Posted in Uncategorized, tagged health, life span, public goods on March 4, 2014 |
The health of the American people has risen and fallen with fluctuations in the health of its poorest. Although more vulnerable in the past, the affluent have generally managed, major epidemics aside, to stay healthier than other Americans. Going back centuries, they regularly had nutritious food, usually clean water, decent shelter, and the ability to leave town in malarial season. The lower classes, particularly their children, were ill in normal times and especially vulnerable to periodic epidemics. One of modern America’s great achievements is the extension of the average life span, from about 40 years for a just-born infant several generations ago to about 80 years now.
That doubling was accomplished largely by improving the health of less fortunate Americans through public health projects. In a new paper, the eminent economic historian Dora Costa provides an overview of America’s health history which emphasizes the importance of those projects in the late 19th century. Reading her essay raises the question, Where are the equivalent public health projects of the early 21st century?
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In a well-researched and provocative National Journal column, journalist Peter Beinart seeks to jujitsu conservatives’ charges that President Obama has undermined “American exceptionalism.” Beinart argues that American exceptionalism – by which he means America’s sharp differences from Old-World Europe — is “ending.” Young Americans, he states with data, look increasingly just like young Europeans in their religiosity, class consciousness, and nationalism. Beinart flips the right-wing charge, however, arguing that Obama’s arrival is the result, not the origin, of this convergence and, moreover, that it is largely conservative policies that are ending American exceptionalism. Neatly done.
I offer some reservations. Beinart exaggerates the convergence of Americans with other western peoples. What is really striking is how long-lasting aspects of American exceptionalism have been in a era when one might have expected global homogenization. (For an earlier discussion of exceptionalism, see here.)
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Posted in Uncategorized, tagged insurance, risk, security on February 18, 2014 |
The furious to-do about Obamacare has obscured a basic fact about modern Americans: Most of us, certainly the middle class, are sheltered by a complex web of insurance. Some insurance coverage is privately provided, such as life, accident, fire, flood, travel, liability, burial, and consumer product insurance. And some is government-provided or -required: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, bank deposit, car, health, mortgage, food, crop, disaster insurance, and so on. All of these, without which American middle-class life as we know it would not be recognizable, are relatively recent developments. It is not that insurance per se and even complex versions of it are new; merchants have hedged their commercial gambles for millennia. What is new in the last roughly 150 years is the extent to which average people have gotten access to financial devices which, by sharing risks, have reduced the economic uncertainties in their lives.
This development, told in part by historian Jonathan Levy in an a multiple award-winning 2012 book, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America, was not without political and moral controversy. Moreover, the consequences of reducing individual Americans’ insecurity have more than once introduced great national economic uncertainty.
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Posted in Uncategorized, tagged legends, policy, rumor on February 11, 2014 |
In the new world of blogs and tweets and breaking-news bulletins flashing across billions of big, medium, and small screens, we are learning that one of the down sides of instant connection is that false news can in a flash go from being an off-hand comment to a globally recognized “fact.”(Consider the person falsely-accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber.) The hope, often vain, is that corrections will just as quickly catch up with the mistakes. There are also slower, longer-lasting false stories that keep reverberating around at least part of the web, like those about President Obama’s heritage. And then there are “urban legends” that are passed around not by conspiracy theorists, gullible web surfers, or gossip-column fans, but by leading journalists, policymakers, and even (gasp!) academics. Folktales of the policy elites.
Sociologist Gary Alan Fine and political scientist Barry O’Neill published a paper a few years ago in, appropriately, the Journal of American Folklore on what they call “policy legends”: stories describing social conditions that call for social and governmental action, stories that are endorsed by respected, influential people, stories that are false. Despite occasional debunking, these legends have remarkable staying power. The examples Fine and O’Neill analyze date back before the Internet and, morphing in various ways, live on and on.
(I learned about this study from O’Neill at, of all things, a conference on Darwinian theory, which sort of shows how news can travel in odd channels.)
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Posted in Uncategorized, tagged earnings, gender, income on February 5, 2014 |
The long debate over whether America has gotten more economically unequal in the last few decades is over; all but the most recalcitrant acknowledge it. (As a recent New York Times story reported, sharp-eyed salesmen have acted on this reality, increasingly marketing to the top few percent.) The economic argument has now shifted to whether average Americans have nonetheless done all right even as the rich have become super-rich. Here one detects a subtle difference in vocabulary. Defenders of the broadening inequality insist that average family incomes have been nonetheless increasing. They have. Critics of the broadening inequality insist that earnings have been flat or dropping. They have — for men.
Average American families have been holding steady or getting a bit more affluent because wives have been working more hours to make up for the stagnation in men’s earnings. (I discuss the numbers below.) Now comes a new study that shows the gender gap in another dimension: job tenure.
