Posts tagged ‘history’

The more things change

| Gabriel |

I just listened to a podcast conversation [transcript / audio] between Tyler Cowen and Ben Sasse and very much enjoyed it but was bothered by one of the senator’s laugh lines, “Turned out sex was really similar in most centuries.”* Now in a sense this is obviously true since any culture in which sex lost a certain aspect would only last one generation, and indeed this has happened. But there is still a lot of variation within the scope condition that in pretty much all times and places, sex is procreative at least some of the time. What kinds of sex one has varies enormously over time, as does with what kinds of and how many people. We can see this over big periods of history and within living memory in our own culture. My discussion will be necessarily detailed, but not prurient.

Dover’s Greek Homosexuality uses detailed interpretation of comedies, legal speeches, pornographic pottery, and similar sources to provide a thorough picture of sexuality in 4th and 5th c BCE Greece, especially among Athenian upper class men, but not limited just to the idiosyncratic and often idealized views of philosophers. There were two big differences with our culture, the most obvious being that with whom you had sex varied over the life course and the less obvious but equally important one being that what role you played was equally important as with whom you played it. An aristocratic Athenian male would typically be an eromenos (“beloved” or passive homosexual) in his late teens and when he reached full maturity would be an erastes (“lover” or active homosexual) but also get married to a woman. As long as you stuck to this life course trajectory, no money changed hands, and the eromenos had love but not lust for his erastes, the relationship was honorable. However for someone to remain an eromenos into full maturity was scandalous and bearded men who continued to accept passive sexual roles were stigmatized. Interestingly, what exactly is the action that occurs between active and passive varies enormously based on source, with philosophers downplaying sex entirely, pornographic pottery suggesting intercrural sex, and Aristophanes joking about anal intercourse (e.g., the best food for a dung beetle).

One thing the sources seem to agree on is that fellatio generally did not occur among Greek men. Dover argues that the avoidance of fellatio, avoidance of prostitution, and age separation of partners all served the purpose of avoiding hubris (assault that degrades status) otherwise implied by one male citizen penetrating another. Generally, our culture’s ubiquity of fellatio, and especially our common assumption that it is less intimate than vaginal intercourse, is exceptional across cultures. This is not only an issue of Greece, fellatio was exceptionally rare in 18th c elite French prostitution (although anal sex was common) and in early 20th c New York city. Interestingly, Dover notes that the women of Lesbos were legendary in Greek culture for heterosexual fellatio. While our culture derives our word for gay women from that island, largely through it being the home of Sappho, the cultural meaning in antiquity was of fellatrix, though the two meanings made sense in the Greek mind as relating to women who were especially open to sex of many varieties. This sounds bizarre to us, but as I’ll describe in a bit, this reflects emerging practice in our own culture.

For changes in recent decades, we do not need to rely on measuring the angles of penetration depicted on a kylix or on epithets in old comedy but can go by systematic survey data.** The main finding of Laumann et al’s 1994 Sex in America study was that sex was much more focused on monogamy, marriage, and vaginal intercourse than anyone expected based on Kinsey (who relied on convenience sampling) or popular culture. However things have changed a lot in the last two decades and in ways much more profound than that my undergrads don’t like rock music. The National Survey of Family Growth 2002-2013 replicates most of the research questions of Laumann et al and found that sex had gotten much more complicated since the early 1990s.  One major finding is a substantial rise in same sex intercourse. Women born from 1966-1974 are half as likely to have had same sex intercourse as women born from 1985-1995. In contrast to ancient Athens, this rise in same sex intercourse is limited to women (and the base rate is much higher), but as in ancient Greece, it is mostly an issue of youthful experimentation that is complementary to heterosexual practice and on the margin women self-identify as straight or bi, not lesbian. Chandra et al’s analysis of the same data showed a corollary that echos ancient stereotypes of Lesbians, which is that female experience with same sex partners is positively correlated with lifetime number of male partners. In addition, Chandra et al found that heterosexual anal intercourse is rising substantially, with about 30% of women aged 18-44 in 2002 having experienced it, or almost double what Laumann et al found twenty years earlier. This likely reflects influence from pornography, as does the almost universal (~85%) adoption of pubic grooming among women under thirty. However, again, this reflects ancient trends as ancient Greek women would singe off pubic hair and indeed the punishment for a male adulterer was to be symbolically feminized through pubic depilation and penetration with a radish.

