September 16, 2014

Light-on-dark color schemes, the standard for camera body and lens settings

Image gallery first, then some discussion.






In the visual display of information, one of the most basic yet unappreciated choices that designers make is the color and lighting scheme — mostly dark, mostly light, or a mixture of both. Using opposite ends of the spectrum allows for a separation of background and foreground, to help the information stand out better for the viewer.

Whether to use light-on-dark or dark-on-light may seem like a matter of taste, but the more I've looked into it, the more it appears that light-on-dark functions better when the goal is to be more actively focused, while dark-on-light works better when passive consumption is the intended use.

Bright colors jump out from a dark background more than dark colors from a bright background, since our visual system has adapted to link less intense light levels with further-away distance of a light source. This helps us to track and manipulate figures when they are bright against a dark background. Dark figures against a bright background strikes us as unnatural, as though they were being harshly back-lit and appearing as stark shadows. It taxes the brain to hunt after figures and move them around when they're dark against a bright background.

If you've ever spent a few hours in front of Microsoft Word, you know that fatiguing feeling of staring into a spotlight, and the text looking more like stencils. And we all know how much we need to squint to make out a black-on-light-gray LCD screen, if it's farther away than arm's reach and below 90-pt font size. The same is true for newsprint, but it's not such a drag there since we're only passively reading it, and close-up, rather than actively composing the articles.

Despite the functional advantage of light-on-dark for the purpose of paying close attention, color schemes are also subject to the whims of fashion, as well as attempts to fuse the active and passive modes of using the technology, in the ever-important quest for convenience and efficiency.

Earlier posts here and here went through some comparisons from the areas of computer office programs and household alarm clocks, both of which have unfortunately drifted toward dark-on-light schemes since sometime in the '90s. It seems to be part of the general reaction against bright colors and high contrast in the visual culture. In the case of word processors, there has also been a shift toward fusing the initial composing stage and the final reading stage of text documents, where the end reader's need for skimming over what looks like a printed page has won out over the writer's need for a less fatiguing scheme during the far longer composition process.

Those examples came from electronic domains. Is it simply a matter of medium — light sources that are bright vs. dark — and not the basic color scheme itself? No: the settings on camera bodies and lenses have come in light-on-dark schemes for 40-odd years now, and their colors are made in hard materials rather than emitted light.

The reason for their widespread adoption on cameras is the same as it has been in other areas where light-on-dark is standard — the photographer actively manipulates the controls and pays close attention to their readings, to make sure everything goes according to plan. Under- or over-exposure — an image that is too dark or too bright — could result from neglecting to properly set and check the settings for film speed, shutter speed, and aperture size. Bright colors on a black background make inspection easier and faster, especially if you're changing them from one shot to the next.

Some older cameras did feature black-on-light-gray schemes, although that may have been due to a still-developing understanding of the visual principles, an immature state of the art at the construction stage, or not offending Midcentury values about what machines ought to look like. Here is an early example that shows how much more difficult it is to read the settings at a glance when the scheme is dark-on-light. You can see the markings all right, but not so much what they say.


By around 1980, the light-on-dark scheme had become the standard, even on cameras whose product branding was black-on-light-gray. Below is the Canon AE-1 Program, which has that black-and-chrome style that was popular in the '70s, and whose non-functional text is set against a light background — black text for the brand name, and unreadable light green text for "Program" in the model name on the front (not shown). The text on the main settings, however, is light-on-dark. So, when opposing color schemes were chosen for different parts of the same camera, light-on-dark won out where active manipulation and close attention were needed.


Sadly, as elsewhere in today's visual culture, new cameras are trying to shift the color scheme toward monochrome or dark-on-light, despite the greater difficulty of use. Black-on-light-gray LCD screens are now common, whereas light displays from the '80s were bright red against black, for example when the viewfinder displayed the aperture and/or shutter speed settings.

Navigating the endless menus on digital cameras has not gotten that bad yet — for point-and-shoot models, it's more like the white-on-blue scheme of word processors from circa 1990, while SLR models may even have white-on-black menus. Still, things are heading in the direction of the LCD look, not toward bright text against a black background.

As for settings carved onto the body itself, the SLRs are still good at using white text on black bodies. But compact cameras come almost exclusively in silver — just like all technology these days — so that their scheme is dark-on-light. This is clearly due to the fashion for Space Age silver-based schemes. Back in the '80s, when chiaroscuro was popular, compact cameras came in black bodies with white text.


Once the social-cultural cycle leaves its cocooning phase and becomes more outgoing, exciting color schemes will come back into fashion, so don't count on the ultimate disappearance of light-on-dark schemes for cameras, or anything else. In the meantime, it's worth studying and discussing what functional effects these opposing color schemes have across various uses of some piece of technology, and not just leave it all up to fashion.

September 12, 2014

With the smartwatch, Jobs' gay successor has undermined Apple's conformist aesthetic and obsession with gadgets

Leave it to a homo to so fundamentally misunderstand Apple's appeal to its zombie cult audience. (Gays are at best culture-bearers but more often destroyers.)

They want gadgets that double as fashion accessories, not fashion accessories that double as gadgets. Look at how much time, money, and effort went into designing not the gadget per se, but the forty-thousand variations intended to cater to a rainbow of unique design aesthetics. Except that geeks have no strong aesthetic preferences — they just want a gizmo that looks design-y, so they don't feel uncultured while they channel surf on BuzzFeed in public.

And they don't want all those forty-thousand looks and feels to choose from. Not only because they lack a set of aesthetic values that would move them toward some and away from others. It's missing the whole point of these gadgets-as-status-symbols — bystanders must be able to instantly recognize that you've got one of those things. Once they come in so many different shapes, colors, materials, and textures, onlookers will have to spend an extra ten seconds to recognize your watch as an Apple-branded product. And the watch face doesn't have a bigass Apple logo slapped on top of it like their laptops do. Just think of how many lost recognition points that could mean in practice!

The smartwatch can only succeed as a fashion accessory, not as a proper Apple device. Techno-geeks aren't very into fashion, so it's no surprise their reactions have been tepid. Even if you were into watches as fashion accessories, you're probably going to go with something from a company that specializes in designing and making watches. Lord knows hardly anyone will use them to tell time, if they're already tethered to their smartphones.

The fact that the project has gotten this far goes to show how terrified every person who works for Apple still is of questioning anything that the leader and his appointees propose. Any halfway observant person could have told them what I just said, and pointed out how contrary it is to what made them so successful. And not in a trial-and-error, experimental way, where it may fail but may become the next big thing. It's not experimental at all, just a 21st-century take on those geeky calculator watches from 25 years ago.

Then again, maybe someone did try to raise a stink but felt the weight of the authority structure reminding them how replaceable they are, if they insist on acting disloyal to the leader (even if loyal to the larger interests of the company).

In either case, it will be joyous to see the Apple megachurch disintegrate after the death of its visionary guru, as the midnight launch pew-fillers become disillusioned with increasingly more desperate and ridiculous successors. It sure has been a long time coming.

September 11, 2014

Incarceration within the status-striving and inequality cycle: Prison boom driven by careerist prosecutors

Periods of rising inequality and status-striving are marked by a punitive rather than a rehabilitative approach to criminal justice.

The dog-eat-dog norm says you shouldn't care if someone's life will be permanently screwed up by going to jail, regardless of their offense. You've stayed out of jail, and that's all that matters. You aren't going to be the one who has to deal with their assimilation back into society — let someone else work with and live next to those who've been shaped by the hard-time lifestyle. And if you can get politicians to shift the costs around, you may not have to pay too much for their incarceration either.

The all-in-it-together norm says that criminals ought to pay for their offenses, but that those seeking retribution should accommodate their wishes with those of the general public, who would prefer not to have to pay for incarceration, let alone have to live next to or work with someone who's been shaped by prison norms rather than normal society norms for however-long they were locked up.

Seeking vengeance poses a substantial risk of innocent bystanders getting caught in the crossfire, in one way or another. Promoting stability within the community will necessarily be opposed to fanning the flames of vengeance, however righteous the avengers feel their cause to be.

When communal cohesion loses its moral appeal, therefore, vengeance against criminals — regardless of the severity of their crimes, or indeed whether they're actually guilty or innocent — will be allowed to grow unchecked. Soon enough, criminal punishment will develop into a mass spectator bloodsport. Feeling a daily endorphin rush from tuning into other people's punishment is the ultimate grassroots expression of the dog-eat-dog morality.

It is no coincidence that bloodsports rise in popularity during periods of increasing status-striving, societal instability, and inequality — the UFC and World Star Hip Hop in our time, or the ancient gladiators who became a mass spectacle only after the Pax Romana had given way to the Imperial Crisis of the third century through the eventual disintegration during the fifth.


