Bring Me Your….

Americans like to believe that this nation has been and still is a refuge for the “the homeless, tempest-tost,” where the dispossessed can find refuge and, after hard work, fulfill their dreams. The truth is complex, contradictory, and very often disappointing. But sometimes the promise of the “mighty woman with a torch” is fulfilled.

This column honors my father, Ralph Fischer, who died last week after a life that Emma Lazarus, author of the poem on the Statue of Liberty, would have found exemplary.

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Now that economic inequality has become a focus of attention – mentions of “income inequality” in the New York Times went up five-fold in the 2010s compared to the 2000s, 200-fold compared to the 1990s – we know a few things about it clearly. For example: American inequality is unusually great among western societies; it has been growing substantially in recent decades; most recently, the gaps have widened especially between the very richest and the rest; and a good deal of inequality is subject to policy decisions (although some folks have been making that point for decades).

One thing that remains quite unclear is how average Americans think about inequality. Do they know about it, care about it, understand it, want to do anything about it?

In her 2013 book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution, sociologist Leslie McCall methodically tries to figure out Americans’ thinking about inequality. She disentangles the way Americans have answered a wide variety of survey questions on the topic over the last quarter-century or so, looking for the thread of logic that makes Americans’ knotted-up answers to all those questions coherent. In the end, she concludes that Americans are indeed aware, are concerned, and want action – and in a notably American way.

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It’s 1974. Richard Nixon resigns the presidency; Barbara Streisand is singing, “The Way We Were” all over the radio (that music-playing thing before the internet); and you could buy a hand calculator that could only add, subtract, multiply, and divide for, in today’s currency, $100. Someone asks you: Here are three pretty radical ideas – which do you think is likely to happen first, if ever?:

  • Americans will so fully accept homosexuals that they will be allowed to marry one another just like heterosexuals do.
  • A black man will be elected president of the United States.
  • Everyone will have government-subsidized health insurance – just like the elderly have Medicare and poor have Medicaid, both of which started just several years before; just like citizens in most western countries had.

I bet most Americans in 1974 – and probably most social scientists – would have picked the third.

The first radical idea is just about come true. There is a headlong rush toward normalizing gay marriage going on almost everywhere. A recent poll found that most Republicans under 45 support “same–sex marriage rights” and another found that more Republicans under 30 consider it a “good” rather than a “bad” thing – in spite of the fact that just a few years ago the Republican party deployed opposition to gay marriage as a powerful winning strategy. A few weeks ago, conservative Catholic columnist Russ Douthat recently discussed the “terms of surrender” for his side of the gay marriage debate.

We’ve now had a black president for five years and even though he pays a price in voter support because of his race, Americans are less ticked off at him because he is black than because of his effort to extend government health insurance, that third radical idea.

As the Obamacare deadline has (sort of) come and gone, what appeared to be the least radical idea of 1974, that we would have universal national health insurance, is still a long way off (if it ever happens). How come?

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It’s time again to talk about the National Pastime. Baseball season is starting this coming week. (I know that there was a quasi-start in Australia on March 22-23 with two Dodger wins; that doesn’t count.)


Back in one of baseball’s Golden Ages, the 1950s, there seemed little debate about what sport was the national pastime. (The picture to the right commemorates the 60th Anniversary of The Catch and the then-New York Giants’ upset sweep of Cleveland in the 1954 World Series.) The NFL was just emerging into the mass market and the NBA was still farther behind. Nowadays, however, everyone assumes that professional football has displaced baseball as the National Pastime. I am here to argue otherwise.

Some point to the television extravaganza of the Superbowl as proof of football’s preeminence. But that spectacle gathers many viewers who are not fans except perhaps of commercials, half-time shlockfests, guacamole dips, and partying. Others point to surveys asking Americans what their “favorite sport” or “favorite sport to watch” is. The data here are clear: Until about the 1960s-70s, baseball led; since then football has taken a wide lead.

Gallup polls [gated] show that baseball was comfortably ahead of football in “favorite to watch” through 1960. By 1972, football had the lead (by 19 points in January, 1972, although by only 8 points in October, 1972). About four decades later, in 2013, 40% of Gallup respondents picked football and only 14% picked baseball as favorite to watch. The Harris Poll started only in 1985 to ask  its respondents who followed sports to name their favorite one; baseball and pro football essentially tied. In December, 2012, football led 34% to 16%.

OK. Football is the more “favorite” sport. That’s not the same thing as pastime.


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Oldsters may well wonder where the term “Hispanic,” and for that matter, “Latino,” came from. The press and pundits are all abuzz about the Hispanic vote, Hispanic organizations, and Hispanic cultural influences. Back in the mid-twentieth century, however, they wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, not about Hispanics. Of course, people of Latin American origin have become far more numerous in the United States since then and the immigration itself brings more attention. Nonetheless, the labels have changed. Starting in the 1970s, the media rapidly adopted the “pan-ethnic” term Hispanic, and to a lesser degree, Latino, and slowed down their use of specific national labels.[1] So did organizations, agencies, businesses, and “Hispanics” themselves.

As recounted in her important new book, Making Hispanics, sociologist (and my colleague) G. Cristina Mora tells the story of how people as diverse as Cuban-born businessmen in Miami, undocumented Mexican farm workers in California, and third-generation part-Puerto Ricans in New York who do not even understand Spanish were brought together into one social category: Hispanic-Americans.

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Nicholas Lemann, noted author and Professor of Journalism at Columbia, has an essay in the latest New Yorker on the 50th anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s brutal murder in the Kew Gardens section of New York City. Young readers will recognize the name, if they recognize it all, as a case they heard about in Psychology 1 illustrating how people can be indifferent to others in need. The March 27, 1964, headline in the New York Times said it all: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police: Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector. The next day’s installment was headlined: Apathy Is Puzzle in Queens Killing: Behavioral Specialists Hard Put to Explain Witnesses’ Failure to Call Police–Interpretations Vary–Some Say Tendency Not to Get Involved Is Typical Others Call it Uncommon.

As Lemann recounts the oft-recounted story, two new books on it having just appeared, he describes a case of journalistic – and perhaps, academic – malpractice. The best estimate, per Lemann, is that only a handful of people were actually aware that she was being attacked and about half of those tried to do something. (The assailant was at first chased away by neighbors yelling at the initial attack. He came back later and trapped Genovese in a stairwell out of all but perhaps one witness’s sight and in earshot of only a few.) In the end, maybe several people could be fairly charged with apathy – or fear – although the debate about that still rages (e.g., see here and here).

Whatever the facts, the story, magnified by noted New York Times writer and later editor A. M. Rosenthal, set off decades of philosophizing about the human condition, black humor about New York City, and hundreds of psychology experiments – a form of academic headline-chasing – probably starting with this one four years after the murder. Since then, research on “bystander intervention,” asking when people do or do not intervene to help a stranger in need, boomed into an even bigger research field on “pro-social behavior,” asking why anybody ever helps anybody at all.

The story has lasted amazingly long. Kitty Genovese’s name appeared in the New York Times – and in social science journals – more often in the 2000s than in any previous decade. Except for a brief surge in 1975, her name has appeared in American books at a steady rate for the last roughly 45 years (nGram analysis).

Lemann does a great job of exploring the case, the coverage, and its cultural resonance. Here, I want to comment about the Kitty Genovese story’s role in accentuating and embellishing the late-twentieth-century image of the nightmare city.

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Public Health

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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