* Sasse elaborated that he meant that in all times and places sex serves a mix of recreation, procreation, and pair-bonding and I think he’s right about that.

** I am not relying on pornography production or usage data as I strongly suspect that pornography follows a zero-inflated over-dispersed count distribution and thus consumption data, especially that showing that pornography is increasingly bizarre, is mostly informative about a relatively small minority of intensive users.

July 3, 2017 at 10:38 am 11 comments

Gifts Make Slaves, Whips Make Dogs, and Covenant With Yahweh Makes Charity

| Gabriel |

A couple months ago, I read Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism by Schwartz. As suggested by the subtitle, in this sense “Mediterranean” is not a geographic designation but a synonym for clientelism. This combines two of my favorite interests, Western civ history and comparative exchange, and so naturally I had to read it when I saw it in the PUP catalog.

As background, it helps to understand that clientelism (aka hierarchy, patronage, or authority ranking) is one of the basic modes of human organization. One of the many ways that our culture is WEIRD is that to us clientelism is relatively unimportant in fact and even less so in salience. The logic of clientelism is premised on reciprocity under conditions of inequality. So you have higher status people giving gifts to lower status people, who in turn incur social obligations to the higher status people. In the process the former become patrons and the latter clients. In the extreme case this can turn into debt slavery, but even short of that you see the clients reciprocating with deference (thereby conferring status to their patrons), votes, and fighting in the patron’s military unit. My  favorite example of reciprocity through deference comes from JLM’s Social Structures (p. 206), when he notes that non-military feudal reciprocity “was usually minor or degrading or both: in return for the manor of Hemingstone, the tenant was required to `leap, whistle and fart for the king’s amusement’ every Christmas day.” (For more background on clientelism, read Graeber’s Debt, JLM’s Social Structures, and Fiske’s RMT).

Anyway, back to the Hellenistic/principate era Judaism that is Schwartz’s empirical focus, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that his conclusion is that Jews exhibited both clientelism and solidarity during this period. Nonetheless, he sees Jews as exhibiting relatively less clientelism and relatively more solidarity than your typical Hellenistic culture. That is, Jewish culture was unusual in providing charity to the poor without turning them into clients, and in particular with constraints on debt slavery and weak institutions of euergetism (civic philanthropy as clientelism). In this respect it makes sense to take a sort of glass half full approach and ask where did the solidarity come from?

The source of solidarity is God, or to be more precise about it the Bible, and to be even more precise about it, P, D, and the prophets. (For background on Hebrew source criticism concepts like “P,” listen to the Yale OT course by Hayes or read Who Wrote the Bible by Friedman). The prophets and priests who wrote these parts of the Bible, and to a certain extent the rabbis who developed the subsequent interpretive tradition, were developing an ideology of mutual support and a polemic against reciprocity since to hold a client in debt implies that they are not members of the same community with obligations to one another on the same level as between members of the same household. This is seen most clearly in passages like Deuteronomy 23:19, which prohibits charging interest to another member of the community and likewise in other parts of the Bible that demand debt jubilees in which debts are forgiven (and in anticipation of which one is supposed to nonetheless continue making “loans” to those who need them despite the imminent foreseeable mass debt amnesty). That is, in Fiske’s terms, these strands of the Bible are engaging in polemic against authority ranking and in favor of communal sharing. It is telling that debt jubilees come from the P source, which suggests an underlying class dynamic of priests contesting with landowners for the support of the masses, very similar to the oratores/bellatores split of the mediaeval elite or the models of a semi-autonomous intellectual class found in Gramsci, Bourdieu, and new class theory.

