Archive: 2012

Last week a secretly-taped video of Romney made headlines. In it, he said that 47% of America believes that they are “victims,” is “dependent” on the government, and likes it that way.  SocImages, like many places around the web, did some talking about who the 47% of people who pay no income taxes really are.

In this post, however, I’d like to make a different kind of point about framing and the sociological imagination, inspired by Ill Doctrine‘s Jay Smooth and Slate’William Saletan.

Reacting to the release of the video, the media returned to a similarly clandestine video of Obama that had made the rounds during his first run for the presidency.  In it, Obama refers to Americans who are “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment…”  So, six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other right?  Both statements are equally tone deaf and biased right?

No. In fact, one is embedded in a deep empathy and an understanding that circumstance (i.e., that thing that sociologists study) can shape one’s outlook, sometimes in negative ways.  The other is a straightforward criticism of a group’s character, with a lack of empathy and understanding.

Let’s take a closer look at how Obama introduced his (fairly criticized) comment about the bitter clinging to guns (transcript).  He begins by saying that people have a good reason to be unhappy with politicians:

In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, they feel so betrayed by government, that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, there’s a part of them that just doesn’t buy it…

Then, instead of writing off these people as bad people who will never vote for the right guy, Obama argues that he wants to reach them (calling it a “challenge”), further validating how they might feel given the circumstances of their lives:

…our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s no evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio — like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration. And each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate. And they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or, you know, anti-trade sentiment [as] a way to explain their frustrations.

In contrast, Romney’s comments are dismissive and accusing (transcript).   His targets — the 47% of people who are exempt from paying income taxes — aren’t embattled, fighting for a decent life despite political neglect, they’re “entitled” to something they haven’t earned.  They’re happy to be dependent on the government and don’t want it any other way.  They’re leeches, parasites, freeloaders, bums.

And, instead of saying that its his job to help those people see life a different way, Romney dismisses them entirely:

 [They’ll] vote for the [current] president no matter what… my job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives…

So, while some are arguing that Romney’s comments are just a politically-right version of Obama’s — equally biased and cynical — nothing could be farther from the truth.   Obama looks at Americans who will not likely vote for him and sees social structural reasons that their negative emotions are valid (even when they’re aimed at him), he expresses empathy for their plight, and seeks to connect with them.  Romney does nothing of the sort.  Instead, he condemns them as individuals and blows them off as potential constituents; and he encourages others to do the same.

In short, Obama has a sociological imagination that enables, even presses him to see the bigger picture.  He sees both individuals and the circumstances they live in.  Romney, for whatever reason, does not exercise a similar imagination.

Wanna hear it straight from Jay? I would too:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Salon posted a video by Benjamin Wheelock that illustrates changing voting patterns in the U.S. over the last century. He assigned each state a color based on voting for presidents, governors, and Congress for each year there were elections. Red indicates Republican, blue is Democratic; the darker the color, the more overwhelming the vote was for that party.

The video starts with 2011 and moves backward to 1912. What’s perhaps most striking today is that through the late 1970s, the South was a swath of Democratic blue. In the 1980s much of it turns purple, as presidential elections increasingly go Republican but Dems remain competitive in state elections. By the 2000s, it becomes much more solidly, and brightly, red as Republicans consolidate their popularity in the region.

It’s a quick way to highlight many major trends and turning points in U.S. political history, including changing stances on racial issues within the parties, the Democrats’ overwhelming dominance during the late ’30s as the country struggled to emerge from the Great Depression, and the clear shifts in the South and on the coasts over time.

Thanks to my colleague Pete for pointing it out!

In doing research for a book I may write about voluntary childnessness, I came across a telling graphic from the Pew Research Center.  First, note that the percent of women age 40-44 without a biological child has almost doubled since the late ’70s.  Today about one-in-five such women (18%) have never given birth:

The percent of women is even higher among women with professional degrees (a master’s or equivalent and higher).  One-in-four women with a master’s degree, and nearly that many women with PhDs, have no biological children by ages 40-44.

Here’s where the really telling graph comes in.  Though women with higher levels of education are less likely to have biological children than other types of women, the trend  of increasing childlessness shown above doesn’t apply to them.  In fact, women with master’s and PhDs in the most recent data are more likely to have children than their counterparts 14 years ago.  In the first half of the 1990s, nearly one-in-three women with professional degrees did not have biological children; today it’s one-in-four. Childbearing among the most educated women, then, bucks the trend. It has gone up.

