Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Annals of Derp: The Fatuous Party

Gary Cooper and Mary Brian in Victor Fleming's The Virginian (1929).
So, what with David Brooks being on vacation, the Times is having trouble making its August silliness quota, and normally dignified persons like economics writer David Leonhardt have to pitch in—here's Leonhardt giving some publicity to W. Bradford Wilcox, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the Home Economics Project of AEI and the Institute for Family Studies, trying to scare up some evidence against the well-known finding of Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, in their 2010 study Red Families V. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, that (in Leonhardt's words)
Liberal attitudes toward gender equality, sexual orientation and education all seem to foster stronger, more stable family lives.
How can that be? cry the conservatives, in some panic. Don't we have all the family values? And they rush out foraging for data.

So W. Bradford has looked away from states to county in a study Leonhardt covered at the beginning of July, where he finds that in places where Willard Mitt Romney won in 2012, 57.7% of 15- to 17-year-olds live with both biological parents, meaning that the parents have had a pretty stable relationship for a pretty long time, and in places where Romney lost it's only 54.5%, showing that by that measure at least Red places have more stable families than Blue ones. Slightly. Triumph!

EXCEPT there's something a little funky there, which is that they only looked at the 470 most populated counties in the country, or about two thirds of the population, because the American Community Survey didn't have data for the other 2,673, which makes the sample a tad less than representative of the country as a whole.

This is because heavily populated counties are more Democratic than lightly populated ones, in a big way. I don't have a breakdown of county political affiliation by population size, but I did find one by population density, and it's pretty striking:
Of the 347 densest counties in the US (340+ ppl per sq mi)
  • 59.8% of 2012 population
  • 58.2% of 2012 vote
  • 57% voted for Obama
While of the other 2,761 counties
  • 40% of population
  • 41.8% of vote
  • 41.5% voted for Obama
Thus, by restricting themselves to the 470 largest counties of the American Community Survey, Wilcox and associates not only hugely biased their sample toward Democratic ones, the Republicans counties they checked were the wealthy ones, in which marriages are more likely to be stable anyway: Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Wichita, Lincoln NE, and Boise. Not the meth-haunted wastelands of rural Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and so on. Alabama has two out of 67 counties with more than 340 people per square mile, Nebraska 3 out of 93; but Maryland 9 out of 24, and New Jersey, the densest, 15 out of 21. So that study is clearly a con.

In today's outing, W. Bradford turns from counties to individuals, and uses data from the 2010-14 General Social Survey (GSS) to show that more Republicans 20 to 60 years old are currently married than Democrats (57% to 40%—a large part of that difference is of course Republicans marrying much earlier than Democrats), fewer of those who have been married have been divorced (41% to 47%), and more of those who are married say that they're "very happy" in their marriages (67% to 60%). Well, until they control race, education/income, and church attendance, which shrinks the gap to three percentage points.

One of the things they did wrong has been checked out by the sociologist Philip N. Cohen at his blog, Family Inequality: collapsing Strong Democrats, Not Strong Democrats, and Democratic-leaning Independents into a single group, and the same with Republicans. If you separate these out and redo the calculations (with the controls for the other variables) you get a U-shaped curve in which it's clear that the main difference isn't left vs. right but strength of affiliation: Strong Democrats and Strong Republicans report the greatest happiness, while the weak-minded are less, with Republican-leaning Independents at the bottom:

Another thing is just how trivial the difference is, when you consider that practically everybody who's married is either "pretty happy" or "very happy"; the number of those who are "not too happy" is vanishingly small (indeed, in the case of Republicans, it literally vanished):

I would personally say I'm "pretty happy" without even thinking about it because "very happy" sounds stupid. Contemptibly complacent. Fatuously unaware that your partner might not be perfectly happy (it's well known that women are more likely than men to be Democrats, and also more likely to report marital unhappiness—possibly because at least some white women tend to be more truthful or less self-deceptive than some white men).

Or as Justin Rosario puts it more baldly at Addicting Info,
If you can convince a woman that God wants her to be the property of her husband and that that is the height of happiness, then she’ll serve you that sandwich with a smile on her face. Does that mean she is actually happy? Not at all. It simply means that she’s playing the role she believes she has to play to keep Baby Jesus from crying. On the other hand, life is great for the man because he has the next best thing to a slave doing his bidding. This is the reason Republicans find Feminism so incredibly threatening.
Indeed Sean Wojcik (quoted at Blogistan Polytechnic Institute) reminds us
All of the data on the happiness gap relies on self-reports, and when we measured it in a different way, we got a different result. What we did in our study is look at differences in the way that liberals and conservatives evaluate themselves in general – not just on happiness, but on all kinds of traits and abilities.....
What we found is that conservatives evaluate themselves in a more favorable way across the board. In psychology, we call this “self-enhancement,” and most people engage in some degree of it. There’s a study from the 1980s that asked Americans to rate their driving ability compared to other Americans, and something like 91 percent of the people say they are above-average drivers, which is impossible.
I’m not saying that conservatives are the only ones doing this, but they did show more self-enhancement in our study, and that tendency seemed to explain why they were reporting greater happiness. 
What's really being measured in this study, is how conservatives are the fatuous, self-congratulatory party, the party that insists everything is fine when it isn't, the "I'm all right Jack" party that isn't concerned about the other person. Within limits of course, given that the difference between these numbers is actually too tiny to get excited over, whether "significant" in the technical sense or not.

But the research really is crap. Why the Times's Leonhardt keeps getting sucked into this stuff (along with FoxNews, the Daily Republican, The Federalist, and the Daily Smeagal gleefully jumping on the news that they're apparently happier than other people—science proved it!) I don't really know, other than a reflexive bothsiderism—
Mr. Wilcox’s recent writings strike me as significant because they’re a reminder that conservatism also has values and cultural attitudes — about the importance of marriage and family life — that seem to improve the environment in which children grow up.
Given the widespread anxiety right now about upward mobility in the United States — about how today’s children can grow up to live more prosperous lives than their parents — it’s worth looking for potential lessons from any political ideology.
Especially an ideology that keeps telling you if you're not upwardly mobile it's probably because you're a bad person and has nothing to do with structural economic factors, oh dear no.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.


Pops said...

I have been reading the NY Times for 60+ years and this article was without a doubt one of the silliest articles EVER. Why repeat it?

Victor said...

Conservatives are great at cherry-picking numbers in statistics, and twisting polls until they get the results they want.

Just ask President Romney how all of that worked out.

Yastreblyansky said...

@Pops, sorry. It made me so mad I may have lost my judgment. Leonhardt has devoted four columns to this clown since June 11. Is Wilcox blackmailing him?

retiredeng said...

Sounds to me like they're on a unicorn hunt.

Feud Turgidson said...

Good post, Yas.

It's a fruitful area, that of holding up conservative, Republican, wingnut wanktank and socially conservative "university" "intellectual analysis" to the light. It's like those weirdos are paid to come up with all the oligarchy-serving bigotty tripe.