However the glass half empty is that, as Schwartz emphasizes, this was to a large extent an aspirational ideology and in practice Hellenistic/principate (and presumably Biblical) era Jews didn’t always live up to it, but still had a fair amount of clientelism. In some cases this was genteel clientelism, as with the rabbinic traditions in which one reciprocated the mentorship of a master rabbi with praise (much as a 21st century academic will write journal articles citing her doctoral advisor), and yeah, this is a form of clientelism but it’s a pretty far cry from debt slavery. At the other extreme you’ve got The Wisdom of Sirach, which Schwartz reads as a sort of a Hellenized Jew’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” type deal, complete with full-blown Bourdieu among the Kabyle-ism in which the instrumentality of gift giving is just barely sublimated.

It’s interesting that Joshua ben Sira was a thoroughly Hellenized chap, living in Alexandria (the same diaspora community that included his book in its great cultural achievement, the LXX Bible). This cosmopolitanism and cynicism to a large extent go together. Part of the logic of communal sharing is that it only works within tightly bound communities and indeed in lab experiments you prime communal sharing by emphasizing the alter’s common membership in a highly salient community. We also see this logic in the parts of the Bible that demand egalitarianism. For instance, the very next verse after Deuteronomy 23:19’s famous prohibition against interest allows the exception that one can charge interest to foreigners (including resident aliens).

Parts of the Bible are downright genocidal, but what’s interesting is that these parts are uniformly directed towards what we might call an especially energetic form of boundary work. That is, the Bible reserves its most bloodthirsty passages for other peoples who threaten to undermine the particularity of Israel through intermarriage and encouraging apostasy (issues which the Bible sees as nearly synonymous). (e.g., Numbers 31:15-17Deuteronomy 20:16-18). Nor can you really separate the “nice” Bible that discourages exploitation from the “mean” Bible that demands men divorce their foreign wives and that the nation wage genocidal campaigns against the nations within Canaan. Intense social closure (at least in aspiration) and intense altruism (at least in aspiration) were mutually supportive. What undergirds both of these issues is that the nation is defined by relationship to Yahweh. The Bible defines Israel not primarily by common descent from Abraham’s twelve legitimate great-grandsons but rather by common affirmation of the covenant Abraham cut with Yahweh. Notably, most of the covenant language follows the genre conventions of Near Eastern vassalage treaties. Although the Bible vacillates on such issues as whether Yahweh’s protection is contingent, all versions of the covenant establish Yahweh as patron of Israel which means that relations of Jews to one another are as mutual clients to a single patron. Now in general co-clients often lack horizontal ties, but this structural equivalence means that there’s the ideological raw material there to build an aspirational case that horizontal ties among these co-clients are as members of a common household. We see this view make the jump to Christianity, yet again primarily as an aspiration, in Paul’s view of the church (including the laity) as the new Israel and internal to which there were to be altruistic relations (e.g., his letters to the Corinthians, which both encapsulate supersessionist covenant theology by rejecting circumcision and demand egalitarian relations within the community through internal arbitration of disputes, sharing the agape feast, etc).

Conversely, the decline of particularism and closure is associated with the decline in altruism. Nelson’s thesis is that the taboo against usury relaxed with the decline of a notion of tribalism. Similarly, we see a close reflection of this in the common observation that welfare states are most likely to arise in highly homogenous high trust societies like Scandinavia and less so in heterogenous societies like the United States. However much there might be an aspiration towards universal altruism it looks much like the product of universal and altruism are more or less a constant, such that if you increase one, you tend to decrease the other. An extremely open society is one in which we can hope people will refrain from swindling one another, but it’s probably too much to expect that they will consider highly inegalitarian relationships to be inappropriate or engage in unreciprocated altruism.

July 1, 2013 at 9:57 am 1 comment

I Think Of You Like A Son

| Gabriel |

One of the innumerable WTF moments in HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is when Liberace suggests that he adopt his young lover. I think we’re clearly meant as an audience to first think gross, that’s fictive kin incest (see also: Nugent, Ted), and second, you know, before gay marriage that would have been the closest available approximation of marital fictive kinship available to homosexuals.