The data probably reflect greater endorsement of the idea that a woman can, or should be able to, balance both a career and a family, as well as the rise of policies that make that possible.  University of Florida sociologist Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, who’s studied this stuff, says as much.  It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when having children would destroy a woman’s always-already fragile career; as much as we may love or hate the “mommy track,” at least today there is one.  Koropeckyj-Cox also suggests that women with higher incomes may have greater access to infertility treatments, making overcoming health problems or delayed childbearing more possible for them than it is among women with less education.

In any case, the data suggests an interesting story about gender, childbearing, educational achievement, and historical change.  I’d be happy to hear more interpretation in the comments.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Recently, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shocked many American football fans with an act that might not seem particularly controversial: they continued playing until the game officially ended.

In the final seconds of their game against the New York Giants, the Bucs were behind and almost certain to lose, but not absolutely and inevitably defeated. With the score at 41-34, if the Bucs could get the ball before the clock ran out and manage a touchdown and a successful conversion, they could tie the game or even win outright, depending on the type of conversion.

When the Giants snapped the ball, Tampa’s players rushed forward.

The Bucs broke a taken-for-granted norm in football: they rushed a quarterback who was taking a knee. When a team has possession of the ball in the last moments of a game, the quarterback can run out the clock by holding onto the ball and touching a knee to the ground. When it’s obvious a quarterback is going to do so, the opposing team is expected to acknowledge that the game is effectively over and let the quarterback quickly take a knee without interference.

The Bucs didn’t. They continued playing serious defense. Giants quarterback Eli Manning was knocked backward by his teammates as they tried to protect him from the unexpected rush.

Tampa’s players, and in particular coach Greg Schiano, were widely accused of poor sportsmanship. The Giants’ coach yelled at Schiano on the field and Manning called it a “cheap shot”. Giants’ player Justin Tuck said the Bucs should have refused their coach’s order to carry out what he called a “classless” play.

But NFL officials confirmed that what they did was entirely within the rules of the game. Teams generally take a hands-off approach to a quarterback who is clearly planning to take a knee, but they aren’t actually required to stand around and let him do it unopposed.

And as NPR reported, if we look back a few decades, taking a knee was itself seen as a bit classless. In the 1978 “Miracle at the Meadowlands” game between the Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants lost when they fumbled the ball at the last minute. Taking a knee would have ensured a win, but their coach ordered another play because he, like many coaches at the time, saw taking a knee as unsporting, an unworthy way to guarantee victory.

That loss changed the status of taking a knee. No one could believe a team had all but given away a victory. Giants fans were enraged. The coach was summarily fired and never worked in football again.

For coaches, the take-away message was clear. Running a play carried the risk of a last-minute interception and humiliating defeat, possibly followed by the abrupt end of your career. Taking a knee was a sure thing. It quickly became standard procedure. Teams developed formations for use specifically when they plan to take a knee (thus also signaling their intent to the other team). The stigma that remained around taking a knee disappeared; it has been redefined as an acceptable and even expected move. But for it to work — that is, for it to allow a quick end to the game while minimizing the possibility of risk to players (and especially the quarterback) — the opposing team has to play their role in the script and acquiesce to running out the clock.

Tampa’s coach challenged current norms by treating taking a knee as an outcome for the other team to successfully accomplish, not an opposition-less move that requires only a signal of intent. The Bucs’ violation of this norm has been widely condemned. Football fans viewed it as putting players in danger of injury from the unexpected defensive move with very little chance of actually changing the outcome of the game — a likelihood of success low enough that fans I spoke to questioned Schiano’s motives, suggesting he knew he couldn’t win and was actively intending to hurt the other team.

What counts as a “classy” play or a “cheap shot”? Schiano defended his choice by saying he asks his team to play hard for every second of the game, an attitude that might normally be praised. We romanticize the idea of never giving up, of playing as hard as you can against all odds. But because taking a knee has been accepted as reasonable, expected behavior, failure to follow its taken-for-granted script is widely perceived not as a daring move by the defense, but as an unsporting disregard for the spirit of the game.

In a related story, see footage of a middle school football team tricking their opponent into thinking they weren’t playing when they were.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Noam sent in this 10 minute film, “What’s a Girl Doing Here?”, by Diana Diroy.  It includes a set of interviews with female cab drivers in New York.  They’re a rare breed.  According to the description by Narratively:

Loud flashes of yellow are all around you in New York—46,000 taxi sedans, vans and SUVs streaking the streets. Yet, only about 170 of them are driven by women, a percentage even lower than the national average.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Though laws varied, American slaves generally could not legally marry.  They were the subject of contracts, legally barred from entering into contracts themselves.  And while some enslavers encouraged their slaves to form romantic relationships because such relationships discouraged running away, slave families were always at risk of being torn apart at the whims of the “master.”

