Is country music becoming more reactionary?

A recent paper in Rural Sociology, an academic journal, examined how men talk about themselves in mainstream country music. Its author, Braden Leap of Mississippi State University, analysed the lyrics of the top songs on the weekly Billboard country-music charts from the 1980s until the 2010s and found that the near-routine depiction of men as breadwinners and stand-up guys has changed.

Over the past decade, more songs objectify women and are about hooking up. Mr Leap’s examination of lyrics also found that masculinity and whiteness had become more closely linked. References to blue eyes and blond hair, for example, were almost completely absent in the 1980s. In the 2000s, they featured in 15% of the chart-topping songs…

Jada Watson, of the University of Ottawa, recently found that in 2000 a third of country songs on country radio were sung by women. In 2018 the share was only 11%. Even the top female stars get fewer spins. Carrie Underwood had 3m plays between 2000 and 2018; Kenny Chesney received twice as many. A report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 16% of all artists were female across 500 of the top country songs from 2014 to 2018.

Here is more from The Economist.

*Dignity: Seeing Respect in Back Row America*

That is the new book by Chris Arnade, insightful throughout and with excellent photos.  Excerpt:

McDonald’s wasn’t just central to my friends, it was important to everyone in the neighborhood.  It was always packed with families and older couples, especially on weekend mornings.  In the evenings, it was filled with teenagers or young couples going out.

There weren’t really many other options.  McDonald’s was one of the few spaces in Hunts Point open to the public that worked.  While wonderful and well-intentioned nonprofits serve Hunts Point, whenever I asked anyone where they wanted to meet or grab a meal, it was almost always McDonald’s.

Arnade indicts “the elitists,” whereas I would lay heavier blame on alcohol and drug abuse.  Many much poorer people never touch the stuff, and furthermore I would have added a comparison with America’s dark-skinned, not entirely popular Muslim immigrants, the non-drinking ones most of all.  There is indeed something wrong with much of American culture, and we need to think harder about what that might be.  Neither sympathy nor empathy changes that fact, and I am happy to be one of the elitists under indictment.  I would rather write what I think than try to make other people feel better, or to support my favored politics, and perhaps that attempt is doomed in any case?  Is it more or less condescending to hold the poor to high standards?

What I’ve been reading

1. Michael H. Kater, Culture in Nazi Germany.  The best general introduction to this still-important topic.

2. Alev Scott, Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire.  Imagine setting off to write a book about Turkey, finding your access shut down, and then coming up with what is probably an even better travelogue about the former fringes of the Ottoman Empire.  I will buy the author’s next book.

3. James Walvin, Freedom: The Overthrow of the Slave Empires.  Perhaps not original, but a highly readable and very much conceptual overview of how the slave trade developed and was then overthrown.  Recommended.

4. Chester Himes, If He Hollers, Let Him Go.  Pretty brutal actually, a kind of pre-integration African-American noir, dating from 1945.  People should still read this one.

5. John Steinbeck, East of Eden.  At first I enjoyed this one, but after a while I grew bored.  If it came out today, by John Anonymous, how many people would think it was a great book?  (“Most of those who wrote the Amazon reviews” you might reply.  Maybe, but what other current books do they like?  Barbara Kingsolver?)  If Sally Rooney’s Normal People, or some time-synched version thereof, came out in the 1920s or 30s, how many today would claim it is an absolute masterpiece?  I am happy to recommend that one.

Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism is a good introduction to what the title and subtitle promise.

Gareth Williams, Unraveling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA.  A good, detailed look at thought on DNA-related issues, before Crick and Watson published the solution.

I will not have time to read Anthony Atkinson’s Measuring Poverty Around the World, his final book, but as you might expect it appears to be a very serious contribution.

Linda Yueh’s What Would the Great Economists Do? How Brilliant Minds Would Solve Today’s Biggest Problems, now out in paperback, is the closest we have come to producing a modern-day version of Robert Heilbroner’s book.  As with Heilbroner, it is from a somewhat “left” perspective.

*Godzilla: King of the Monsters* (spoilers in this post)

Carp all you want, I thought it was pretty damn good.  The innovations: monsters have economic value, there are property rights in monsters (for a while), communication really matters, the environmentalists are the bad guys, and nuclear power saves the world.  The stagnation: Asian people, and only Asian people, have TFP about monsters.

