I discovered a nice gem of an insight this week in an article called The 11 Ways That Consumers Are Hopeless at Math: the symbolism of the number 9.

We’re all familiar with the convention of pricing items one penny below a round number: $1.99 instead of $2.00, $39.99 instead of $40.00, etc. Psychologically, marketers know that this works. We’re more likely to buy something at $89.99 than we are at $90.00.

It’s not, though, because we are tricked by that extra penny for our pockets. It’s because, so argues Derek Thompson, the .99 symbolizes “discount.” It is more than just a number, it has a meaning. It now says to us not just 9, but also You are getting a deal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a carton of eggs for $2.99 or a dishwasher for $299.99. In both cases, putting two 9s at the end makes us feel like smart shoppers.

To bring this point home, in those moments when we’re not looking for a deal, the number 9 has the opposite effect. When marketers want to sell a “luxury” item, they generally don’t use the 9s. They simply state the round number price. The whole point of buying a luxury item is to spend a lot of money because you have the money to spend. It shouldn’t feel like a deal; it should feel like an indulgence. Thompson uses the example of lobster at a high-end restaurant. They don’t sell it to you for $99.99. That looks cheap. They ask you for the $100. And, if you’ve got the money and you’re in the mood, it feels good exactly in part because there are no 9s.

Definitely no 9s:

Photo by artjour street art flickr creative commons.

Not yet convinced? Consider as an example this price tag for a flat screen television. Originally priced at $2,300.00, but discounted at $1,999.99. Suddenly on sale and a whole lot of 9s:

Photo by Paul Swansen flickr creative commons; cropped.

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.

Originally posted at There’s Research on That!

With a group of coal miners standing behind him, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first 100 days reversing Obama-era climate change policies, claiming that he would bring back coal while putting miners to work. Yet, can or will coal mining jobs come back, and will this lead to economic and social development in places like Appalachia?

Probably not.

Much research has shown that the loss of mining jobs in the U.S. is largely due to mechanization and labor-cutting management practices — not environmental protections. Thus, placing the blame on climate change policies is unfounded. Instead, it’s used to scapegoat environmentalists and draw our attention away from corporations and changes in the global economy.

Even if Trump’s executive order could bring back the jobs, it might not have the effects coal miners are hoping for. Researchers find that mining does not always lead to economic growth and well-being. Thus, keeping coal mines open does not guarantee economic prosperity and well-being. A study found that in West Virginia the counties with coal mines have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates compared to surrounding counties without active mines.

Moreover, sociologist William Freudenberg argues that economies based solely around mining are prone to booms and busts, subject to the whims of the industry. Towns in Appalachian coal country and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota become “addicted” to extraction. But dependence on fossil fuel industries is economically precarious.

Why don’t these facts change miners’ deep ties to mining as a way of life? Because many have strong cultural connections to mining, often coming from multiple generations of miners. Through her experiences working in a coal mine, anthropologist Jessica Smith Roylston saw how the miner identity connects with masculine ideals of hard work and providing for one’s family.

Photo by nottsexminer; flickr creative commons.

Industry has tapped into these sentiments to generate public support and weave the industry into the fabric of community life. Mining companies, particularly in Appalachia, have actively worked to create a positive image through public relations and other cultural and political tactics, such as sponsoring high school football tournaments and billboard ads.

These corporate strategies place the blame on outsiders and environmentalists, provide a cover for environmentally destructive and job-cutting industry practices, and keep coal politically relevant.

Erik Kojola is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota interested in the environment, labor, social movements and political economy.

When we see individuals holding cardboard signs and asking for spare change wearing camouflage, homelessness among veterans can seem like an epidemic. Recently, however, government efforts to reduce veteran homelessness have had great success. In response to a federal strategy known as Opening Doors, since 2010 veteran homelessness has declined by almost 50%. And in that time period some cities, such as New Orleans, have reported veteran homelessness at functional zero. 

You would never know it from social media. As the world has grappled with the Syrian civil war, political memes have emerged in the U.S. that make the case that we should prioritize homeless veterans over Syrian refugees. These memes foreground a competition between homeless veterans and Syrian refugees in order to make a misleading, emotionally-appealing argument against the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Deliberately or not, the online images are similar to propaganda. Actors create emotionally-charged illustrations with biased and one-sided evidence to encourage a political point. The memes push a narrative of homeless veterans as overlooked by the government, while this goes against the facts. They also suggest a fallacious argument that the Department of Veterans Affairs will lose funds because of the refugee resettlement program. This is not the case.

At the same time the memes appeal to our sentiments. Features writer for Mashable, Rebecca Ruiz, contends that memes like these pose the emotional question, “If people in the U.S. are suffering, why are we helping refugees?” What if veterans are those slighted? This is a powerful idea because Americans revere veterans.

In Coming Home: Attitudes toward U.S. Veterans Returning from Iraq, sociologists Alair MacLean and Meredith Kleykamp argue that male veterans involved in recent military-related combat are still supported by the general public, even in light of the idea that those exposed to combat have mental health issues and substance abuse problems. They add that veterans are privileged by symbolic capital, or prestige related to their service. A meme that presents veterans as treated unfairly is likely to produce an emotional reaction, something that is known to simplify our thinking and decision-making.