In the big picture I think the second intuition is on the right track, though it’s interesting to note that historically (adult) adoption does not necessarily connote sexual inappropriateness. In classical pederasty there was an apprenticeship relationship between erastes and eromenos, in which the older erastes would mentor the younger eromenos and this sometimes culminated in adoption. (It helps if you know that in real life Tom was 17 when he met Liberace, which makes this similar to classical pederasty in terms of age gap — although not sexual roles).

A more common practice is the adoption of a son-in-law. Again, from our perspective, adoption makes someone kin which by extension makes marriage to a daughter incest. However in some times and places they think of adoption and son-in-law status as a sort of belt-and-suspenders approach to dynastic succession and incest doesn’t enter into it because after all it’s just fictive kinship. Again, we see this in antiquity where the Roman emperors in particular used adoption to clarify dynastic succession and often combined it with marital alliances. For instance, Augustus had a triple fictive kinship with Tiberius: marrying his mother while he was still in utero (the rare wife swap marital alliance, also used by Cato), marrying him to his daughter (who yes, was Tiberius’s own step-sister) Julia, and finally adopting him.

Likewise, son-in-law adoption is also common in Japan. When a wealthy Japanese family has no sons, the family will identify a non-kin heir, marry him to its daughter, and adopt him. Thus the daughter doesn’t inherit property, nor exactly does even the son-in-law in his capacity as son-in-law, but rather property goes to the adopted son-in-law and so the family maintains (fictive) continuity of the male line even though genetic continuity is matrilineal for that generation.

What I think we see in these cases is people trying to find some mechanism to game around anomalies or problems presented by kinship and are rather selective in how they parse the implications of fictive kinship. My son-in-law is also my real son: great, I like the cut of his jib and I want this young go-getter to carry my name and inherit my property. Isn’t it weird that my adopted son is married to his legal sister: don’t be so literal, they’re not blood relatives.

That said, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t take place in Japan or ancient Rome but Las Vegas c. 1980 so it’s still pretty creepy.

June 24, 2013 at 6:19 am 4 comments

Cultural Learnings of Economics for Make Benefit Glorious Discipline of Sociology

| Gabriel |

[Note, if you subscribe by RSS or email you might have gotten an earlier and incomplete version of this that I posted by accident on 5/25/13]

A few weeks ago the political scientist Henry Farrell posted a point-by-point critique of an LA Review of Books essay that was smugly denouncing economics while getting pretty much all its facts about economics dead wrong. (Most notably it confused the difference between public choice and game theory in ways that are extremely funny if you have a working knowledge of both literatures). The thing that made me really cringe about the LARB article though, which was written by a non-academic journalist/ social critic, was how if you told me it was written by a sociologist and got through peer review at a soc journal, I would have believed you.

Sociologists love to talk about how obtuse and limited in vision economists are but we often do so with only a vague awareness of how they do things but a pervasive suspicion that whatever they’re doing, it’s probably nefarious. It’s kind of like hearing peasants describe Jews. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a sociologist claim that economist tears prevent AIDS, or at the very least that they have horns.

The main reason for this is that we tend not to study economics itself, at least not on any kind of systematic basis but rather learn about it by reading polemical criticisms of economics’ excesses and/or intrusions into sociological turf. Which is fair enough since it’s hard enough to learn your own discipline without getting another too, but it does give us a rather particular vantage point that’s not at all emic. So rather than reading stuff that economists tend to consider fundamental we might read specific works in economics that either seem to be internal criticisms that grope towards sociological enlightenment (e.g., Akerlof, Williamson) or we read stuff that tries to reconceptualize sociological phenomena as exchange (e.g., Becker or Posner on sex and the family) and which tends to involve bizarre epi-orbit type arguments (e.g., “rationally maximize bequests”) or simply make bad predictions we can debunk.

(Note though that Pierre Bourdieu is a lot closer to Gary Becker than you’d think based on the kind mood affiliation heuristic in which we’re supposed to love one and boo and hiss at the other. Not only are both of them known primarily for extending the metaphor of “capital” but Bourdieu’s theory of gifts is very Becker/Posner like in seeing gifts as ultimately a calculated exchange).