You can’t judge these movies by normal standards, like those silly critics do, instead you have to ask:

1. How good are the monsters and the monster fight scenes?

2. Does it give the monsters a decent backstory and mythological lore?

3. Does it pay suitable homage to the original movies?

4. Does it have the right number of obscure monsters, arbitrarily added to the canon, as if we know all along who and what they are supposed to be?

5. Do you learn something about how the film-producing country views its own science and bureaucracy?

6. Perhaps YIMBY will come to Boston after all.

Mothra steals the show, A- I say, don’t @ me on this one.  The Japanese movie Shin Godzilla, which appeared about two years ago, is pretty good too, especially on #5.

Do DNA databases deter crime and limit recidivism?

Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer L. Doleac, and Rasmus Landersø tell us yes:

This paper studies the effects of adding criminal offenders to a DNA database. Using a large expansion of Denmark’s DNA database, we find that DNA registration reduces recidivism within the following year by as much as 43% and it also increases the probability that offenders are identified. We thereby estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to the detection probability to be -2.7, implying that a 1% higher detection probability reduces crime by more than 2%. We also find that DNA registration makes offenders more likely to find employment, enroll in education, and live in a more stable family environment.

Via Ilya Novak (and others).

Friday assorted links

Israel is a triumph of neoliberalism

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

From about 1973 to 1985, Israel had very high rates of inflation at one point reaching over 400%. That was the result of excessively loose monetary policy. Over time, printing money at such a clip took in successively less government revenue, as Israelis adjusted to the inflation and worked around it by holding less cash and denominating their contracts in foreign currencies. The inflation stopped giving macroeconomic benefits, even for government revenue, and Israel moved toward a regime of lower inflation and fiscal strength, to the benefit of the country’s longer-term growth.

This is a classic episode of MMT — “Modern Monetary Theory” — getting it wrong, as argued by Assaf Razin in his recent study of Israeli macroeconomic history. Under MMT, monetary policy can cover government spending, and fiscal policy can regulate price levels. Israel wisely followed more mainstream approaches.

And:

Even many of the microeconomic developments in Israel fit standard models. As you might expect, given the aridity of the region, Israel has had longstanding issues with water supply. Yet today water is not a huge practical problem in Israel, though it requires constant attention. Under the Israeli water regime, which has strong governmental support, high prices and well-defined property rights encourage conservation and careful use. Remarkably, the Israeli population basically quadrupled from 1964 to 2013, but water consumption barely went up. Israel has become a world leader in dealing with water problems, and in turn the country has become an exporter of sophisticated systems for water management.

There is much more at the link, and note Israel is neo-liberal only in some ways, see this earlier link I put up (which I link to in the piece).

The misuse of data on extreme poverty in the United States

Recent research suggests that rates of extreme poverty, commonly defined as living on less than $2/person/day, are high and rising in the United States. We re-examine the rate of extreme poverty by linking 2011 data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation and Current Population Survey, the sources of recent extreme poverty estimates, to administrative tax and program data. Of the 3.6 million non-homeless households with survey-reported cash income below $2/person/day, we find that more than 90% are not in extreme poverty once we include in-kind transfers, replace survey reports of earnings and transfer receipt with administrative records, and account for the ownership of substantial assets. More than half of all misclassified households have incomes from the administrative data above the poverty line, and several of the largest misclassified groups appear to be at least middle class based on measures of material well-being. In contrast, the households kept from extreme poverty by in-kind transfers appear to be among the most materially deprived Americans. Nearly 80% of all misclassified households are initially categorized as extreme poor due to errors or omissions in reports of cash income. Of the households remaining in extreme poverty, 90% consist of a single individual. An implication of the low recent extreme poverty rate is that it cannot be substantially higher now due to welfare reform, as many commentators have claimed.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Bruce D. Meyer, Derek Wu, Victoria R. Mooers, and Carla Medalia.

Fleabag and Killing Eve

Fleabag (Amazon) and Killing Eve (BBC America) are two television shows written by the absolutely brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge who also stars in the former. I tweeted:

Image result for fleabagFleabag 2nd Season even better than 1st. An indelible portrait of toxic femininity. No accident that the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge also wrote Killing-Eve featuring a different female killer but in male style and fantasy form rather than the more mature & realistic Fleabag.

Not everyone understood the tweet and some were confused. How could Fleabag be about toxic femininity when Waller-Bridge is a feminist? Fleabag is misunderstood because people try to frame it in terms of victimhood and Waller-Bridge is having none of that. Her method for illustrating the equality of the sexes is to show that women can be just as evil as men. Fleabag is much darker and more religious and mystical than most people realize.

