Tag Archives: economics

Chart of the Week: Americans are Deeply Divided Over the Problem of Poverty

According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, Americans are almost evenly split over who is responsible for poverty and whether the poor have it easy or hard. Here are some factoids from the data:

  • 44% think that the government should do more for the needy, even if it means more debt
  • 51% think the government can’t afford to do more for the needy and shouldn’t
  • 45% think that poor people today have it easy
  • 47% think that poor people have it hard

Here’s the data:

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Notice that responses correlate with whether the respondents themselves are rich or poor. A third of the richest Americans think government benefits don’t go far enough, while two-thirds of the poorest think so. As to whether the government should and can do more, 60% of the least economically secure say “yes,” while 62% of the most secure say “no.”

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.

Who Kills Themselves Binge Drinking? It’s Not Who You Think

At Everyday Sociology, sociologist Karen Sternheimer made a nice observation about the problem of teen drinking. It’s not our biggest alcohol problem.

According to the CDC, the age group most likely to die from binge drinking is people 35-64 years old. In fact, three out of every four alcohol poisoning deaths are in this age group — 4.5 out of a total of 6 a day — and 76% of them are men, especially ones who earn over $70,000 a year.777

So why all the PSAs aimed at teens?

Sternheimer argues that the focus on teens has to do with who what groups are identified as problematic populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, she points out, laws were passed in several states making it illegal for African Americans and Native Americans to drink alcohol. Immigrants were also targeted.

Young people weren’t targeted until the student rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Like the “protest psychosis” attributed to black Civil Rights activists, the anti-establishment activism of young people was partly blamed on drug and alcohol use.

Today, she observes, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism focuses its attention on young people, minorities, women, and people with HIV.

It’s about power. She writes:

White, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.

Not to mention, she says, how the alcohol industry would feel about the government telling their richest customers to curb their drinking. They much prefer that PSAs focus on young people. “This industry can well afford the much-touted ‘We Card’ programs,” says Sternheimer, “because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.”

The industry’s marketing to wealthy, white men, then, goes unchecked.

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.

Chart of the Week: Big Pharma Spends More on Marketing than Research

Pharmaceutical companies say that they need long patents that keep the price of their drugs high so that they can invest in research. But that’s not actually what they’re spending most of their money on. Instead, they’re spending more — sometimes twice as much — on advertising directly to doctors and consumers.

Data from the BBC, visualized by León Markovitz:

2“When do you cross the line from essential profits to profiteering?,” asked Dr Brian Druker, one of a group of physicians asking for price reductions.

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.

Designing for Profit: On “Instructions for Use”

Flashback Friday.

When companies offer instructions as to how much of their product to use, what do you think drives their decisions as to what advice to give?

Theory 1:  They give the best advice.

Theory 2:  They give reasonably good advice, erring on the side of you using more product versus less.

I’m with Theory 2.  The quicker you go through their product, the more frequently you have to purchase it, and the richer they get.  So they have an interest in your over-using their product.

Dan Myers agrees.   He put up a great example of this on his website, Blue Monster. He writes:

When you buy laundry detergent these days, the cap usually serves as a handy measuring cup… Now, if you were a company that wanted to get people to use it up as fast a possible (read: waste as much of it as possible) so you could get some more out of them, what would you do? Well, having a devious mind myself, I’d make the cup bigger that it needs to be hoping people would consistently use more than they need. Especially given that people are more likely than not to fill the cup up to the top.

And that is exactly what you get on with the TIDE packaging. The cap, shown here, has three measuring lines in it: 1, 2, and 3. All of these are significantly lower than the top of the cap.

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Furthermore, if one actually takes the time to read the instructions on the bottle, the 1 line is for “medium” loads, the 2 line is for large loads, and the 3 line is not even mentioned!!!

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Why is it there if it isn’t mentioned? I say that it’s because for those who actually look at the cup instead of just filling it up, they want to give you the impression that 1 is small, 2 is medium, and 3 is large–thereby getting you to use more than necessary every time you launder. Scam Masters!!!

In another illustration, Myers videos himself brushing his teeth with the liberal swirl of toothpaste seen in your average advertisement. The result is a hilarious excessive frothing. A blob of toothpaste the size of a pea is likely sufficient for most of us, but toothpaste companies would probably prefer that you overdo it.

Relatedly, I’ve always been suspicious of how gas stations order the gas by quality/expense. Sometimes it goes cheaper on the left to expensive on the right, which is what you’d expect because we read left to right, but sometimes it’s reverse. Do people sometimes hit the far left button, assuming it’s the cheap gas, and accidentally spend more than they have to? I bet they do.

There must be hundreds of examples of this kind of trick.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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.

Spending on Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday

Today is the first day of the Christian season of Lent, a period of voluntary self-denial that is the excuse for the indulgence of Mardi Gras. Last year a credit card processing company traced spending in New Orleans on both Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. They found a spike in the days leading up to the big day (below) and then a crash the day after.

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According to Mark Waller at nola.com:

…people spent 30 percent more at restaurants in the weekend before Mardi Gras than they did in an average of the four previous weekends…

What were they buying? Indulgences: “duck fat fries, king cake burgers, and crab and crawfish mac and cheese.” Mmmmm. The week before they’d mostly bought lattes.

