Chris Uggen's Blog: October 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

immunology and the trunk monkey

Marc Jenkins gave a terrific lecture titled "How the Immune System Remembers Infections" this week. As a sociological criminologist, I've long been fascinated by immunology and its connection to the social organicism of Spencer, Durkheim and others. The immune system wondrously learns to quickly recognize and neutralize pathogens in the body, even as the pathogens quickly evolve and adapt to overcome the immune system. He used this trunk monkey* video to introduce immune functioning (body=car; pathogen=thief):

By analogy, some argue that communities exercise social control in the same way. One hears such analogies when people describe how a social group is brought down by a nefarious "virus" or "cancer."  For example, when the Patriots traded Randy Moss to the Vikings, a commentator was asked whether Patriots Coach Bill Belichek considered him a "cancer" in the locker room ("more like a polyp," was the clever response). Such social organicism can be carried way too far, of course, perhaps even to genocide.

More positively, I'd compare immune response to the sort of rapidly mobilizing and self-sustaining resistance that a good school might develop in response to, say, a sudden rash of fights breaking out at the Friday night football games. The destructive behavior can either take root or it can be brought under control pretty quickly, once the fans in the bleachers learn to recognize and take the collective responsibility to stop it.

Professor Jenkins closed with another video, and I couldn't help but identify with the host's completely ineffectual efforts to ward off the pathogen in this one. Reminds me to boost the ol' immune system before winter hits....

* No, that doesn't look like an actual "monkey" to me either, but "trunk monkey" makes for a clever name.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

missing 411 on the 420

In a few weeks, California voters will consider Proposition 19 -- The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. This measure (1) legalizes various marijuana-related activities, (2) allows local governments to regulate these activities, (3) permits local governments to impose and collect marijuana-related fees and taxes, and (4) authorizes various criminal and civil penalties. As the national Gallup data indicate below, support for marijuana legalization has risen dramatically over the past quarter century, to the point where such ballot referenda now have a strong chance of passage in states like California.

I've gotten a few calls on the subject and wish I knew more about it. At this point, I defer to my California colleagues because I simply do not feel sufficiently informed or qualified to render an opinion as either an expert or a private citizen on this issue. But I do know this: should Proposition 19 pass, it would likely portend a Very Big Change in past practices and policies with respect to marijuana. Some excellent researchers at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center (Beau Kilmer, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Robert J. MacCoun, Peter H. Reuter) have made heroic efforts to model the likely effects of such a Very Big Change, based on estimates of current and future consumption, likely price changes, taxes levied and evaded, and nonprice effects (such as a change in stigma), but they acknowledge that we are in uncharted waters. Their best guess?
(1) the pretax retail price of marijuana will substantially decline, likely by more than 80 percent. The price the consumers face will depend heavily on taxes, the structure of the regulatory regime, and how taxes and regulations are enforced;
(2) consumption will increase, but it is unclear how much, because we know neither the shape of the demand curve nor the level of tax evasion (which reduces revenues and prices that consumers face);
(3) tax revenues could be dramatically lower or higher than the $1.4 billion estimate provided by the California Board of Equalization (BOE); for example, uncertainty about the federal response to California legalization can swing estimates in either direction;
(4) previous studies find that the annual costs of enforcing marijuana laws in California range from around $200 million to nearly $1.9 billion; our estimates show that the costs are probably less than $300 million; and
(5) there is considerable uncertainty about the impact of legalizing marijuana in California on public budgets and consumption, with even minor changes in assumptions leading to major differences in outcomes.
So, marijuana will become significantly cheaper in California, but we cannot tell for certain whether the increase in consumption will be correspondingly large (say, to the peak marijuana levels of the late-1970s). We also can't say for sure how much will be collected or evaded in taxes, saved or spent on treatment and law enforcement, or how neighboring states and the federal government will respond. The RAND report is helpful in showing both the kinds of factors to be considered before casting one's ballot and the limits of our current knowledge base.