Where exactly in the criminal justice hierarchy does responsibility lie for the current boom in the prison population? It seems to be located at the stage of prosecutors deciding to file felony charges for a given arrest, which takes place at the county level rather than higher up. Crime rates are down since a peak in 1992, arrests per crime are not up, and neither are conviction rates per felony case, nor prison admissions per conviction. Drug offenses are not directly driving the boom either, as they are a small chunk of incarcerations (although they're much greater at the level of arrests).

This analysis comes from Pfaff (2012), "The micro and macro causes of prison growth," an easily readable and chart-packed article that you can read for free here. Some excerpts:

Over the past four decades, prison populations in the United States have exploded. As Figure 1 demonstrates, from the 1920s (when reliable statistics first become available) through the mid-1970s, the incarceration rate hovered around 100 per 100,000 people. These rates were so stable that a leading criminologist argued in 1979 that political pressures would continue to keep the rate around 100 per 100,000. Thus, the subsequent quintupling of the incarceration rate over the next forty years, with the prison population growing by over 1.3 million inmates, was an unexpected and unprecedented development. . .

As I show below, we know the answer to the micro question much better than that to the macro. On the micro side, data indicate that at least since 1994, prison growth has been driven primarily by prosecutors increasing the rate at which they file charges against arrestees. None of the other possible sources seems to matter: arrests (and arrests per crime), prison admissions per felony filing, and time served have generally been flat or falling over that time. . .

Thus, sentence length does not appear to drive prison growth, implying that admissions must be doing the heavy lifting. . .

Between 1994 and 2008, filings grew by 37.4% and admissions by a nearly identical 40%. This is actually a more remarkable number than it might first appear. As Figure 5B demonstrates, this is a period of declining arrests: in my thirty-four state sample, arrests fell by 10.1%, slightly above the national decline of 8.4%. Thus, filings and admissions rose significantly during a period when the number of defendants declined sharply. . .

The flat incarceration rate during the Great Compression, and soaring rate since the '70s, establishes the link with the status-striving and inequality cycle. It's clear how sending more arrestees to prison will widen inequality by growing a larger lumpenprole class. Where does status-striving fit in? We know it must be with prosecutors, so it's not hard to imagine the story.

When status-striving was shameful, prosecutors didn't try to puff up their own ego and lard up their career resume with over-zealous felony charges against arrestees. Once status-striving became approved and encouraged, they did what everyone else in the economy had started doing.

Rising levels of status-striving lead to an over-production of lawyers (see Peter Turchin's discussion here), and they need somewhere to go for status and job security. If they were skilled at performing before a general audience of voters, they sought election into the legislature or the executive branch of government. If they were good at crunching numbers and pursuing enrichment at all costs, they went into mergers & acquisitions at a Biglaw firm. If their comparative advantage lay more in vindictiveness and sadism, they set up shop in the local prosecutor's office.

It's hard for a lowly prosecutor to get nationally famous or command salaries at the level of the big dogs (Senators, Wall St. lawyers). So they devote most of their energies at the county level, becoming locally famous as pitbull prosecutors. Local / mediocre status is better than no status, and if you're a JD flunkie, this may be your only real shot at making a name for yourself and getting paid well.

As this trend gets worse, prosecutors will become widely reviled as self-serving zealots rather than neutral agents of justice for the public. The incarceration rate will then turn down as it did during the Great Compression, for better or worse.

Here is a final graph from Pfaff's article, showing not incarcerations per capita, but incarcerations per crime — how likely is a crime going to result in someone getting sent to jail?


Now we see that incarceration rates per crime committed actually fell through the '60s and '70s. This is the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction — the criminal justice system aiming too much toward accommodation that even violent crimes were less and less likely to result in an incarceration. So does too much vindictiveness bring about rehabilitation, and too much rehabilitation bring about vindictiveness.

September 6, 2014

Transplant politicians in status-striving times

When the popular mindset switches from trying to accommodate others to advancing the self, people's pursuits resemble one or another kind of a get-rich-quick scheme. (Or get famous quick, or get fashionable quick, or get erudite quick, etc. if they are pursuing non-financial status contests.)

One consequence of restless ambition is leaving behind the place where you have roots to head off for greener pastures. Aside from your own neck of the woods not being the most likely place to dominate some career, strivers are drawn to places where they won't be recognized by those they're aiming to profit from. Everyone back home may know you're the used car salesman type, but not the naive folks who just met you yesterday. They must also want a place where shame cannot be brought down upon them — talk about a major brake on doing whatever it takes. Shame only stings when it comes from those who you're tied to deep down — some transplant could give a shit if his adoptive community tried to shame him.

And of course, it's not just the politicians but the potential voters who are more likely to be transplants in status-striving times. How could Colorado and Virginia vote for a liberal President? Simple: nowadays hardly anyone from Virginia is from Virginia. Transplant voters are going to be more open to a transplant politician not only because of their shared status as newcomers, but because shared values and goals have drawn them both away from their places of origin.

Climbing the corporate ladder and worshiping big business, for one thing. Or maybe the newcomers are immigrants looking to get rich quick by re-locating to America for work. Although these groups are striving within opposite poles of the class spectrum, they are guided by the same mindset nonetheless. Not to mention the natural love that profit-maximizers have for cheap immigrant labor.

I've been looking through current federal elected officials to see how rooted they are within the place whose voters elected them. I've put together the data on Senators, and am working on the Governors (members of the House of Representatives will take a lot longer to investigate). But for now, how about just looking at the highest elected official of all, President Obama?

Half of his family is not only unrooted in America but in all of Europe and broader Indo-European culture. It's rooted in Africa, and not even the part of Africa that has had some influence in America via the West African slaves. His step-father is equally unrooted in America, Europe, or Indo-European culture. Worse yet, he's not rooted in the same place that Obama Sr. is from — it's a different remote part of the world.

His mother's side is rooted around Kansas, but she went chasing after high status in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, and Indonesia. Indonesia goes without saying, but Hawaii is not a core American region either. He might as well have been born and raised in Guam or Puerto Rico. Hawaii was not even a full state of the union two years before he was born there. And even after it did become a state, it was full of other transplants, unlike if he'd been raised back near Wichita where his mother's family is from.

Going to college "on the mainland" doesn't root you there, anymore than it would for a Puerto Rican who left the island for college in New York.

So we have a President who is not rooted in the country he controls. It's no wonder he doesn't really seem to give a damn what happens to it, one way or another. He's not intent on laying waste to it, just wholly apathetic — "Whatever, let it burn, as long as the fire doesn't reach the golf course." It's worse to think about what his double election says about the voters — so transient themselves that they don't even recognize how foreign he is. Although they wouldn't care if they did, and might award him bonus points for being on the same wavelength.

Was there a previous time when the President was weakly rooted in this country, compared to his countrymen, perhaps having a father who came from abroad? If the link is with status-striving, then we ought to look into the long Gilded Age, from roughly 1830 to 1920.

I started with Grant, only on the basis of how corrupt his administration was. But no dice there. A few clicks later into the 1880s, and there he is — Chester A. Arthur, who assumed office after Garfield was assassinated, but who was well liked enough by the end of his term that he could have been elected to a second term, if he hadn't retired and died soon after completing his first.

Arthur's father was a man from the Ulster region in Ireland who had moved to Canada as an adult. Arthur's mother was from just across the border in Vermont. However, he did not move to America on her behalf; rather, they wed in Canada, and their first child was born there as well. Arthur's parents only moved back to America six or seven years before he was born (although at least it wasn't in Hawaii).

As a young adult, Arthur made a display of supporting the Irish nationalist cause, not unlike Obama's black political awareness that hit in young adulthood.

Both came from leading political machines of their day, Arthur from New York and Obama from Chicago.

And in one of the most uncanny passages I've read on Wikipedia, we learn that Arthur's obscure family and national origins and upbringing led many of his opponents to spread rumors about him not being a natural-born citizen, and therefore ineligible to serve as President. Plus ca change...

Certainly he was not as disconnected from American society growing up as Obama was, but Arthur's parents were also limited by the state of technology in the 1820s — no railroads traversing the country — and by the size of the American territory within which they could have traveled in pursuit of just the right spot. In the 1820s, "going west" meant out to Buffalo, not to the plains, the mountains, or the Pacific. Who knows where his family would have roamed around to, if his footloose Scotch-Irish father had a wide open continent to choose from, and affordable airfare?