While the digital messages premised on helping veterans are compelling, they are false and a strategic exploitation of our feelings, one with xenophobic, white nationalist, and anti-immigrant goals. They urge us to advocate against Syrian resettlement to solve an unrelated problem that is already diminishing.

Ian Nahan has a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in both sociology and social work. He plans on working with veterans once he obtains a master’s degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sometimes you have to take the long view.

This week Bill O’Reilly — arguably the most powerful political commentator in America — was let go from his position at Fox News. The dismissal came grudgingly. News broke that he and Fox had paid out $13 million dollars to women claiming O’Reilly sexually harassed them; Fox didn’t budge. They renewed his contract. There was outcry and protests. The company yawned. But when advertisers started dropping The O’Reilly Factor, they caved. O’Reilly is gone.

Fox clearly didn’t care about women — not “women” in the abstract, nor the women who worked at their company — but they did care about their bottom line. And so did the companies buying advertising space, who decided that it was bad PR to prop up a known sexual harasser. Perhaps the decision-makers at those companies also thought it was the right thing to do. Who knows.

Is this progress?

Donald Trump is on record gleefully explaining that being a celebrity gives him the ability to get away with sexual battery. That’s a crime, defined as unwanted contact with an “intimate part of the body” that is done to sexually arouse, gratify, or abuse. He’s president anyway.

And O’Reilly? He walked away with $25 million in severance, twice what all of his victims together have received in hush money. Fox gaves Roger Ailes much more to go away: $40 million. Also ousted after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, his going away present was also twice what the women he had harassed received.

Man, sexism really does pay.

But they’re gone. Ailes and O’Reilly are gone. Trump is President but Billy Bush, the Today host who cackled when Trump said “grab ’em by the pussy,” was fired, too.  Bill Cosby finally had some comeuppance after decades of sexual abuse and rape. At the very least, his reputation is destroyed. Maybe these “victories” — for women, for feminists, for equality, for human decency — were driven purely by greed. And arguably, for all intents and purposes, the men are getting away with it. Trump, Ailes, O’Reilly, Bush, and Cosby are all doing fine. Nobody’s in jail; everybody’s rich beyond belief.

But we know what they did.

Until at least the 1960s, sexual harassment — along with domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and rape — went largely unregulated, unnoticed, and unnamed. There was no language to even talk about what women experienced in the workplace. Certainly no outrage, no ruined reputations, no dismissals, and no severance packages. The phrase “sexual harassment” didn’t exist.

In 1964, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it became illegal to discriminate against women at work, but only because the politicians who opposed the bill thought adding sex to race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion would certainly tank it. That’s how ridiculous the idea of women’s rights was at the time. But that was then. Today almost no one thinks women shouldn’t have equal rights at work.

What has happened at Fox News, in Bill Cosby’s hotel rooms, in the Access Hollywood bus, and on election day is proof that sexism is alive and well. But it’s not as healthy as it once was. Thanks to hard work by activists, politicians, and citizens, things are getting better. Progress is usually incremental. It requires endurance. Change is slow. Excruciatingly so. And this is what it looks like.

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.

4The Numbers

Some History

The Winners and the Losers

Tax Cultures

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.

Originally posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Defenders of capitalism in the United States often choose not to use that term when naming our system, preferring instead the phrase “market system.”  Market system sounds so much better, evoking notions of fair and mutually beneficial trades, equality, and so on.  The use of that term draws attention away from the actual workings of our system.

In brief, capitalism is a system structured by the private ownership of productive assets and driven by the actions of those who seek to maximize the private profits of the owners.  Such an understanding immediately raises questions about how some people and not others come to own productive wealth and the broader social consequences of their pursuit of profit.

Those are important questions because it is increasingly apparent that while capitalism continues to produce substantial benefits for the largest asset owners, those benefits have increasingly been secured through the promotion of policies – globalization, financialization, privatization of state services, tax cuts, attacks on social programs and unions – that have both lowered overall growth and left large numbers of people barely holding the line, if not actually worse off.

The following two figures come from a Washington Post article by Jared Bernstein in which he summarizes the work of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The first set of bars shows the significant decline in US pre-tax income growth.  In the first period (1946-1980), pre-tax income grew by 95 percent.  In the second (1980-2014), it grew by only 61 percent.

income-trends

This figure also shows that this slower pre-tax income growth has not been a problem for those at the top of the income distribution.  Those at the top more than compensated for the decline by capturing a far greater share of income growth than in the past.  In fact, those in the bottom 50 percent of the population gained almost nothing over the period 1980 to 2014.

The next figure helps us see that the growth in inequality has been far more damaging to the well-being of the bottom half than the slowdown in overall income growth.  As Bernstein explains:

The bottom [blue] line in the next figure shows actual pretax income for adults in the bottom half of the income scale. The top [red] line asks how these folks would have done if their income had grown at the average rate from the earlier, faster-growth period. The middle [green] line asks how they would have done if they experienced the slower, average growth of the post-1980 period.