Comparatively:

…restaurant, retail shops and other merchants logged about half the business on Ash Wednesday compared with the Wednesday before.

What was the most popular food item that day? Soda.

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.

The Environmental Costs of Valentine’s Day Roses

Flashback Friday.

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An article at Scientific American draws attention to the environmental cost of the commodification of flowers as a symbol of love.  Carolyn Wheelan writes:

[Roses] are… fragile and almost always flown to the U.S. from warmer climes in South America, where roughly 80 percent of our roses take root; to warm the hearts of European sweethearts, they are most often imported from Africa. They are then hauled in temperature-controlled trucks across the U.S. or the Continent and locked up overnight in cold boxes before their onward journey to the florists of the world… sending the roughly 100 million roses of a typical Valentine’s Day produces some 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from field to U.S. florist.

When flowers aren’t shipped in to cooler climates, they must be grown in greenhouses, like the Yuzhny Greenhouse Farm in Russia pictured above.  Some flower farms take the form of vast arrays of greenhouses that use energy to maintain a microclimate out of synch with the climate in which they are situated.

The SciAm article does a good job of pointing out that not all flower farms are equal and there are lots of more and less environmentally- and socially-conscious choices.Fair trade, worker-conscious, organic, and otherwise environmentally-friendly flower companies claim to offer an alternative.  Florverde, for example, advertises its flowers as “for the earth, for the workers, for you”:

Originally posted in 2009. h/t Jezebel.

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.

Love, Business, and Valentine’s Day in Pakistan

On Valentine’s day last year, my Facebook feed exploded with Pakistani memes that, on the one hand, used Islamic texts to criticize the day as unIslamic and, on the other, poked fun at the religious opposition to the holiday.
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When I conducted interviews with Pakistani women in Karachi over the summer, I expected Valentine’s day to be a salient event for my participants.  I did find religious resistance to Valentine’s Day.  The more religious-minded participants  were likely to say things like: “St. Valentine is remembered for fathering illegitimate children, so the day is sinful.”

Less religious women, however, seemed surprised that I even asked about it.  “I can’t remember what I did,” they would say, or they would criticize it as “cheesy” or  “too commercial.” A few respondents asked: “Why does there have to be one day for love? Every day should be a celebration of love.”

Based on the media, I was expecting a contest between people who embraced Valentine’s Day and people who rejected it, but I only found one side of the debate: the rejection.  There didn’t seem to be a large group of women who embraced it. Among those who didn’t outright reject it, I discovered only disinterest.

All this suggests that the push to make Valentine’s Day a thing in Pakistan is more about capitalism and the globalization of Western norms and practices, than it is about a grassroots desire for such a celebration.  It is the marketers, mall managers, and restaurant owners that seem most interested in Valentine’s Day.  I originally thought of this as a battle between the religious and secular members of the society, but it seems to be, instead, a resistance by some to efforts of companies to find one more way to make money.

Fauzia Husain is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Virginia.  She is currently studying globalization through an exploration of Pakistani women’s narratives about love.

The Tomato Tariff: The Politics of Fruits and Vegetables

If it were to happen that the decision as to whether the tomato was a fruit or vegetable made it to the highest court of the land — if such a strange thing were to happen — certainly the botanist’s opinion would weigh heaviest. Right?

Nope.

In fact, this decision did make it all the way to the Supreme Court. It happened in 1893. The case was brought by a tomato importing family by the last name of Nix. At the time, the law required that taxes be collected on vegetables that were imported, but not fruit.

The lawyers for the Nix family argued that the tomato is a fruit and, therefore, exempt from taxation. They were, of course, correct. Botanists define fruit according to whether it plays a reproductive role. So, any plant product with one or more seeds is a fruit, whereas vegetables don’t have seeds. Fruits are ovaries, for lack of a better term. All other plant products — stems, roots, leaves, and some seeds — are vegetables.

But the Supreme Court said, essentially, “We don’t care” and gave their gavel a good pound. Here’s some of the text of their unanimous opinion:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine… But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

The judges were referring to the common understanding, which has more to do with how we use the plant products than how plants use them. Your typical chef roughly divides plant products according to whether they’re sweet or savory. Fruits are sweet. Vegetables are savory and used for main courses and sides. It’s all about whether you eat them for dinner or dessert. And that’s what the Supreme Court upheld.

Culinary vs. botanical categorization (source):

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Since the culinary scheme dominates our colloquial understanding, we mis-classify lots of other things, too. Zucchini, bell peppers, eggplants, string beans, cucumbers, avocado, and okra — all fruit. Rhubarb is a vegetable. No seeds. Pineapples are fruits. “Ah ha!” you say, “I’ve never noticed a pineapple having seeds!” That’s because commercial growers sell us seedless pineapples. Who knew. Berries are fruit, but strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are not actually berries. Isn’t this fun?

Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, in Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, wrote:

If reality means anything, it is that which “resists” the pressure of a force. … That which cannot be changed at will is what counts as real.

We often think of cultural facts as somehow less real than biological ones. For the Nix family, though, biology mattered naught. They still had to pay the damn tax on their tomatoes. Culture is real, folks. Social construction is not just something we do to reality; for all intents and purposes, it is reality.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.