And his case was still in contrast to just about every other President before him. James Buchanan and Andrew Jackson also had one or both parents who came to America from Ulster, although they were born 40 to 60 years before Arthur, when more Americans would've been recent transplants. Their presidencies fall within the long Gilded Age anyway.

In the first Gilded Age and the second, most of the carpet-bagger behavior happens below the national level, like moving from one state to another in pursuit of becoming a Senator or a Governor. The natural-born citizen requirement rules this out for nation-hopping into the Oval Office.

And yet look at how unrooted the President may still be, provided that the citizens are too busy trying to get rich quick to care about what outside loyalties their national leader may have. Hey, as long as he helps us get ours, then let him do whatever he wants on the side (see also: Bill and Monica).

September 4, 2014

Are generations the strongest form of an in-group?

All this talk about the Boomers being responsible for so much that's gone wrong economically and politically over the past 30-odd years got me thinking: why don't they moralistically preen about how oppressive their generation has been over other generations? Both the older ones who they threw overboard, like the Greatest Gen, and those they have tried to block from advancement, like Gen X?

After all, Boomers pioneered the art of publicly complaining about how one's in-group was responsible for keeping down some out-group, to whom it owed some kind of reparations. This is a stronger form of disloyalty than mere cultural defection. If some small chunk of the in-group feels like they don't identify with their culture, and want to join or at least affiliate with a more distant culture, what's the big loss to their in-group? Let 'em go. But when that small group of discontents wants to take something big away from their in-group and give it to the out-group, to correct what they see as unjust domination, now they plan on dealing a much larger wallop to Us in favor of Them.

What areas of life are subject to this thinking and action about correcting injustices between the in-group and the out-group? Whites and blacks, men and women, heteros and homos, those born into wealth and those who were not, and so on. These are all demographic groups whose membership is not a matter of choice, unlike a political party, church denomination, marital status, number of children, place of residence, etc. They have a sense of guilt from having been born into a dominant demographic group (whites, males), whose dominance is unjust and whose oppression of subordinate groups requires atonement.

In their minds, there's just something unnatural about one group being dominant, when its members were accidentally born into it, rather than admitted or elected on the basis of merit. The state of nature, they believe, is egalitarian, so that if whites come out ahead of blacks in economic life, it is a grossly artificial state of affairs, and could only have come about through concerted and sustained manipulation by the dominant group. With this new awareness — after a little "consciousness-raising" — they feel compelled to atone for the historical sins of the dominant group that they were accidentally born into.

But in all those cases, there is a natural inequality across groups that is biological rather than historical: whites have higher IQ on average than blacks, men produce tons more testosterone than women, heterosexuals are more capable of deferring gratification.

Whether this natural inequality ought to be allowed to show up in status inequality is a matter of debate, which is not important here. The point is: Boomers don't even realize, indeed they emphatically deny that these inequalities have a natural basis. They want so much social engineering to minimize these inequalities precisely because they believe that they have no natural basis, but are rather the outcome of so much social engineering by the current dominant groups in the opposite direction.

Thus, in their view, their sweeping plans are not introducing social engineering into an unregulated state of nature, but correcting an existing set of plans for social engineering (drafted and enforced by the dominant group for its own benefit) with a different set of plans in the opposite direction, in order to restore society back to the egalitarian state of nature.

You'll have to forgive this exploration of the Boomer mind, but it is crucial to understand the psychology behind their characteristic damning of the dominant in-groups that they belong to.

Why then don't they feel the same way toward dominant, manipulative, and greedy generations, when they belong to just such a group? Why do they indeed appear blind to the very facts of their dominance and destructiveness? Why do they go so far as to celebrate their generational in-group as a never-ending underdog victory for the causes of fairness and equality, and indulge any chance they get to insult the generational out-groups? It is so entirely opposite to their mindset and behavior in the cases of being born into a race, a sex, and a sexual orientation, where they are only too happy to show public disloyalty to the in-group.

They can't be so clueless as to not realize that your generation is another one of those groups you're born into. But unlike races and sexes, which have a history extending far back into the past, a generation is a one-of-a-kind collective entity. There were no Boomers before there were Boomers, so they have no historical sins to atone for. Any current high status they enjoy must therefore be an achievement based on merit, not an inheritance of privilege based on good luck at birth. And they feel no remorse over slandering generational out-groups because they, too, have no history — and hence no "legacy of oppression" that has contributed to their current marginal status. If your generation isn't doing as well as ours, that's your own fault for being too lazy, ignorant, and complacent. *

We could throw in the Silents with the Boomers, since they are co-conquerers within the Me Generation. But they aren't as strident as the Boomers, so they're more difficult to study. Overall the pattern is similar, though. Their one-of-a-kind generation was born into the Depression, then through hard work and merit — rather than Midcentury liberal policies and an older generation willing to vacate spaces in the economy — they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps into lasting prosperity. If you young 'uns can't do the same, you just don't got the grit that us old-timers do.

We don't need to look into Gen X or the Millennials because they are not dominant generations, and so could neither pass nor fail the test of loyalty detailed for the Boomers. It's not that X-ers and Millennials are genetically superior, or free from sin — if the historical forces had lined them up to be the ones who took over society, they would've been just as devoutly loyal to their generation as the Boomers have been to theirs.

People who think about generations have emphasized how one-of-a-kind they are, and how new ones are constantly being created, unlike other demographic groups that you're born into like race, sex, and class. But as far as I'm aware, they haven't followed that observation to see where leads. For one thing, it makes generations perhaps the most resistant to disloyalty among major groups. You'd have to go to blood relations to find a group that is equally unwilling to claim that their in-group has oppressed an out-group and needs to atone for it.

Thus in societies with weakening kinship ties, ties of generation will become primary. Kinship bonds are impossible to scale up to the level of a nation, but it is automatic for generations: everyone born in that nation at that time, growing up in those formative years, will feel like members of a great big family which, however dysfunctional, still needs to hold together to defend itself against hostile other generations. From kin group vs. kin group to generation vs. generation.

* In fairness, that charge is not wide of the mark for Millennials, but the Boomers had the same condescending view of Gen X, and of the much older pre-Boomer folks who they viewed as an entire generation of undeservedly rich layabouts ("Boo unions").

Even with the Millennials, generations are shaped as much by what's going on in the older generations as by what's going on in their own. Millennial childhoods were shaped by Boomer parenting practices such as everybody gets a trophy for being the best just the way they are, and nobody can criticize my awesome special little snowflake or there'll be hell to pay. And in the broader society, Boomers are squatting on all the jobs, now including low-level entry jobs such as supermarket cashiers as they come to realize that they'll need to keep working well into their senior years due to never saving and always racking up more debt.

If there are so few paths to make a living from honest hard work, why bother learning how to do it in the first place? Might as well follow the path of "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" — whine and hope that your parents or substitute parents in the economy and government will kick enough your way to shut you up for awhile. It's no different from the way that a negligent parent parks their bored child in front of a kaleidoscopic glowing screen and hands them some chips and soda, so that mommy can get back to being busy, rather than give them some chores to do around the house to encourage responsibility.

I don't claim this is the sole or even the primary cause behind the brattiness of the Millennials — only to point out these unseen ways by which the incumbent generations can stunt the entrant generations.

September 1, 2014

"Boo unions" - another generational divide

This earlier post showed a generational divide in believing that your taxes are too high: compared to the Greatest Gen, Silents, and Boomers on one hand, Gen X and Millennials are far less likely to complain about their taxes, both within the same time period and during the same life stage. So it is not simply a matter of old vs. young, but of some birth cohorts remaining consistently higher than others in making "Boo taxes" a core civic value.

If the divide is that great for taxes, it must be part of a broader pattern of underlying differences. Pursuing that hunch, I looked into how people feel about labor unions.

The same person who loathes paying for what government provides is also going to start hyperventilating when the topic of organizing the workplace comes up. And historically, high taxes and an expansive union presence were both part of the Great Compression, while before and after, during the Gilded Age I and the Gilded Age II, taxes were lower (particularly for the wealthy) and the labor movement was marginalized.

The me-first / dog-eat-dog norm says everyone should look out for themselves, and if that means we get robber barons and Tammany Hall, then that's just the price we pay for enjoying laissez-faire individualism. The making-do / all-in-it-together norm says that the natural strife between workers and managers / owners needs to be dampened by collective bargaining in good faith.

Workers ought to accommodate managers by putting in an honest day's work — but they've already been doing that, so the main change must come from the managers and owners accommodating the needs of their workforce, rather than treating them like subhuman cogs in a machine, or a fungible commodity (man-hours of labor) that can be off-shored to cheaper foreigners or in-shored with a flood of cheaper immigrants.