For years, experts have debated whether American workers were losing their job security. (The usual measure of job security is how long workers stay in a specific job.) Despite widespread concerns, there does not seem to have been a general reduction in job tenure. Now, Matissa N. Hollister and Kristin E. Smith show, in the latest American Sociological Review, that women’s increasing ties to their jobs have masked men’s decreasing ties to theirs — male job insecurity.
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Posted in Uncategorized, tagged art, cities, modernism on January 20, 2014 |
Much of early twentieth-century art in the West was commentary on the massive technological developments of the late 19th century. Where, 100 years later, is the comparable twenty-first-century artistic response to the technological developments of the late 20th century?
American artists a few generations ago, especially painters and photographers, portrayed the massive structures, machined objects, and rationalized, sharp edges of the industrial world. (They were, of course, responding to other things, as well, such as new techniques and European challengers like Picasso.) Many took the rapidly growing cities, New York most of all, as emblematic of the coming future, so urban scenes often serve to represent the modern, mechanical world. What in art is similar today?
Warning to readers: Follow this post at your own risk; I am not an art historian. But, heck, it’s my personal blog. (BTW, I use illustrations here from stamps, so as, hopefully, not to infringe reproduction rights.)
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Posted in Uncategorized, tagged government, planning, public housing on January 14, 2014 |
Public housing in the United States has never sheltered a significant proportion of Americans, perhaps three percent at most, unlike in many western European countries where 10 to 40 percent of households, at various income levels, live in state-constructed buildings. But public housing has been a significant part of the debate over American government safety net programs, a significant factor in the history of large American cities over the last 50 years, and cruel disillusionment for social reformers (and many sociologists).
American public housing projects started in the New Deal, accelerated after the war, and then largely stopped in the 1970s, when they were widely described as abject failures. This verdict was hammered home by the well-publicized demolition in 1972 of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis. Federal support for housing since, skimpy as it is, has largely been in the form of “Section 8” vouchers and dispersed, low-density, mixed housing. The actual number of public housing units has shrunk in recent decades.
A new study in the Journal of Economic History, by Katharine L. Shester, fleshes out our understanding of what went wrong in this great social experiment. In some ways, large-scale public housing was doomed from the start; in other ways, perhaps different critical decisions could have made it work.
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Posted in Uncategorized, tagged change, gay, opinion on January 7, 2014 |
Many observers have been struck by how quickly public opinion has shifted on homosexuality in the United States. A quarter-century ago, about 12 percent of Americans agreed that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.” And only a decade ago, Americans opposed gay marriage by healthy 20-25 point margin. Now, most Americans support it. Politically, what was once an easy winning issue for the GOP is increasingly becoming a drag on the party’s candidates.
The pattern of change on the wider question of homosexuality has also been striking. In the mid-1970s, about 70 percent of Americans told pollsters that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” were “always wrong.” In the 2010s only 46 percent did. Note this, however: Americans’ views of homosexuality changed little for the first half of those years; indeed the percent who damned gay relations grew a bit. Then, in the 1990s, expressions of tolerance skyrocketed.
We see roughly a similar pattern of change in public opinion about other major issues: In most cases, a clear consensus holds for a long time. When opinions start to change, the change takes up increasing speed toward a much more even division. That is when the topic becomes socially and politically divisive. A majority forms around a new consensus and the pace of change slows again as the most committed supporters of the old view reluctantly come around; some never do. Researchers call this pattern the S-curve or, more properly, the sigmoid. Some readers will recognize this as the standard description for the diffusion of innovations. In this post, I discuss a few examples of the process and the implications it has for understanding social change. (This post draws from Century of Difference, Ch. 9, and here).
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Posted in Uncategorized, tagged art, culture, fiction on December 30, 2013 |
In a Christmas Day review, film critic A.O. Scott wondered what “future archaeologists, digging through the digital and physical rubble of our long-gone civilization in search of reasons for its collapse,” would make of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the new Scorcese-DiCaprio “bacchanal of sex, drugs and conspicuous consumption.” Is the film a “diagnosis” of our pathology or ”an especially florid” example of it?
Trying to understand what a work of art tells us about its times is a task not only of art critics, but also of historical scholars. If a historian a century or two from now examined the cultural artifacts of the last several years – say, Beyonce’s latest release, a Twilight Saga movie, a pulp thriller about a serial killer, performance art in museums, reruns of Friends, a major Broadway production, or “Wolf” – how well could he or she describe the lives of average Americans today?
We can ask a similar question looking from our own time back to the 19th or 18th century. While a future historian will have all sorts of “hard” data about our era – business transactions, traffic records, news databases, government statistics, polls on what Americans think, maybe even NSA files, etc. – little material like that is available to describe Americans’ experiences before about the 1920s or so. We do, however, have a lot of art from long ago: songs, paintings, and particularly fiction. What can art tell us about life in an earlier America and about people’s thoughts and feelings in those times? (more…)
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