On balance, will we be better off or worse off in a post-Prop. 19 world? At this point, responsible experts, including the RAND team, are pointing to an unusually large gap between the change voters must consider and our knowledge about its likely impact. Call me gutless, but under such conditions my personal preference would be for a gradual phase-in and limited pilot period before attempting to flip such a Very Big Switch in a state of 39 million people.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

the smoker you drink, the player you get

I heard many fine presentations at a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gathering last week, but the most provocative likely came from James Jackson, a University of Michigan psychologist. I don't want to blog any work in progress, so I'll limit this post to his 2010 American Journal of Public Health article, "Race and Unhealthy Behaviors: Chronic Stress, the HPA Axis, and Physical and Mental Health Disparities Over the Life Course."

Professor Jackson's basic hypothesis is that people cope with chronically stressful environments by engaging in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, drinking, and eating comfort foods -- and that these physically unhealthy behaviors might actually have protective mental-health effects. Of course, unhealthy behaviors eventually catch up to us, contributing to physical health problems that show up as morbidity and mortality disparities among the social groups who partake at varying rates.

Professor Jackson suggests that this hypothesis might help explain why African Americans generally have higher rates of physical health problems than non-Hispanic Whites but similar or lower rates of mental health problems, such as major depression. If a group uses unhealthy behaviors to cope with chronic stress, they might gain a short-term boost in mental health but pay a long-term physical health penalty. That said, the hypotheses isn't really about race differences, so much as the differential distribution of chronic stressors and the differential availability of healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Most data I've seen show that Whites do more drinking and smoking than African Americans, but Professor Jackson is hypothesizing race differences in effects rather than race differences in the prevalence or incidence of use. And this is what he found in the AJPH article. The figure below shows how the relationship between stressors and major-depression criteria varies by the level of unhealthy behaviors for African Americans (in panel a) and for Whites (in panel b). Stress was more strongly linked to depression among African American abstainers who had not engaged in unhealthy behaviors (the zero group) but stressors were unrelated to depression for African Americans who reported at least two of the unhealthy behaviors. For non-Hispanic Whites, on the other hand, the situation was reversed: those with the fewest unhealthy behaviors actually coped the best with stressors, perhaps due to their greater access to healthier stress-reducing alternatives.

I'd still be cautious about the race interaction until it is consistently replicated, but I'm more convinced by the argument about the protective mental health effects of unhealthy behaviors. Why else would parolees risk going back to prison and football stars risk million dollar contracts over minor substance use? They aren't partying (well, not all of them), they are dealing with stress in a way that, for better or worse, functions for them.

At this point, the hypothesis is intriguing and the evidence provisionally supportive, but the matter is far from settled. The first policy conclusion, of course, is to dial back the stressors in the first place -- reduce discrimination, improve living conditions, provide job opportunities, and reduce poverty for the most disadvantaged. With fewer stressors, there is less need or motivation for unhealthy coping. A second policy conclusion might involve finding or facilitating healthier alternative coping strategies.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

age-invariant versus life-course conceptions of marathoning

I used some very bad words when this email arrived in advance of today's Twin Cities Marathon:

TNT's critically acclaimed, hit drama, MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE, is back for a second season December 6th at 10/9c! In celebration of the highly anticipated return of this viewer-favorite show, TNT is assembling the "Team Of A Certain Age" at the 2010 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE, touting an award-winning cast of Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher, provides a wry and realistic depiction of three friends navigating through the complexities of mid-life. This series proves that life is a marathon (not a sprint)! Now TNT is looking for men and/or women over the age of 40 to join our Team of a Certain Age! If you sign up and are selected, you will receive an exciting gift package valued at over $100, including:
* A high-quality Limited Edition running shirt to wear during the marathon;
* Six Limited Edition, customizable t-shirts for your friends and family, and;
* A $50 gift card to help reimburse you for the cost of your entry fee!