And sure enough, we find the same generational divide over unions as we do over taxes. The General Social Survey asks a question about how much confidence you have in organized labor, one response being "hardly any." Respondents were restricted to whites only, since there are large racial differences across generations that might affect how pro- or anti-union a generation feels. The rest of the methodology is the same as in the post on taxes.

First, here is how the lack of confidence in unions has changed across time periods (years have been chunked into periods to give good sample sizes), separated by birth cohorts (e.g., the 1950 cohort includes those born from 1945 to 1954).


Overall the picture is the same as before, both the changes over time and the generational divide. The '70s and '80s saw a wave of anti-tax and anti-union sentiment across the pre-X generations, although the late Boomers (in solid yellow) were a holdout for awhile. Once taxes had been slashed and the labor movement pummeled by the end of the '80s, this sentiment subsided somewhat, particularly among the Greatest Gen cohorts. It has started to tick back upwards during the recession.

The band that includes the Greatest, Silent, and Booomer cohorts isn't quite as narrow as it was for taxes, but the separation of the Gen X cohorts is still clear. The red, orange, and yellow lines overlap a lot, while the blue ones stand apart from them. Millennials are even less anti-union than the X-ers; they aren't shown because they'd only appear in one period, and their changes over time couldn't be seen.

Now, take a look at how distrust of unions has changed over the lifetimes of each of the generations:


Once again, there's a single curving band along which the pre-X cohorts lie, while the X-ers are shifted noticeably below (albeit following a similar rise over their lifetimes). The earlier generations mostly hover between 35-45% distrusting unions, whereas the X-ers and Millennials will probably hover between 15-25%, or about half as distrusting as the Greatest, Silent, and Boomer cohorts.

This is a remarkable shift in mindsets when you consider that Gen X and Millennials aren't being fed a pro-union message. They simply came of working age when the harshest "Boo unions" battles had already been won. The only message they may have received about them was a non-message.

A cynic would say that it's their lack of familiarity with organized labor that allows them to entertain such benign views of them. But then most Boomers had no real experience with unions either when they were coming of working age, and that didn't stop them from jumping on the union-busting bandwagon. If anything, their experience was indirect, seeing their older Greatest Gen parents and relatives getting pensions and health care from having paid their union dues. Still, seeing the benefits wasn't enough to keep them from joining the laissez-faire revolution of the Me Generation.

Gen X and Millennials came of working age in the aftermath of that revolution, once the dismantling of the egalitarian-ish norms was more or less fait accompli. Seeing the neo-Dickensian ruthlessness and absence of fellow-feeling has made them skeptical of today's incarnation of Gilded Age laissez-faire cheerleaders.

It would not be accurate to say that they're enthusiastic about starting another labor movement, or that they have any idea what their ideal would look like — or even what the predecessor looked like 100 years ago. They're simply not kneejerk union-haters, and are keeping an open mind about some kind of unspecified collective organization to press for their needs once the economic shit really starts to hit the fan.

Lord knows they won't be able to count on politicians, neither could their counterparts in the late 1800s. Politicians only cater to demands for a wholesome workplace and economy once enough of the general public starts to raise the costs for political-corporate circle-jerking.

The last time around, the class war turned incredibly violent, primarily from the owners hiring private armies of Pinkerton guards to mow down striking workers in a hail of bullets. With the vast, militarized police forces of today's Gilded Age, I doubt they'll even need private armies this time around. On the other side, when the climate is frenzied enough, mobs of workers will take up arms, lob Molotov cocktails, and so on as well.

That's not ancient history, so hopefully this time around, both sides can keep the last time in mind, in order to steer clear of that much violence. Yet folks often have a way of believing that "this time is different," and pay no heed to the lessons of history.

GSS variables: conlabor, cohort, age, year, race

Incumbency and over-production of elites in journalism

Like most other people my age, I haven't watched the news on TV in a very long time, not since high school in the mid-to-late 1990s. At college I suddenly had access to hard copies of newspapers from around the world, and about the same time every major paper began distributing their content for free over the internet. Bye-bye TV news coverage.

So imagine my shock the other day when I caught a bit of the local news on the same NBC station I used to watch 15 to 20 years ago — and saw the exact same crew of anchors! I even remembered some of their names before they introduced themselves.

I headed over to NBC4's website roster to see who all was still there, and the answer was — everyone! Jim Handly, Wendy Rieger, Barbara Harrison, Pat Collins, Tom Kierein, and of course Jim Vance, who was already stumbling over his words in old age back in the '90s. The incumbency problem was worse than I'd suspected, as most of them began working for the station in the '80s (Vance was the only one there since the early '70s).

Sure, there are lots of new young reporters who I didn't recognize, but by the looks of who's still sitting in the anchors' chairs, they won't ever be moving up. Only one incumbent, Joe Krebs, is retiring.

You'd probably see the same thing for the anchors in your own neck of the woods, although I'm not interested enough in the topic to actually check into other major markets.

But we sure do see that at the national level. Starting in the early 1980s, three incoming anchors ruled the roost for the better part of a quarter-century (Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather). If old age did not get in the way, they would have kept at it even longer. Only Cronkite had a similarly long tenure during the Midcentury.

Now it's common to anchor some national news program or another for 20 years or longer. Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, Al Roker — the list goes on and on. And they all began their star roles during the '80s and afterward.

As a result of the big figures never stepping down from their Establishment positions, the soaring numbers of journalism majors have tried to carve out newer and ever more niche, er, niches for themselves. They're gonna be a somebody, somewhere.

That's why most websites nowadays have jumping-off links to more and more "new media" sites where, unlike on NBC Nightly News, you can read all about The 17 Ways You're Annoying Your Roommates, or The 11 Most Dishonest Lies That Republicans Are Spreading About Healthcare, or The 11 Most Dishonest Lies That Democrats Are Spreading About Gun Control, etc. etc. etc.

These new media types are not vying for the anchor spot on a national broadcast news program, and they may not even have a journalism degree like those who write for major newspapers. The point is that incumbency at the top and increasing interest in being a journalist has a ripple effect all the way out to those Weird New Trick sites.

You see the same phenomenon in late night talk shows. There were a bunch of variety and talk shows in the '40s during the heyday of radio, but they didn't continue to dominate the industry into the '60s and '70s. Carson was the only one to begin in the Midcentury and last for several decades, like Cronkite. (Dick Cavett, who was a hit in the '70s, didn't last for two decades.) Everyone else has been on since the '80s or early '90s, and were loathe to leave — Letterman, Leno, Conan. You can bet that Jon Stewart and Howard Stern will be clinging for dear life to their spots, too.

Daytime talk shows are no different. Phil Donahue was the only one to begin before the '80s and last for several decades. Oprah was on forever, Geraldo's been on in one form or another since the same time, even Maury Povich is still going after 20 years. Sally Jesse Raphael began in the early '80s and hung on for 20 years. Ellen and Rosie O'Donnell came along later and haven't been on for as long, but they were already coasting off of their stand-up / acting brand.

As with the nightly news, the incumbency problem has led to a proliferation of niche late-night and daytime talk shows to accommodate the widening ranks of aspiring talk show hosts.

Siskel and Ebert had a lock on reviewing movies for a TV audience, and were only stopped by death and cancer.

The only constant across all of these cases is the timing of their beginnings — circa the 1980s — and the generations of the incumbents — Silents and Boomers (Greastest Gen were happy to move aside after a brief stint). It doesn't matter if the scale is national or local, if the tone is serious or comic or trashy, if they're men or women, white or black, Jewish or Christian. The me-first / dog-eat-dog norms that have prevailed since the Me Generation of the '70s have ushered in an age of first mover advantage. They shoved the Greatest Gen aside, dug themselves in, and are only leaving due to the complications of old age.

This places them within the broader trend in the economy and government toward incumbency, rising numbers of aspiring elites, and new niches being carved out to give the strivers somewhere to go.

But niches can only grow so narrow and draw such tiny crowds. There are simply too many people aspiring to be a somebody in the world of journalism. When the trend toward status-striving and inequality turns around, we'll see people who don't mind reading the teleprompter or gabbing with the celebs du jour for five years before moving on to something else. And who won't think of their spot as a way to "build their brand" i.e. glorify themselves.

August 30, 2014

Can stronger social connections help out children from broken homes?

Data and analysis are in the post below. This is more of a conceptual overview of the topic.

The the nature vs. nurture "debate," the pendulum has swung a bit too far toward the side of nature. Somewhere along the line, fans of behavior genetics — which is not to say the researchers themselves — convinced themselves that environments don't affect how we turn out as adults. At least, not in predictable ways.