On this day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that ended slavery for all people in territories that were under Union  control.  Two years later, the Thirteenth Amendment amended the constitution to prohibit slavery.  The next year, two newly-freed now ex-slaves, Thomas and Jane Taylor, were married in Kentucky.


This day came before me Thomas Taylor and Jane, his wife, persons of color and servants of Christian County and declared that they have been and still aim to continue living together as husband and wife. Given under my hand this 27th day of July 1866.

G.W. Lawson, Clerk
Geo. C. Long, D.C.

Thomas and Jane are the great-great-great-grandparents of Tami, who blogs at What Tami Said.  They had been together for many years before they were given the opportunity to marry and had two children.  According to Dr. Tera Hunter at NPR, they were one of many newly-freed couples to marry in the years after the abolishment of slavery extended them the right.  By 1900, she explains, marriage would be “nearly universal” among American blacks.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

There are those that argue that lowering the top marginal tax rates on “ordinary” income (from wages or salary) and capital gains will stimulate economic growth.  Thomas L. Hungerford, in a Congressional Research Report, tests and rejects this claim.

He finds no statistical relationship between changes in either of these top tax rates and private savings, investment, productivity, or real per capita GDP growth.  However, he does find a strong statistical relationship between changes in these tax rates and income inequality.  More specifically, raising top tax rates can be expected to promote greater income equality without causing harm to the economy.

Tax Trends

There are two main tax concepts: the marginal tax rate, which is the tax paid on the last dollar of income received, and the average tax rate, which is the proportion of all income that is paid in taxes.  How much a person pays on the last dollar received depends on whether it is classified as ordinary income or capital gains.

Most importantly, as the chart below shows, the very top tax payers have enjoyed a steady decline in their average tax rate.

The next chart shows trends in top marginal tax rates on ordinary income and capital gains.  The top marginal tax rate on ordinary income has clearly been on the decline: from 91% in the 1950s, 70% in the 1960s and 1970s, to a low of 28% in 1986.  It now stands at 35%.  The top marginal capital gains tax rate has not changed as much.  It was 25% in the 1950s and 1960s, 35% in the 1970s, and is now 15%.

The Tests

Hungerford used econometric methods to test whether changes in top marginal tax rates affect private savings, investment, productivity, and/or per capita GDP growth.  Simply plotting the movement of top tax rates and each of these variables suggests that a decline in top tax rates is associated with a positive movement in each of these economic variables.

However, as Hungerford correctly states, correlation is not the same as causation.  Using regression analysis, he found that the relationships were only coincidental or spurious; there was no statistically significant connection between changes in the top tax rates and movements in any of the variables.

Hungerford also tested to see if changes in top marginal tax rates had any effect on the distribution of income.  The first chart below shows the scatter plot of top tax rates and the share of income going to the top 0.1% for the years 1945-2010.  The second shows the same with the top 0.01% of income earners.

As we can see the fitted lines suggest a very strong relationship between the variables.  As before, Hungerford used regression analysis to determine whether the relationships were statistically significant.  This time his answer was yes in both cases; changes in top marginal tax rates do affect income concentration.  In other words, lowering the top rates increases income inequality, raising them reduces it.

It is time for us to start agitating for raising the top tax rates.

The NFL referees have been on strike.  In their place the league has hired replacements in order to keep the season underway.  Word on the street is that the replacements are doing a distinctly terrible job. Writes Ed at Gin and Tacos:

Since professional and amateur football have different rules — in some cases very different — the results have been predictably disastrous. From their failure to do basic things like spot the ball and operate the game clock to major rules of which they appear to be totally ignorant, they have proven thus far that there is nothing they can’t botch.

Others, too, are finding humor in their ineptitude.

Ed wonders if NFL fans are internalizing the economic lesson in this debacle:

In a surplus labor market you can always find someone willing to do a job for less, but they’re probably not going to do it well. Even the type of person who blames the work stoppage on the union… can’t deny that the end result is the replacement of trained, experienced professionals with a clown car load of knuckleheads who act like they’ve never seen a football before.

He concludes, suggestively: “maybe all human capital is not interchangeable …and maybe there are some noticeable downsides to a market in which whoever will work for the least gets the job.”

The NFL, being entertainment and all, isn’t the best example, but when we apply the same logic to occupations like school teachers and air traffic controllers, we should sit up and notice.  Maybe at this moment, when something so beloved is at stake, it’ll raise America’s consciousness just a little bit.  Ed, for what it’s worth, isn’t optimistic.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.