A slightly more charitable way to put it is that your average sociologist’s understanding of economics is a lot like learning about Gnosticism by reading Against Heresies. Iraneus had himself read Valentinius and knew enough about Gnosticism to intelligently critique it from the perspective of proto-orthodoxy, but most later Christians and historians knew gnosticism only through Iranaeus’s arguments against it. In this analogy actually learning and reading economics for yourself is like finding the Nag Hammadi library. Once you’ve translated AER and a Principles textbook out of Coptic, you’ll see that they do indeed say a lot of the things we attribute to them, others of their arguments we characterize uncharitably to the point of being barely recognizable, much of what we think they hold central is actually incidental in their own conception, there’s a lot of stuff they care about which we never noticed, and there’s actually a lot of overlap.

Now mind you, it’s not like economists have a clear understanding of what we do either, with their understanding generally falling into three categories:

  • Homo sociologicus ordinarius – A politically correct ninny with more indignation than expertise
  • Homo sociologicus reticularis – Social network analysts who make cool pictures and have mastered a technical expertise different from but on par with anything economists do
  • Homo particularis sociologicus – A particular colleague or noteworthy scholar who happens to be a sociologist but with their identity and contribution being understood as idiosyncratic rather than disciplinary

On the other hand, the economic folklore about sociology is different in character from ours of them insofar as economists’ views of the other social sciences are like how Bukowski was asked what he thought about another poet would always reply “I don’t think about him.” In that sense econ’s ignorant understanding of soc is more like our understanding of anthro than our understanding of economics since there’s a big difference between having a vague understanding of a discipline that you’re dedicated to critiquing and a vague understanding of a discipline that you mostly just ignore.

May 28, 2013 at 7:28 am 15 comments

Choosing the null set

| Gabriel |

A few months ago I listened to an interview with a historian who had studied “bride shows” in Czarist Russia. If you’re familiar with the Book of Esther (or its holiday, Purim) you’re familiar with the idea — a monarch holds a beauty contest to find a wife. This seems like a fairly obvious thing to do, but if you’ve studied history (or watched Game of Thrones) you know that typically royalty marry in order to cement political alliances. So why would the czar (or the shah) choose a commoner to marry? The answer is not that the king is actually trying to find the biggest hottie in the kingdom, but a political logic, in that the monarch does not wish to form an alliance with any of the domestic or foreign noble houses. If you’re at the apex of a power structure, forming an edge mostly serves to bring the other party up to your level and this could undermine efforts to horde power for yourself (or more likely, for your clan or faction). This seems to be a common practice where the polity is relatively isolated from neighboring polities (e.g., Russia, Egypt, Hawaii) and so marriage would in effect involve elevating a client rather than allying with a rival. In such situations the strategic choice is to choose “none of the above.”

It seems like there are really three ways to go about this:

1. Do not form a tie at all. That is, celibacy. This was the strategy exercised by Queen Elizabeth I.

2. Loops. That is, royal incest. This was the strategy practiced by most Egyptian dynasties right through the Ptolemies.

3. Form a tie with a socially irrelevant person. Here we have the bride show strategy. You form a tie, but do so with someone of low enough status that obviously they’re not a player.

Note that some apparent instances of strategies 1 and 2 might actually be strategy 3. On page 95 of Social Structures, JLM describes how strategy 1 was actually strategy 3 in Renaissance Florence:

But given that Florentine sons had to marry up, those of the most distinguished lineages were hard pressed to marry— there was no one good enough for the sons of the elite to marry. In this case, there was no elegant structural solution, but rather a cheat: the elite, argue Padgett and Ansell, snuck away to other neighborhoods to find women as opposed to effectively announcing to their neighbors that there was a family of higher status than themselves.

Likewise, powerful “celibate” clergy from Alexander VI to Marcial Maciel have formed ties to socially irrelevant people but framed it as celibacy by having children with mistresses. I’m not aware of explicit references to this, but I like to imagine that some royal incest marriages were sexless and the heir was actually produced by a concubine, which would be socially irrelevant marriage framed as a loop. You can even find cases where celibacy is framed as a socially irrelevant marriage, as with women who are married off to a god or inanimate object.