The difference between the top two lines is the price these bottom-half adults paid because of slower growth. The larger gap between the middle and bottom line shows the price they paid from doing much worse than average, i.e., inequality… That explains about two-thirds of the difference in endpoints. Slower growth hurt these families’ income gains, but inequality hurt them more.

inequality-versus-growth

A New York Times analysis of pre-tax income distribution over the period 1974 to 2014 reinforces this conclusion about the importance of inequality.  As we can see in the figure below, the top 1 percent and bottom 50 percent have basically changed places in terms of their relative shares of national income.

changing-places

The steady ratcheting down in majority well-being is perhaps best captured by studies designed to estimate the probability of children making more money than their parents, an outcome that was the expectation for many decades and that underpinned the notion of “the American dream.”

Such research is quite challenging, as David Leonhardt explains in a New York Times article, “because it requires tracking individual families over time rather than (as most economic statistics do) taking one-time snapshots of the country.”  However, thanks to newly accessible tax records that go back decades, economists have been able to estimate this probability and how it has changed over time.

Leonhardt summarizes the work of one of the most important recent studies, that done by economists associated with the Equality of Opportunity Project. In summary terms, those economists found that a child born into the average American household in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of making more than their parents.  This falls to 79 percent for a child born in 1950, 62 percent for a child born in 1960, 61 percent for a child born in 1970, and only 50 percent for a child born in 1980.

The figure below provides a more detailed look at the declining fortunes of most Americans.   The horizontal access shows the income percentile a child is born into and the vertical access shows the probability of that child earning more than their parents.   The drop-off for children born in 1960 and 1970 compared to the earlier decade is significant and is likely the result of the beginning effects of the changes in capitalist economic dynamics that started gathering force in the late 1970s, for example globalization, privatization, tax cuts, union busting, etc.  The further drop-off for children born in 1980 speaks to the strengthening and consolidation of those dynamics.

american-dream

The income trends highlighted in the figures above are clear and significant, and they point to the conclusion that unless we radically transform our capitalist system, which will require building a movement capable of challenging and overcoming the power of those who own and direct our economic processes, working people in the United States face the likelihood of an ever-worsening future.

Martin Hart-Landsberg, PhD is a professor emeritus of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Late last year Covergirl announced a new spokesmodel, a 17-year-old named James Charles. Their Instagram announcement currently boasts over 53,000 likes, though the comments on the post were decidedly mixed. They ranged from “I will never buy another (coverGIRL) because of this” to  “love love love” and “the world is coming to equality and acceptingness.”

In my circles, the overwhelming response was enthusiasm. Charles’ ascendance to Covergirl status was evidence that gender flexibility was going mainstream. And, I suppose it is.

I am always suspicious, though, of corporate motives. Covergirl’s decision to feature Charles does serve to break down the gender binary, but it does other things, too. Most notably, if makeup companies could convince boys and men that their product is as essential for them as it is for girls and women, it would literally double the size of their market.

That this hasn’t happened yet, in fact, is evidence of the triumph of gender ideology over capitalism. Either companies have decided that there’s (almost) no market in men or men have resisted what marketing has been applied. It’s an impressive resistance to what seems like an obvious expansion. There’s just no money in men thinking their faces look just fine as they are; the fact that we’ve allowed them to do so thus far is actually pretty surprising when you think about it.

If Covergirl had its way, though, I have no doubt that it would make every 17-year-old boy in America into a James Charles. Such a change would contribute to breaking down the gender binary, at least as we know it (though no doubt there are more and less feminist ways of doing this). Of course, if it was advantageous to do so, Covergirl would claim that it had something to do with feminism. But, I wouldn’t buy it.

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.

1Most Americans are either attracted to or repulsed by Donald Trump’s strong rhetoric around the “wall” between the US and Mexico. His plan is to build one taller and wider than the ones we already have, on the assumption that this will curb undocumented immigration and the number of migrants who live here.

But the idea isn’t just exciting or offensive, depending on who you’re talking to, it’s also wrong-headed. That is, there’s no evidence that building a better wall will accomplish what Trump wants and, in fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.

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The data comes from a massive 30-year study led by sociologist Douglas Massey, published last month at the American Journal of Sociology and summarized at Made in America. He and his colleagues collected the migration histories of about 150,000 Mexican nationals who had lived for at least a time in the US and compared them with border policy. They found that:

  • More border enforcement changed where migrants crossed into the US, but not whether they did. More migrants were apprehended, but this simply increased the number of times they had to try to get across. It didn’t slow the flow.
  • Border enforcement did, though, make crossing more expensive and more dangerous, which meant that migrants that made it to the US were less likely to leave. Massey and his colleagues estimate that there are about 4 million more undocumented migrants in the US today than there would have been in the absence of enforcement.
  • Those who stayed tended to disperse. So, while once migrants were likely to stay along the border and go back and forth to Mexico according to labor demands, now they are more likely to be settled all across the US.

In any case, the economic impetus to migrate has declined; for almost a decade, the flow of undocumented migrants has been zero or even negative (more leaving than coming). So, Trump would be building a wall at exactly the moment that undocumented Mexican immigration has slowed. To put it in his terms, a wall would be a bad investment.

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.