-year-old man could expect to live about 15 more years; in 2010, 18 more years. That’s an extra 20 percent of financing needed.

Among other things, the economic health of older Americans is an important sign of the overall health of the economy. It will be interesting to keep an eye on this statistic in the near future.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Does the Finance Industry Benefit Society?

Yesterday, the New York Times had a story about the enormous sums that hedge funders took home last year.

Last year, the hedge fund industry had returns of only 3 percent on average… But the top 25 managers still managed to earn $11.62 billion in compensation in 2014.

Kenneth C. Griffin of Citadel… $1.3 billion… James H. Simons of Renaissance Technologies was second with $1.2 billion, and Raymond Dalio of Bridgewater Associates was third with $1.1 billion. William A. Ackman of Pershing Square Capital was a close fourth, earning $950 million in 2014.

I know it sounds like a lot, but 2014 was an off year. That $11.62 billion was barely half what the top 25 hauled in the year before. I guess there’ll be some belt tightening.

The point though is that in an efficient market system like ours, people get what they are worth to the economy, don’t they?

“Does Finance Benefit Society?” is the title of a paper by Luigi Zingales, an economist who has had posts at Harvard and Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Here is the short version of his answer to the question:

At the current state of knowledge there is no theoretical reason or empirical evidence to support the notion that all the growth of the financial sector in the last forty years has been beneficial to society.

Zingales is no flaming radical. The right-wing website The Daily Caller says he is “an advocate of free market economics and limited government.” The trouble is that the hedge funders and bankers keep messing up those free market models with their rent-seeking and fraud.  (A table at the end of the paper summarizes cases of fines paid to the U.S. Government 2012-2014. And those are just the ones where someone got caught.)

A couple of other quotes on the same theme:

If political power is disproportionately in the hands of large donors – as it is increasingly the case in the United States – why is the negative public perception of finance a problem? Rich financiers can easily buy their political protection. In fact, this is precisely the problem.

Many financial activities tend to have a private return that is much higher than the (perceived) social return.

Furthermore, I am not aware of any evidence that the creation and growth of the junk bond market, the option and futures market, or the development of over-the-counter derivatives are positively correlated with economic growth.

A pdf of the paper is here.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog and 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.

The Chinatown of the American South

When one thinks of American Chinatowns, they usually think of San Francisco and New York, but at one time the third largest Chinatown in the U.S. was in Louisiana. It’s story is an example of how economics and geopolitics shape the growth of ethnic enclaves.

After the American Civil War ended legalized slavery in the U.S., Southern planters faced the challenge of finding labor to work their crops. It was common to employ the same black men and women who had been enslaved, now as sharecroppers or wage laborers, but the planters were interested in other sources of labor as well.

At nola.com, Richard Campanella describes how some planters in Louisiana turned to Chinese laborers. Ultimately, they hired about 1,600 Chinese people, recruited directly from China and also from California.

This would be a doomed experiment. The Chinese workers demanded better working conditions and pay then the Louisiana planters wanted to give. There was a general stalemate and many of the Chinese workers migrated to the city.

By 1871, there was a small, bustling Chinatown just outside of the French quarter and, by the late 1930s, two blocks of Bourbon St. were dominated by Chinese businesses: import shops, laundries, restaurants, narcotics, and cigar stores (some of the migrants had come to the U.S. via Cuba). Campanella quotes the New Orleans Bee:

A year ago we had no Chinese among us, we now see them everywhere… This looks, indeed, like business.

Big Gee and Lee Sing, New Orleans 1937 (photo courtesy of nola.com):

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Other residents, it seemed, welcomed the way the Chinese added color and texture to the city. Campanella writes that “New Orleanians of all backgrounds also patronized Chinatown.” Louis Armstrong, who was born in 1901, talked of going “down in China Town [and] hav[ing] a Chinese meal for a change.” Jelly Roll Morton mentioned dropping by to pick up drugs for the sex workers employed in the nearby red light district.

A strip club now inhabits the old Chinese laundry; none of the original Chinatown businesses remain. But it held on a long time, with a few businesses lasting until the 1990s. All that’s left today is a hand-painted sign for the On Leong Merchants Association at 530 1/2 Bourbon St.

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For more, get Richard Campanella’s book, Geographies of New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Do the Categories of Democrat and Republican Reflect American Values?

In the U.S., we recognize two main party platforms: Republican and Democrat. Each party packages together specific positions on economic and social issues together into ideologies we call conservative and liberal. The desire for a small government, for example, is lumped with opposition to same sex marriage, while believing in a larger role for government is lumped together with support for abortion rights.

Do all people neatly fit into these two packages? And, if not, what are the consequences for electoral outcomes?

In the American Journal of Sociology, Delia Baldassarri and Amir Goldberg use 20 years of data (1984–2004) from the National Election Studies to show that many Americans have consistent and logical political ideas that don’t align with either major party’s ideological package. These voters, whom the authors call alternatives, are socially liberal and economically conservative (or vice versa).

The images below show correlations between social and economic liberalism or social and economic conservativism. Strong correlations are dark and weak are light. The top image is of the opinions of ideologues — those who adhere pretty closely to the existing liberal and conservative packages — and the bottom images shows the opinions of alternatives.

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In this data, being an alternatives is not just about being unfocused or uncommitted. Baldassarri and Goldberg show that their positions are logical, reasoned, consistent, and remain steady over time.  The study makes it clear that the ties between economic and social issues made by the left and the right, which many people see as normal or natural, represent just two among the many belief systems that Americans actually hold.

When it comes to the ballot box, though, alternatives usually vote Republican. The authors write that the most conservative among the alternatives’ views tend to hold sway when it comes to picking a party. It appears that the salience of moral issues is not the primary reason for Republicans’ electoral success. Instead, for as-yet unknown reasons, alternative voters follow their more conservative leanings at the ballot, whether economic or social.

Cross-posted at The Reading List.

Jack Delehanty is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. His work is about how social movement organizations can reframe dominant social narratives about inequality. In his dissertation, he explores how white Protestant-influenced discourses of poverty, family, and individual choice are being critically reshaped in the public sphere today.

Wall Street Bonuses Twice the Income of All Minimum Wage Workers Combined

1,007,000 Americans working full-time earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. All of that pay, to all of those people, for all of 2014 adds up to $14 billion dollars. And that is less than half of what employees on Wall Street earned in bonuses alone.

This is your image of the week:

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Source: Institute for Policy Studies.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.