Also note that sometimes “strategies” could be imposed on people, as with celibacy imposed on rival succession claimants (eg, the mythological Greek princess Danae and her Roman doublet Rhea Silvia or the dozen or so very historical deposed Byzantine emperors forced into monastic orders).

You also see this sort of thing in non-marital contexts. Most famously, during the principate senators resented the emperors because the emperors relied heavily on freedmen and knights to staff the Roman imperial bureaucracy, such relatively lowly people being less likely than senators to use such positions to build rival power bases (or to extract usurious rents). We see a similar practice more recently with the kings of Ethiopia, who for centuries would request a bishop be sent down from Alexandria, the purpose of which was not so much to cement ties to Egypt as to refrain from investing ecclesiastical power in any of the local notables, a foreigner bishop being the next best thing to no bishop at all, politically speaking.

April 2, 2013 at 7:53 am

Fake Plutarch Quotes Are the Newest and Most Facile Ailment of All Arguments About Inequality

| Gabriel |

Apparently it’s a thing to quote Plutarch as having said “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” This phrasing does not appear anywhere in the Project Gutenberg edition of the canonical Clough version of Lives.

It is possible that “oldest and most fatal” is just an unusual translation from the original Greek and so doesn’t turn up in a ctrl-F search, but I am extremely skeptical. As somebody who has actually read Plutarch (and who quotes him accurately in my own syllabus), it doesn’t pass the smell test. Plutarch has a distinctly aristocratic perspective and is more likely to complain about demagogues pandering to the mob than to complain about the dispossession of the poor. For instance, in his lives of the Gracchi he describes the underlying grievances of the depopulation of small farms and the rise of the latifundia, but he also criticizes the Senate for going squishy by offering conciliatory redistributive measures (specifically, a grain dole and colonial land) to the mob, “by gratifying and obliging them with such unreasonable things as otherwise they would have felt it honorable for them to incur the greatest unpopularity in resisting.” Mind you, I think it is entirely fair to read Plutarch and come away with the opinion that the facts he describes provide evidence that inequality is indeed the oldest and most fatal ailment of republics, I just don’t think that’s Plutarch’s own opinion, let alone his language.

Here’s a Google Books search (91 hits), web search (36000 hits), and Google Scholar search (31 hits) for the exact phrase. I also found 8 hits in Lexis-Nexis, one in Proquest dissertations, and 3 hits in Proquest Newspapers but those are hard to link to.

The oldest version I could identify was from 1985,  The Longman History of the United States by Hugh Brogan which appears to be a textbook. In the early 1990s it starts making appearances in The Economist and a few books, including Boiling Point by Kevin Phillips. It has a second wave in the last decade, perhaps because Robert Frank used it in a much quoted and recirculated  op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In most of these cases the quote is used as an opening epigraph and in none of them is there any indication of where Plutarch is alleged to have written this, just general dates and descriptions for Plutarch himself (e.g., “1st c. AD historian”). Also note that in some versions the phrase is misattributed to Plato instead of being misattributed to Plutarch — I guess one somewhat recognizable but seldom read figure from antiquity starting with “P” is as good as another.

The best way to get a big picture is with Google ngrams. Unfortunately this only allows searches of 5 word strings so I chose “oldest and most fatal ailment” as the most distinctive part.


As you can see, this phrase goes back to 1966 (although I don’t know in which book as the oldest hit in Google Books is Longman History from 1985) which is older than anything I found but much more recent than all the major English-language versions of Plutarch. It skitters along with the occasional usage and then begins to take off in the 1990s and with a second and larger wave occurring right now. (Btw, here’s a Google Books search just for the shorter phrase, for some reason it gives more and earlier hits, but none older than Hugh Brogan’s Longman History of the United States of America in 1985.)

In contrast if you do Ngram searches for authentic five word strings from Plutarch, some of them don’t turn up at all but others show references dating to the 19th century. For instance, here are Ngrams for some memorable authentic phrases.