I've got nothing against the show, though my job as a department chair provides more than enough "wry and realistic depictions of friends navigating through the complexities of midlife," thank you. No, I just hate the idea of being targeted by age. Apparently, other dudes agreed. I saw exactly one runner flying the high-quality Limited Edition "Men of a Certain Age" shirt -- and that runner, my friends, was a young woman. Some clever curmudgeon pocketed the gift card and gave the shirt to his kid.

I realize that we all slow down, but part of me needs to believe that I could still crank out a personal record under the right conditions -- you know, during a sabbatical year, after altitude training, with perfect race day weather, while wearing a jet-pack. I mean, it isn't as though I was ever fast in the first place. So, I cling to the idea that my times are age-invariant -- I should be able to go as fast or faster than I ever have. To provide a reality check, I plotted my 25 known marathon times from 1995-2010. I don't yet have my official "chip time" for today, but it was 3:47 on the clock and I'm guessing it took at least 3 minutes to make my way to the starting gate.

Well, a few heat-induced clinkers spiked up in 2006-2007, but at least it doesn't look like a linear decline or the inexorable aging of the organism -- the correlation is only .0004 between age and finish times. I can see three slopes here: decline in my mid-thirties; ascent in my late-thirties, and another more gradual decline since my early forties. Looking at the graph, though, I'm still about as fast (that is, about as slow) as I was 15 years ago.

Next, I plotted something more life-coursey -- my percentile rank against Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, Andre Braugher and the other men of my certain age, pitting me against the male 30-35 year olds in 1995 and the male 45-49 year olds today.

This graph looks a bit better, though I was disappointed to find myself in the bottom half of my reference group during my early thirties (what the heck was going on? oh yeah, tenure and small children were going on...). But the percentile rank has the virtue of controlling to some extent for race conditions (everybody slows down in the heat) as well as life course stage. So, today I ran the full race with a M45-49 tag on my back. I'm still a long way from the prize money, but the equation says I'm picking up 1.5% per year.
By the time I hit M70-74, that sweet age group cash is mine.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

two things my students remembered

Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University come up in Dave Berger's talk at the Sociologists of Minnesota meeting yesterday. The premise is that in five minutes you can learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school. While the good father may be right about the facts we ask students to memorize, Dave was making the point that there is powerful truth in the liberal arts dictum that we are actually in the business of teaching people to think.

Occasionally, we get direct evidence on this point. I'll often ask former students what they remember from my classes when I bump into them off-campus. Few can recall the fine-grained distinctions among the theories that I taught and tested, but sometimes I'll get a heartening response about how they developed a habit of mind in my classes that made a lasting, trajectory-altering impact.

My favorite came from a woman who said that I taught her "how to look at the data." When I pushed her about this, she said that she had always had a knee-jerk reaction to evidence about things she cared about, but she liked how I dealt with information that she knew challenged my own beliefs. She claimed I would try to understand the new evidence, evaluate it, and then -- if it passed the basic methods bar -- incorporate it into my beliefs and teaching, or at least recognize it as a puzzle that I needed to figure out. All this made data less scary to her and much more interesting. And today, she said, this gives her power and a career advantage in social services, where her colleagues mostly embrace data that supports them and dismiss anything that might be perceived as critical. I doubt my classes were responsible for all that, but it was still cool to hear.

My least favorite came from a student who took a course from me a decade ago and is now a Ph.D. He claimed to remember a few things from my classes but the lesson that stood out came on the first day, when somebody asked whether it would hurt to skip the occasional class. I was caught off-guard, so I said something like, "Well, skipping class is sort of like having unprotected sex. You might get away with it for some time with no consequences but, then again, the consequences might be quite serious and disruptive for you going forward. Wouldn't you rather be safe?" I doubt that particular message really helped his career or his personal life, but, then again, he's now a happily married father with a great job.