There could be random environmental differences that affect development, like some molecule in the brain zigs instead of zags due to a quantum-level coin flip, and that winds up making the kid more extraverted instead of introverted. Or maybe there just happened to be a frightening dog on the way to school one day, and this traumatic experience makes the kid more fearful in adulthood. These are environmental effects, but they all boil down to chance and fortune.

What we tend to mean by "environmental effects" are when a parent uses corporal punishment, the child may wind up with violent tendencies in adolescence. But it could be that the parent had genetically influenced violent tendencies themselves, which expressed themselves in the use of corporal punishment, and expressed themselves in the kid as getting into pointless fights. Or perhaps the corporal punishment is an effect, rather than a cause of the kid's violent tendencies — natural-born hell-raisers induce parents to use tougher discipline than little wiener kids do.

What gets lost in this quibbling on and on is that what normal people usually mean by "environments shape development" is that some events have a much stronger impact than merely getting whipped with a belt. A small bruise will heal, but what about things that a kid is not going to be so resilient against, like growing up in a broken home, being molested, emotionally neglected, and so on?

In our neo-Dickensian world, such events are hardly uncommon. Recall this post which shows how increasingly common it is for white Americans to be growing up without both of their parents in the home — up to around 40% of those born in the late '80s.

To look beyond the individual level for how such kids are affected, a follow-up post looked at the loss of connectedness that children have when their parents divorce.

Now let's try to work both of these levels together. Depression and anxiety are found more often in children of divorce than in children from intact families. But depression isn't just a free-floating individual trait — it responds to how socially integrated you are. More connected environments might alleviate the sense of disruption and having been ripped out of the ground.

We can imagine all sorts of ways to define "more connected," and here I'll look at the outgoing, as opposed to cocooning, trend in social-cultural cycles. Children from broken homes must feel even more lonely and depressed when there's a larger climate of cocooning and atomization.

When folks are more out and about, milling around in public spaces, and neighbors are looking out for neighbors, those kids might not feel such a cripping loss when their parents split up. Compared to victims of helicopter parenting, kids in an outgoing climate have far greater support from their peers, and may also find surrogate parents throughout their neighborhood and peer group, to make up for their own dysfunctional parents.

Children of divorce less depressed as young adults if they grew up in socially connected times

Introductory post here.

The General Social Survey asks a question about how happy you are, and most people say pretty happy. Since that's a fence-sitting answer, I'm going to look at the "very happy" answer (the other is "not too happy"). I've separated the respondents into those who grew up with both parents, and those who did not because of divorce or separation. Since the effects might peter out over time, I'm only looking at people who were 18 to 25 years old when they were surveyed. They're also whites only, to prevent the confound of race differences in family structure.

To measure how connected their world was when they were growing up, I grouped them into birth cohorts of 10 years: 1945-'54, '55-'64, '65-'74, '75-'84, and '85-'94. Each cohort is labeled by the 0-year in the middle, from 1950 to 1990.

The first cohort is early Boomers, and their 1950s childhood was fairly atomized by historical standards, although their adolescence was more outgoing in the '60s. Those in the next cohort, the late Boomers, grew up entirely in outgoing times, although when they were little this trend was only just beginning to rise. The early Gen X cohort also spent their childhood and adolescence in outgoing times, but now at a higher level than for the late Boomers. The late X-ers grew up mostly in outgoing times, up through the '80s, but went through adolescence during the cocooning '90s. (They are the inversion of the early Boomers, who also had a mixed-up upbringing.) The early Millennials grew up entirely during the cocooning period that we're still in.

Did the environment make a difference? Here are the rates of feeling very happy among children from intact vs. broken homes, who were asked in young adulthood, separated by cohort:


Notice that the red line, showing kids from intact homes, is fairly flat across all cohorts. The happiness levels don't seem to change so much, in one direction or another, for children from intact families. Perhaps a healthy home life makes them less dependent on an outgoing climate to feel great, and they will be better buffered against the atomization of the cocooning climate.

The blue line, however, rises along with the outgoing trend and begins to fall with the cocooning trend. With not so much at home to anchor their psychological stability, they are more sensitive to changes in the wider social climate. They never reach the same levels of happiness as those from intact families, but they did manage to close the gap by quite a bit when they had grown up in the more broadly connected environments of the '70s and '80s.

We can treat happiness like a trait that follows a bell-shaped curve, and use the "very happy" response as a cut-off value for that trait. Kind of like using "can dunk a basketball" as a cut-off value for height. We can then work backwards to turn the fraction meeting the cut-off into z-scores, and from there figure out what the distance is between the average person in the two different family structure groups. This is like figuring out how much shorter, on average, one group is compared to another, looking only at how likely they are to dunk a basketball.

Here is a graph of the gap between the happiness levels of the two groups, plotted across each of the cohorts again. The units are standard deviations. For comparison, one S.D. is about 3 inches in the case of height.


Never does the gap reach zero, but it does narrow quite a bit from around 0.4 S.D. to 0.25, then to 0.15, staying around 0.15, and finally rising back to 0.25. If we treat happiness as a kind of "height," then children from broken homes were about 1.2 inches "shorter" than those from intact homes, among the early Boomer cohort. For late Boomers, the gap shortened to 0.75 inch. For both Gen X cohorts, it narrowed down to under half an inch, and then widened back to 0.75 inch among the early Millennials. I'd project that it's even wider among later Millennials, born between 1995 and 2004.

Narrowing a gap in average "height" by three-quarters of an inch in just 20 to 30 years, or one generation, is pretty good — way better than utopian attempts at social engineering. Although by the same token, the steady trend toward cocooning over the past 25 years has probably wiped out those gains. Still, it tells us that, aside from trying to keep down the rate of kids growing up in broken homes, we ought to re-evaluate the costs of cocooning.

By sealing off the nuclear household from the rest of the neighborhood and community, the unfortunate kids who have one or both parents breaking up the family won't have anywhere to turn to as they try to cope with one of the most severe disruptions a person could face, and all while they're still growing up. I know that sounds incredibly emo, but these days, it really must be that devastating.

For a reminder of how manageable and totally not-emo the problem used to be back in the '80s, look at Molly Ringwald's character from Pretty in Pink. Her mother walked out on her and her father, but since it was an anti-helicopter parent era, the father doesn't think twice about her socializing with close friends, going to dances, and bonding with the surrogate maternal figure, who manages the New Wave record store where she works. She's probably not going to turn out exactly like the normal kids at school, but y'know — normal enough.

That was fairly common back then, even for younger children. If your parents were divorced, you spent most of your time outside the home, trying to latch onto something stable and healthy. And provided that you made yourself likable, you were welcome in your friends' homes by your friends' parents.

This underscores the importance of there not being too many broken families, though. If only 10% of the kids are from broken homes, maybe the other 90% can collectively handle them as guests. But what happens when the guests out-number the hosts? Nothing good can come from that situation.

GSS variables: happy, family16, famdif16, cohort, age, race

August 28, 2014

Jews over-represented among gay Congress members

According to this list, there are 16 members of Congress who were "out" while in office. All served in the House of Representatives, although one also served in the Senate. Of these 16, 4 are Jews (25%), including the only Senator (Frank and Polis are full, Cicilline is half, and Baldwin is a quarter).

During the time period that the gay ones have served -- the 1970s through today -- Jews have made up between 5-10% of the House. They are therefore 2 or 3 times over-represented among those members of Congress who are gay.

Or at least those who are openly gay -- we'd need a more exhaustive and reliable list of who was in the closet, and check them by ethnic background. Being 2-to-3 times over-represented doesn't seem like it'll go away even if Jews were less likely to be in the closet, and we counted both closeted and open homos. At any rate, they'd still be more likely to be open about it, i.e. to make it one of the issues on their agenda.

Related post: Jews are more than twice as likely to be gay, though equally likely to be lesbian.

August 26, 2014

The decline of stoicism during status-striving times

One of the most palpable changes to the social climate during times of rising competitiveness, with its norm of me-first and dog-eat-dog, is how emotionally unrestrained people become. Each individual no longer feels like it's their duty to regulate their emotions in the presence of others, no matter how positive, negative, or neutral the feeling is.

Soooo stoked for the beginning of pumpkin spice latte season!!!!

Soooo depressed that Wendy's is discontinuing the Tuscan chicken on toasted ciabatta :((((

Fuck yeah, George Takei for the epic motherbitching win!

It's my opinion, douchenozzle, if you don't want to hear it then go somewhere else.

Older and higher-status people are no less on-edge emotionally than those who are younger and more status-insecure. Steve Jobs, John McCain, and their fans, and their haters.