Ultimately I can’t identify where this “oldest and most fatal” canard comes from, but I’m pretty sure it ain’t Plutarch and most likely it was just made up in the 1960s. All I have to say is to quote Thomas Jefferson, “he who would falsely ascribe a passage would desecrate a mind.” Or maybe he didn’t say that and actually I just made it up because I think it’s kind of cool to be able to draw on the authority of a memorable historical thinker using archaic sounding language.

[Update, here’s America’s favorite superhero mayor using this canard.]

December 12, 2012 at 9:24 am 1 comment

Now These Are the Names, Pt 2

| Gabriel |

Last time we talked about Social Security names data and how to query particular names. Today I want to talk about the big picture of the variety of names and the question of whether names are getting more diverse over time. Well, this is basically a question of entropy and so let’s do a time-trend of the gini by cohort.

To me, the main thing the graph demonstrates is actually how sensitive these things are to measurement to the extent that I’m unwilling to make substantive claims without better understanding the history of how the data were collected. As you can see, there’s a huge jump in the gini starting with birth cohorts dating to WWI. This predates the enactment of Social Security (which I’ve drawn as a black vertical line) by about twenty years and so my best guess it corresponds to cohorts that were aging into the labor force around the time the act passed. Alternately it could be something about WWI accelerating assimilation in naming practices, but when I see a sharp discontinuity like that my instincts tell me it’s a measurement artifact not a real social change.

Putting that aside, let’s think about the index itself. The Gini coefficient was developed to study social inequality and as such it’s sensitive to both the top and the bottom. Gini is basically a better version of taking the ratio of a high percentile and a low percentile. If you have exactly two people with exactly equal wealth (or exactly two names with equal numbers of babies) then you’d have a very low Gini.

Two names sounds ridiculous but not as much as you’d think. Consider Republican era Rome. We have a pretty good idea of Roman names, at least in the upper classes, because they kept lists called “fasti consulares” of every man who served as consul. I previously did a post showing how a few clans dominated, but for today I want to just use these lists to show how few first names there were. These lists show only 29 male first names, of which only 17 were popular.* (In contrast, the Social Security data lists thousands of male names in circulation in any given year.) The Gini coefficient for praenomen on Republican fasti consulares is .72, which is not that far below the pre-1910 Social Security data. If you’re wondering, the most popular praenomen were Lucius, Gaius, Marcus, and Quintus. Here’s a kernel density plot for praenomen frequency.

As you can see, Roman names follow a count but it’s not ridiculously steep like American names in any arbitrary year (like this graph of 1920). The fact that 29 names following a fairly shallow count could show a comparable gini to thousands of names following an extremely steep count suggests to me that there is something unsatisfying about the metric for our purposes.

Another entropy index we can use is the Herfindahl Hirschman Index (HHI). HHI is meant to measure the potential for monopolies and cartels and as such it’s only really sensitive to the top. HHI is basically a better version of taking the share held by the top-4 (or top-8 or top-k) actors in the system. If you have exactly two people with exactly equal wealth (or exactly two names with equal numbers of babies) then you’d have a very high HHI.

A thought experiment that reveals the difference between Gini and HHI is that if the United States were to suddenly add a few million desperately poor people, for instance by annexing Haiti, this wouldn’t change our income HHI at all but it would drive our income Gini up appreciably. Nonetheless, under a wide range of circumstances the Gini and HHI will be correlated as both measure inequality, they just have different emphases.

In the case of names, HHI will capture the dominance of stock names like “Jake” and “Mary” whereas Gini is better at capturing how common weird names are. So that said, let’s do the time trend again, but this time with HHI.

It’s very interesting that we now don’t see a precipitous change in the late teens but rather a gradual shift leading up to that time. For comparison, the HHI of consular praenomen is 1152, which is off the charts compared to the Social Security data. Finally, let’s note that HHI and Gini agree that girls names show more entropy than boy’s names.

* I say male names because there were no female consuls. Roman women took the feminized form of their father’s clan name. Hence, most of the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty were (by adoption) descendants of Gaius Julius Caesar and were named “Julia,” which is the feminine form of “Julius.”

August 23, 2012 at 6:27 am 2 comments

Older Posts

The Culture Geeks