I have written somewhat elliptically in what follows so as not to give much away but….mild spoiler warning. Herewith some observations.

Killing Eve features the serial killer, Villanelle. In one episode, she kills her lover using perfume. What could be a better metaphor for toxic femininity than that? Although they appear very different, Villanelle and Fleabag have much in common. Both of them, for example, are sociopaths.

Fleabag says as much herself, “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman.” But even more telling is that the other characters tell us that Fleabag is a sociopath. “You know exactly what you are doing,” “You only do what you want,” “You know what you are going to do,” or words to that effect are said many times. To understand Fleabag the show, you need to take these words seriously and backcast them to the events that happened before Season One. Namely, in a fit of sexual jealousy, Fleabag decided that if she can’t have what she wants then no one will. She wills it. It happens.

In doubt? Consider the scene at the funeral of Fleabag’s mother. Is she upset? Distraught? In tears? No, she looks radiant. She is more beautiful, more composed, more at peace on the day of her mother’s funeral than any day before and everyone tells her so. “I have never seen you looks so good,” “You look glorious,” and my favorite, “Gosh, grief really agrees with you.” Her body tells the truth. It is a mistake to wish this away.

In Season One, Fleabag is only just realizing the power that her sociopathy and sexual charisma bestow upon her and at first she is frightened. By S2, however, she is in command and we see her using her intense sexual charisma to bend men to her will. Men worship her and she treats them like objects and playthings. In one case, she literally has her boyfriend on his hands and knees scrubbing the floors. It’s hilarious.

FB is not the only example of toxic femininity in the series. The stepmother is an older version of Fleabag who also uses her sexual charisma to get what she wants. She has Fleabag’s father by the balls and to prove it she hangs them on the wall (I am not making this up). Fleabag cannot defeat the passive-aggressive stepmother because her sexual powers work only over men (notice the Kristen Scott Thomas scene and recall that FB didn’t get what she really wanted pre Season One). The stepmother is in fact a kind of witch who uses words to destroy those around her even though the words themselves are pleasant sounding. The stepmother also fashions a voodoo doll, a statue of Fleabag’s mother–whom she has replaced–that is notably beheaded.

The real plot of Season Two is that Fleabag is bored by how easy it is to control men and so she goes after bigger game. Can she top her pre-Season One triumph? Can she steal a man from God? Priest and witch enter into a battle of wits and wills. The Priest thinks he is going to exorcise her demons. This is a feminist show. He doesn’t.

The priest is a very interesting character. He is specifically introduced as a new priest, i.e. a new church, and he is young and cool and sexy. He is also a complete failure. Is Waller-Bridge, who was schooled by nuns, saying the new church fails or the church in general? Either way, despite being celestially warned, the priest fails God, he fails the Church and, perhaps most of all, he fails Fleabag. To be saved, Fleabag needed to find an incorruptible man, one who truly believes that there are bigger things than sex and dominance and worship of self. Instead, she finds in the church nothing but hypocrisy. In choosing sex over God and devotion to others, the Priest violates a sacred trust just as the pedophile priests violated their sacred trust (and Waller-Bridge makes clear the family resemblance). It does not take much imagination to see that the Priest will soon meet his fate in an alcoholic stupor (many hints are given).

In the final scene Fleabag walks into the sunset contentedly, like a talented Mrs. Ripley. The priest leaves in the opposite direction pursued by a demon symbolizing his failure to guard his flock.

Addendum: By the way, we never learn Fleabag’s name. She is a temptress who kills. Thus, another good name for Fleabag would be Killing Eve.

The economics of privacy

Perhaps the biggest complaint about tech companies today is that they do not respect our privacy. They gather and store data on us, and in some cases, such as Facebook, they charge companies for the ability to send targeted ads to us. They induce us to self-reveal on the internet, often in ways that are more public than we might at first expect. Furthermore, tech data practices are not entirely appropriate, as for instance Facebook recently stored user passwords in an insecure, plain text format.

This entire debate is overblown, and the major tech companies are much less of a threat to our actual privacy than is typically assumed.

For most people, gossip from friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances is a bigger privacy risk than is information garnered on-line. Gossip is an age-old problem, and still today many of the biggest privacy harms come through very traditional channels. And unlike false charges planted on social media, often there is no way to strike back against secretive whisperings behind one’s back. In the workplace, one employee may tell the boss that another employee does not work hard enough, or high school gossip may destroy reputations and torment loners and non-conformists, to give two common examples of many.