In more accommodating times, the norm is reining-it-in. Don't work 100 hours a week out of ambition, if that work could have been divided into two 50-hour schedules and given someone else a job too. Don't get overly excited when you feel positive, since you'll look like a poor winner or like you're trying to lord it over those who are feeling only so-so. And when you're feeling down in the dumps, don't whine so loudly about that either, since excessive emotion may be drawing more attention to your problems than is necessary to help you out, leaving the problems of others unattended to. Thus does stoicism support a more egalitarian society.

The removal of emotional restraint was already under way in the '80s, when the strong silent type like Clint Eastwood had become replaced by high-energy loose cannons like Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, and Bruce Willis. Eastwood was not only popular in the '60s (continuing on the popularity of Westerns back through the '50s), but into the early part of the '70s as Dirty Harry, another strong silent type. Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones was less unpredictable than other in-your-face heroes of the '80s, but he wails and grimaces in pain more than the Western stars of the Midcentury, and is more likely to unload on an enemy in a rage.

Consciously retro characters like the Fonze and Special Agent Dale Cooper derived their appeal in large part from harking back to a time when men kept it together emotionally.

The same changes can be seen in the prose styles of popular authors. During the Great Compression of roughly 1920 to 1970, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Mailer all wrote in a terse style, and kept their works fairly short in length, to nip sentimentality in the bud. Contrast with the verbose, florid, and treacly prose that was more typical of the Victorians, as well as the self-indulgent 800-page novels of our neo-Dickensian era.

Also from the Victorian era were public intellectuals with such nicknames as "Darwin's Bulldog" (Huxley), who have only started to come back into fashion with New Atheist types and their immediate predecessors like Richard Dawkins. In fairness, The Selfish Gene was an early example before things got as heated as they are now, and he was fairly sympathetic to religious thinking and wrote in a milder tone. Still, I don't recall there being a Fisher's Bulldog or a Wright's Bulldog in the Midcentury, although in 1930 Fisher was somewhat his own bulldog when he wrote an inflammatory second half about eugenics in his book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection.

Returning to an earlier post about the rise of road rage, what kinds of solutions do we hear for folks with an aggressive driving problem? "Anger management." As it turns out, that phrase appears in Google's digital library (Ngram) only in the 1970s, and rises steadily through the late 2000s. A quick check of the Wikipedia article for "anger management" shows that the academic literature on the topic shares this timeline.

Andy Griffith may have had to deal with the occasional hot-head picking a fight in a bar, but not everyday road rage, and he did not have to refer one offender after another to anger management programs.

But the clearest demonstration of the link between falling competitiveness and stoicism is the original, capital-letter Stoicism of the Roman Empire. As a practical philosophical school that led by example, it flourished from Seneca, to Epictetus, to Marcus Aurelius, which coincides with a long period, from emperors Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, of increasing stability within the Empire (particularly among the elites, who had been at war with one another not so long before).

Once internal competition began to rear its head again under the reign of Commodus, Stoicism went up in a puff of smoke. We can tell that this was due to a social-cultural shift, rather than the introduction of newer, weaker blood because Commodus received half of his genetic stock from the Stoic philosopher-emperor himself. Recall this earlier post, using Commodus as an example, about how bombastic and unrestrained the leaders become as society creeps toward civil war.

Increasing levels of rage, excitement, and so on, are symptoms of the underlying cause — the rise in competitiveness, and its accompanying norm of me-first. Don't make me contain my emotions, and I won't make you contain yours. We'll just have to see whose emotions are stronger than the other's. So, going to those anger management programs, or taking a DIY approach, probably won't do all that much long-term. We need to attack these problems at their root, which is the laissez-faire attitude and hyper-competitive behavior toward others.

August 25, 2014

Liberal vs. conservative flavors of purity as a moral intuition

As summarized by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, the basic difference between the moral intuitions of liberals and conservatives is that the moral lobes of liberals light up in response to the factors of harm / care and fairness / justice, with much weaker responses to authority / hierarchy, in-group / community / loyalty, and purity / taboo. Conservative brains respond about equally to all five of these factors, and the largest split with liberals is over the factor of purity.

This shows up today in debates over whether something disgusting like gay butt-sex ought to be condoned or condemned. "Just because it's yucky doesn't mean we should condemn, punish, or quarantine it," says the liberal. "We find things yucky for a reason," the conservative replies: "it's Mother Nature's way of guiding us toward the healthy and wholesome, and away from the diseased and infectious."

But as Haidt and others have observed, liberals do have strongly puritanical intuitions about some things. Look at how obsessive they are about food taboos — any type of food that is not organic, that is genetically modified, that has too much fat, too much sugar, too much sodium, gluten, dairy, peanuts, or high-fructose corn syrup. They are also the type to compulsively use hand sanitizers, napalm for their kitchen countertops, and other extreme forms of hygiene.

An earlier post extended this puzzle to looking at racial differences in disgust and morality between East Asians and Europeans (and Middle Easterners). Overall, East Asians don't show as much revulsion toward as wide a variety of stimuli as Europeans do, and they are more permissive of and more likely to consume what Europeans would consider the most vile of cultural garbage — eating raw squid, watching a cartoon squid rape a 10 year-old girl, buying used panties from vending machines, and so on and so forth. This is why East Asia has not exported a moral code like Europe and the Middle East has.

At the same time, Asians follow more elaborate behaviors to ensure hygiene, such as wearing different pairs of shoes in different rooms of the house, so as to not transfer pollution from a dirtier room to a cleaner room.

What underlies the apparent exceptions is the scope of focus: liberals and Asians restrict purity concerns to the personal, while conservatives and Europeans extend it farther out into the communal. The OCD mindset and habits of the hygiene freaks is fundamentally isolating, sensing everything outside of the self as a threat. The "how dare they?" mindset and habits of standard-bearers is pro-social, attempting to maintain the purity of people, places, things, symbols, and roles against the desecration which would corrode communal identity.

Notice that liberals don't care if some random school doesn't serve organic food in the cafeteria — it's only the schools that their own children attend that matter, and even then they'll give up and pack a separate organic lunch without launching a broader campaign. Only the tiniest fraction of delusional crusaders feel like non-organic school lunch is a travesty that requires correction across the entire school system. Ditto for their OCD routines in the bathroom and kitchen — what do they care about what you do in your bathroom and your kitchen, provided you and they remain apart?

For liberals, everyone is entitled to their own set of hygiene routines and food taboos, and no norms are held for larger groups than the individual (or at most a nuclear household), let alone are they enforced by the larger-group members. Occasionally, a band of do-gooder mommies whose children attend the same school will cooperate to establish and enforce their organic salad bar ways at the school, but again this is uncommon even for liberals.

Conservatives don't act according to the norm of "I'll let you do what you want, if you leave me to do what I want." What if that means I raise the American flag each morning outside my house, while every morning you burn a new American flag in your driveway? What if some bunch of attention junkies on Halloween want to go out in public dressed up as "slutty nuns"? What happens when some of us in the neighborhood want to preserve the mini-golf course where families have been playing and bonding for decades, while others want it replaced by yet another chunk of condos with throwaway trendoid shops at street level ("mixed-use development")?

Conservative-minded folks sanctify these things — whether they are symbolic like the flag, role-based like "nun in the Church," or tangible like the mini-golf course — because they bind us to others in a community at a point in time, connect us back to those who held these things as part of their group identity, too, and will continue to link future generations to us and our predecessors.

This is also why fans of a sports team don't want the name or mascot changed — both are central to the totem with which they all identify, and altering them would sever ties to the past. Changing the team's location is almost as bad, although uprooting an intact totem is not as sacrilegious as adulterating its name and form willy-nilly.

When the focus on purity could go either way, the conservative will sense the threat to communal cohesion, while the liberal senses the threat to individual health. Alcoholism, substance abuse, sleeping around, disgusting sex acts — liberals see more and more harm being done to the individual, and the need for others to care for them until they're better. Hence their solutions follow the model of self-focused therapy. (That is, when they are not "tolerant of" i.e. callous toward others descending into degradation, although in fairness that is more of a libertarian than a liberal inclination.)

Conservatives see the pollution of the individual in these cases, but they also see how this person's decay will weaken the bonds of everyone who is connected to them. And not only in the sense of actively threatening to harm others, e.g. a drunk who begins beating his wife. Even a non-violent, apathetic drunk will weaken the bond between him and his wife, and therefore between his family and the others in the community. The video game addict isn't just "wasting his life" — which he certainly is — he's one less anchor for social ties that run throughout the community.

The end-point of a liberal-guided society is the insectoid hive found in East Asia, where each little drone in each little cell follows their OCD rituals to maintain individual cleanliness (and indirectly, public cleanliness), and where junkies are sent off to heal themselves at video game addiction camp. But also where nothing is held sacred or taboo, and so where everything is in a constant state of flux, no two drones identifying with each other, and none of them feeling securely rooted in the past.

White folks are never going to become that atomized and soulless, but normal people need to point out where the liberal path would ultimately take us, to guard against the Panglossian assurances of how great it'll be when everyone tolerates everyone else's lifestyle choices, or the fallback agnosticism about how we can't know what the effects will be unless we try it. (Hey, I know, let's eat random wild berries — we won't know which are poisonous until we swallow a bucketful.)

They might lazily object about "OMG, seriously? Slippery slope arguments in 2014, really?" But normal folks don't want to take even one more step in the insectoid direction. We've already gone down that path far enough. Pointing to the examples of East Asian societies would instead serve as a reminder of what we need to be moving away from.

August 22, 2014

Jews less forgiving than Christians and even non-religious people

Religion is designed to regulate social behavior according to moral norms that weaken the instinct toward selfishness and strengthen our resolve to "be a bigger person," the better to hold together a large society. Humility is meant to curb vainglory, charity to discourage gold-hoarding, and chastity to prevent adultery.

When it comes to physical security, forgiveness is meant to break up what would be endless cycles of bloody vengeance. Later this evolved into a general attitude toward those who have wronged you, not only those who've caused physical harm.

And yet not all religious groups place an equal emphasis on forgiveness. This wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if the less forgiving group were not over-represented at the highest levels of wealth, power, and influence. They would instead be more of a nuisance, like Gypsies.

The General Social Survey asked a series of three questions about how often your religious or spiritual beliefs lead you to forgive yourself, to forgive others who have hurt you, and to know that God forgives you. The responses can be lumped into a "frequent" group ("always" or "often") and an "infrequent" group ("seldom" or "never").

The charts below show the percent of people in each group who gave an "infrequent" response for each of the questions on forgiveness. Only the major four religious groups are included — Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and those who answered "none" for current religious affiliation.* Respondents were restricted to whites only, to control for race. No effort was made to control for ethnic differences between Protestants and Catholics since they turned out fairly similar anyway.




Across the board Jews are more unforgiving than Christians, and surprisingly, more than non-religious folks as well.

We've all gotten the impression that petty behavior is more common among atheists than among those who fill the pews on Sunday, and here we see our hunch confirmed. There could be a selection effect here, where those who were raised religious but had a more unforgiving disposition drifted away from the church, leaving the more forgiving types to continue practicing as adults. But I suspect there's also a compounding effect of no longer belonging to a higher-level group than the individual, or at most the family, and being subject to its moral norms (abstract "humanity" is a bogus claim, belied by their behavior).

How large are these differences? Let's focus on the second question that asks about forgiving others who have hurt you. If we treat forgiveness as a normally distributed trait like height, with Protestants as the baseline height, it's as though Catholics were less than half an inch "shorter," the non-religious were 1.3 inches shorter, and the Jews were 1.9 inches shorter, on average.

These are not minor differences. The gap in forgiveness between Protestants and Jews is about what the height gap is between white and Asian Americans. Not only visible in everyday life, but far more pronounced at the extremes. Asian-Americans are way more likely than whites to be 5'3 or shorter, and Jews will be more likely than the goyim to never let up on holding a grudge. (Compare the academic fields of Christian Studies vs. Judaic Studies.)

You might object that this is one of those "no duh" findings, but using the GSS we've uncovered a pattern that casual observation would not suggest. Not only are they more unforgiving toward others, they're more unforgiving toward themselves, and they either deny or are uncertain about whether or not God forgives them.

It would not be too much to assume that if they had asked a question about whether you believed others forgave you for your wrongs, Jews would be less likely to believe so than Christians or even non-religious folks.

There is a broad, general absence of forgiveness in the minds of Jews, which suggests a single underlying cause. Here it is probably their elevated levels of neuroticism. People who are angry, worrisome, and depressive are more likely than cool-headed people to view any remark as a slight, and any bad outcome as a conspiracy. These sting bad enough for the neurotic that they cannot be truly forgiven.

Ashkenazi Jews spent the better part of a millennium adapting genetically and culturally to a managerial niche. Have you guys interacted with managers? Who can be surprised to find that they are now more petty and vindictive than their Christian and secular goy host populations?

These are not qualities that hold together a society, high IQ or low. Indeed, the example of Israel shows how pettiness and vindictiveness must be elevated into national, or rather foreign policy, in order for such corrossiveness to be directed outward. If it were not for The Eternal Muslim -- or, in a pinch, The Eternal Slav -- the Jewish nation would devour itself.

Related: two earlier posts here and here on why the Parsis are a "market-dominant minority" who are loved rather than loathed by their host society.

Humility, charity, and chastity all distinguish the Parsis from the Jews, and they do not continue to harp on their persecution in previous centuries, such as the Muslim conquest of Iran that drove them into India. They seem to have forgiven the Muslims for displacing them from their homeland and having to live as a diaspora. Somehow, I don't see the Parsis banding together to colonize Iran and forcefully reclaim their homeland a la the Zionist movement.

Jews will never collectively forgive goy Europeans, and so would never take our unsolicited advice. But they might be able to take the same advice if it came from the Parsis. Follow their example, and become viewed as a national treasure. They could not imitate them very well at the start, but in what other direction does their culture have to go?

* Jews have a small sample size of 26, but the differences between them and the others are large enough that even this small sample is good enough to give highly significant results on a chi-squared test.

GSS variables: forgive1, forgive2, forgive3, relig, race

August 20, 2014

The generational swing away from "Boo taxes"

An earlier post laid out the basic finding of Gen X and Millennials being distinctly less hysterical about paying taxes than the Boomers, Silents, and Greatest Gen. Today's inequality is in large part the outcome of the tax burden being kicked down the road by earlier generations. I've already discussed what the overall dynamics seem to be behind the shift in sentiment with later generations, so now let's turn to the data for the details on just how stark the split is.

These results come from the General Social Survey, which studies a national probability sample, going back to the early 1970s. The question about taxes asks, "Do you consider the amount of federal income tax which you have to pay as too high, about right, or too low?" We're interested in the "too high" response as a signal of anti-tax sentiment. Only whites were studied, to control for race (which varies quite a bit with later generations), and to look at what's going on with the majority.

There are changes across time periods, and across age groups, that we need to isolate before looking at cohort differences. If we compare one cohort when they were young to another cohort when they were old, or if we compare one cohort during a period of heavy anti-tax sentiment and another cohort during a period of lower sentiment, we'll confuse our generational comparison with age and period comparisons.

I've grouped people into birth cohorts of 10 years, from years ending in a 5 to years ending in a 4, and labeled by the year ending in a 0 that lies in between. For example, one cohort includes those born from 1945 to 1954, and they are labeled the 1950 cohort.

Time periods could not be each individual survey year, as that gives sample sizes that are too small. I looked for local peaks and local valleys in the changes over time, and put the surrounding years into a single time period. This captures periods of higher or lower anti-tax sentiment. There are five periods, each made up of 4 or 5 survey years: 1976-'82, '84-'88, '89-'93, '94-2002, and '04-'12.

The plot below shows the percent of respondents who said their taxes were "too high," tracked across time periods, and shown separately for each cohort. I've restricted people to those aged 18 to 64 -- once retirement, Social Security, and Medicare are within reach, folks stop whining so much about having to pay taxes. Looking only at the 18-64 year-olds lets us feel the pulse of the main tax-paying population.


There are two take-away patterns in this picture. First, all cohorts follow the same general up-and-down movements over time. Everyone felt more "Boo taxes" around 2000 compared to 1990, and everyone lightened up by 2010 compared to 2000.

Nevertheless, the cohorts born from 1915 to 1964 all more or less overlap each other across time, despite their age differences within any given period. This is why their colors are similar to each other -- you don't need to distinguish them, given how similar they are. Greatest Gen is red, Silents are orange, and Boomers are yellow. The early cohort of a generation has a dashed line, the later cohort has a solid line.

The late Boomers (in solid yellow) looked like they were going to pull away in the first couple periods, but by the time they hit 30 around 1990 they had been captured into the upper band on the graph. Both cohorts within Gen X, however, are markedly set apart from that upper band, regardless of time period. Millennials are also low in anti-tax sentiment, below Gen X. They are not shown because they would only appear as a single point in the last period, so that we couldn't see their movement across at least two time periods.

Although the entire society seems to be coming closer together during the nadir of the Great Recession, I think the split will remain into the near future, based on what we can project from the age curves, which we turn to now.