If anything, the niche worlds made possible by the internet, and yes by Facebook and Google, are giving many people refuges from those worlds of public scrutiny and mockery – you can more easily find the people who and like respect you for what you really are.

Life in small towns and rural areas is another major threat to privacy – too often everybody knows everybody else’s business. In contrast, if you live in a major city or suburban area, you have a much greater ability to choose whom you interact with, and you are more protected from the prying of your neighbors and relatives. And it seems that so far, contrary to some initial “death of distance” predictions, the internet has encouraged people to move to major urban centers such as New York and San Francisco. To that extent, internet life has boosted privacy rather than destroying it.

There’s also evidence that young Americans are having less sex these days and they are less likely to be in a serious relationship. The internet is likely one cause of that isolation, and in my view those changes are probably social negatives on the whole, and they represent a valid criticism of on-line life. But is the internet in this regard boosting privacy? Absolutely. The internet makes it much easier to be in less contact with other people, whether or not that is always wise or the best life course overall. It strikes me as odd when the same people blame the internet for both loneliness and privacy destruction.

A lot of actual privacy problems in the public arena don’t seem to attract much attention, unless they are tied into a critique of big tech. For instance, autocratic governments are using Interpol and its police powers and databases (NYT) to track down and apprehend ostensible criminals who are in fact sometimes merely domestic political dissidents. It is likely that many innocent individuals have ended up in jail (can the same be said from social media violations of privacy?) That’s an example of using databases for truly evil ends and, while it was covered by The New York Times (p.A10), it is hardly a major story.

It is striking to me how much the advocates focus on regulating the big tech companies, because a true pro-privacy movement might not have that as a priority at all.

By the way, how do you feel about obituaries?  The newspaper collects information on you for years, and then suddenly one day they publish it all and then keep it on the web, whether you like this or not.  They’ll even throw in snide remarks, sarcastic tone, or moral judgments about you, depending on the outlet of course.

If the privacy landscape is so complex, why then is there so much anger at Facebook and other social media companies? First, most users of services such as Facebook and Google are actually pretty happy with those services and with the companies. Some of the opposition is coming from intellectuals with core anti-business grudges, politicians looking to get headlines, or often from media itself, who face Google and Facebook as major and far more profitable competitors.

Second, social media themselves create contagion effects, whereby attention is piled on a relatively small number of select victims. For instance, the #MeToo campaign has focused condemnation on a small set of offenders, such as Harvey Weinstein, then magnified by Twitter and other social media. Many other offenders get off scot-free, simply because attention has not been directed their way. Ironically, one of the better arguments against social media is to look at how social media treat and discuss social media itself. On the privacy issue, Facebook rather than say Google has ended up as the main whipping boy, even though it might have gone the other way (who again controls your gmail?).  Ironically, perhaps the actual best argument about social media is how social media reflexively covers social media itself.

Third, many of the supposed concerns about privacy are perhaps questions of control. It is correct that the major tech companies do “funny things” with our data which we neither see nor understand nor control.This unsettles many people, even if it never means that some faux pas of yours is revealed in front of a party of your mocking friends. Still, I am not sure the underlying notion of “control” here has been satisfactorily defined. Many marketers, and not just on the internet, do things you do not control or even know about.  Furthermore, see Jim Harper on privacy, who covers security, seclusion, autonomy, and absence of objectification as some of the different features of privacy concerns.

Of course, just as privacy violations do not stem mainly from the big tech companies, we have never been in control of what is done with information and opinion about us, again think back on social gossip. This fundamental lack of control is just now being pushed in our faces in new and unexpected ways. In part it is actually unsettling, but in part we also are overreacting.

Privacy is a real issue, but to the extent it can be fixed, most of that needs to happen outside of the major tech companies.  Most of what is written about tech and privacy is simply steering us down the wrong track.

Wednesday assorted links

1. “We find an association between local practice of untouchability and open defecation that is robust; is not explained by economic, educational, or other observable differences; and is specific to open defecation rather than other health behavior or human capital investments more generally.”  Link here.

2. Huawei selling its undersea cable business (but to whom exactly?).

3. Deepfake propaganda is maybe not such a big problem after all.

4. How marital sorting works for Brits (pdf).

5. Michael Strain tells us that the emergency expense story is wrong.