Here we let back in those aged 65 and above, to see how anti-tax sentiment falls off a cliff during a person's 60s. The age groups are 18-29, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s and 80s together (to prevent small sample sizes among the elderly). If most of a cohort hasn't aged through most of a given age group, I left them off the chart. The 1980 cohort, for example, doesn't show up in the 30-39 age group because, as of the most recent survey in 2012, only the early members had gone through a decent amount of their 30s, and the later members had hardly even entered them.

The plot below shows how anti-tax sentiment changes across the lifespan, separated by cohort. The visual coding of the cohorts is the same as the first chart.


Again notice how similar the Greatest, Silent, and Boomer generations are. They don't appear in all age groups, but you can see them all lying along the same curve. As before, the late Boomers looked like they were going to pull away in their youth, but they've aged to be more like the other cohorts in the upper band. They could still stand farther apart in middle age, and serve as a bridge cohort. We'll have to wait and see.

We must emphasize that the early Boomers (in dashed yellow) have remained consistently "Boo taxes," ever since they were youngsters. What kind of people are complaining about taxes being too high when they're 20-somethings? Yet there they are -- hovering between 65-70% from youth through middle age. Once they leave their productive earning years, they will surely lighten up as everyone does, but it is remarkable that have been so rabidly in favor of de-funding public goods and services for their entire productive lives -- while of course voting for more and more public goods to be doled out for their welfare (prescription drugs) and for their entertainment (kicking ass abroad).

And yet they express genuine shock when they hear how high the national debt keeps ballooning -- it's not a cynical defense like, "I am shocked, shocked to find that debt is going on here!" They are sincerely perplexed at how spending and taxing have gotten so outta-whack. The utter lack of self-awareness of their role in sinking our society is breathtaking.

Just speculating now, but why is the early Boomer cohort worse than the others in the band that it belongs to? I blame the Dr. Spock climate that they were raised in -- both at home and when they were out in public. Smothering mothers, permissive parenting, etc., made the early Boomers doubly spoiled during their formative years -- in addition to being spoiled by growing up during the Great Compression, when per capita wealth kept rising, inequality kept falling, and political instability had all but vanished (not until they were around 20 would they see the slight return of organized violence circa 1970).

Moving on to Generation X, they are again in a world apart from the preceding generations. The early X-ers have already aged through their 30s, and although they were more anti-tax than they had been as 20-somethings, they did not rise anywhere near the levels of the upper band. What hints we can glean from their feelings in their 40s (keeping in mind that they haven't all aged through them), suggest that they aren't going to go near the upper band in that age group either. Neither will the late X-ers. They will show the same rise during middle age and decline during their senior years, but it is plain to see their curve lying far below that of the Greatest, Silent, and Boomer generations.

The Millennials are not shown here either because, as of 2012, most of them had not aged through their 20s. They are like Gen X, though, lying somewhat below the late X-ers. We'll have to wait and see if they form a band with Gen X as we and they age. Who knows, though? -- perhaps it will be Gen X that is the bridge generation between the Greatest / Silent / Boomer band above and a band below made up of Millennials plus whoever follows them. Time will tell.

Summing up the psychology behind these dynamics, it looks like people who grow up in periods of falling inequality take that for granted, and are not consciously aware of the norms that support it -- namely, "reining it in" rather than "let the devil take the hindmost." That leads them to break with the earlier norms -- what's the harm of putting me first in the economic and political arena? -- that then leads to rising competitiveness, inequality, and political instability. (See Peter Turchin's model of the competition-and-inequality cycle in this review.)

Those who grow up under this new norm of dog-eat-dog see from an early age how divisive and corrosive it is to the bonds that hold society together. (The last time around, this was the FDR / Eisenhower generation who grew up during the peak of competitiveness and inequality in the early 20th century.) Even as youngsters, they drop out of the mindset of succeeding and gaining status at any cost to others.

The sharp break with those born circa 1970 suggests that our impressions begin as small children, since the '70s were the beginning of the present era of rising competitiveness and inequality. The fact that those born circa 1960 are not so heavily affected suggests that our mindsets harden already by adolescence. It's like the development of our native language -- infancy and childhood are crucial, adolescence not so much, and adulthood not at all.

Eventually enough of the population will be made up of folks with the "reining it in" mindset, and enough of the dog-eat-dog cohorts will have died off, that society swings back in the more egalitarian and stable direction... until the cycle repeats itself all over again.

Nevertheless, divisiveness will not be as bad this time around as it was during the long Gilded Age, up through World War I. We aren't going to have a civil war that was as destructive as the first one, our How the Other Half Lives won't look as filthy and depressing, and our Spanish Flu pandemic won't claim as many victims. That's about the only good news, though, aside from being able to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel once the Boomers die off. If anything, that's the form that I'd expect a bitter civil war to take this time around -- along cohort lines.

Having to fight alongside the Millennials, if it means putting an end to Boomer (and Silent) dominance? We just might have to. Our slogan is, "Always having to clean up after someone else's mess." Resentful stewardship. It won't be that much more degrading to have to take on the Millennials as sidekicks, as long as we still get to make fun of their dorkiness when we're off the battlefield.

GSS variables: tax, age, cohort, year, race

August 18, 2014

More signs that people have abandoned the woods as a public place

Each time I head off into the woods to check on how they're doing, something new catches my attention as a symptom of their abandonment by people over the past 20-odd years. (Earlier posts here and here.) Two observations from today:

1. There are many more spider webs than there used to be, along paths and in clearings. They aren't very thick, almost invisible unless you're keeping your eyes peeled. They fall apart when you walk through a single thread, so there shouldn't be many at all in walkable areas. Their ubiquity shows that nobody is walking around back there. When dozens of folks would have been passing through on any given weekend, each individual may have gotten snagged once. The cumulative result is that they cleared out the spiderwebs so that everyone could enjoy a stroll without having to peel off sticky thread from their arms every five minutes.

We're not talking about way deep in the woods either -- even ten feet in, you have to start mindlessly swinging a stick in front of you to keep from getting snagged so often. I felt like an idiot doing that -- it was definitely not one of those moments where you remember, "Oh yeah, now this experience is all coming back to me." When I was a kid, we didn't have to result to such goofy stuff, since there weren't so many threads in our way. It felt strange having to do that right as you got into the woods: you expect cobwebs in the attic or the basement, not the entryway.

2. Related to all the underbrush that's turning the woods into a jungle, there seems to be a lot more branches and small trees that have fallen to the ground and are getting in the way because no one goes back there, where they would tramp them into smaller pieces. Kids, too (or boys at least) would entertain themselves by knocking off smaller and medium branches from trees, or finding a large branch already on the ground and whacking all of the smaller branches away from it with their walking stick.

It's like with spiderwebs, or treading over grass to lay down a path -- each individual's contribution is small, but added up over all those people, it made a huge difference.

The very large fallen trees look familiar -- no one would have stomped those into halves in the old days either. The small end of the spectrum looks familiar, too -- twig pieces, shredded leaves, broken acorn shells, etc. But there's way too much stuff in the middle range, like medium and large branches lying all around, often with all their dead shriveled leaves attached, instead of the branches getting snapped into smaller and smaller lengths, and the leaves getting all crumpled up into shreds. It looks like an unkempt lawn cluttered with yard waste, not the small-scale mat of debris that you think of when you picture "forest floor."

While I was back there, a guy driving a lawnmower (who surprised me by being white) was busy clearing out the field that is part of the property just outside of the woods. Public places under bureaucratic control can pay workers to mow the lawn, where that's convenient, and such places look well maintained today.

But once the public place is in a less convenient area, like the woods, the government or corporate board isn't going to pay someone to traipse around back there with a machete and weed-whacker to make it more walkable. Paths and clearings rely on the aggregate of many actions, each of small effect, from the entire nearby population. And of course you're not mindful of your unintended stewardship, given how puny each of your contributions is. You only take note of it when everyone has opted out, and suddenly the public place is overgrown and hostile.

I'm confident that the state of things will revert to how they were once we switch from the cocooning to the outgoing phase in our social-cultural cycle, sometime within the next five to ten years. But it sure would be nice if those future woods-explorers could hit the ground running, and have paths already cleared out. I make a point of carrying a stick to knock branches off and whack the taller weeds out of the way.

Still, it's too much for one person who occasionally goes back there. That would be a great shovel-ready project for the parks and recreation department.  Instead of installing free wi-fi in public parks, where folks are supposed to be unplugged, use that money to hire someone who doesn't mind cutting trails through the local woods, and making sure clearings don't get all cluttered up with large debris. It wouldn't even be as difficult as the first time, since now he could be guided by the fading traces of the original ones.