A rich, liberal arts education

And more surprising insights from the social sciences


A rich, liberal arts education

Among conservatives, academia has a reputation as a bastion of the left. But it’s not just faculty that indoctrinate students; students indoctrinate one another. Political scientists at Princeton University analyzed survey data from the 1990s of thousands of college students across the country in both their freshman and senior years. Compared to affluent students at colleges where most students were not from affluent families, affluent students at colleges where most students were from affluent families became more opposed to higher taxes on the rich, even controlling for other individual and student-body demographics, and SAT scores. The effect was similar in size to, but in the opposite direction of, the effect of going to a predominantly black college. The effect was enhanced among those who socialized a lot (in or out of Greek life), and did not affect attitudes on social issues like abortion, homosexuality, and racial discrimination. The effect was also apparent in the case of one college that dramatically reduced its concentration of affluent students in just a couple years; students matriculating after this change did not become as strongly opposed to higher taxes on the rich.

Mendelberg, T. et al., “College Socialization and the Economic Views of Affluent Americans,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

High on work

Maybe potheads aren’t total slackers after all. A new study finds that workers are less likely to call in sick in states that have legalized medical marijuana. This is particularly the case among full-time workers, in states with easier access to medical marijuana, and among middle-age men.

Ullman, D., “The Effect of Medical Marijuana on Sickness Absence,” Health Economics (forthcoming).

The gerrymander slips away

One of the tools in the partisan toolbox is the gerrymander — redrawing the districts of legislators to help elect more legislators from one party. In fact, many pundits and Democrats attribute some of the Republicans’ current strength in the US House of Representatives to recent redistricting in states where Republicans controlled the process. However, according to two economists, gerrymandering may actually backfire. When one party controls redistricting, it tends to assign partisan voters to districts in such a way that the redistricting party has bare majorities in as many districts as possible, since packing too many supporters in a district wastes their number. The risk with this strategy is that bare majorities are bare. Lo and behold, the economists find that even though gerrymandered districts do favor the redistricting party initially, those districts tend to lose their majorities after a few years, because of demographic shifts and increased political activity by the other party.

Jeong, D. & Shenoy, A., “Backfire: The Unintended Consequences of Partisan Gerrymandering,” University of California, Santa Cruz (July 2016).

We’re not in Kansas anymore

Recent research has uncovered a downward trend in the health of middle-aged working-class whites. In an analysis of data from counties in Kansas, a sociologist with Cornell University confirms that the death rate for middle-aged whites was indeed higher in 2012-2014 compared with 1999-2001. Moreover, he finds that decreasing white population in a county from 2000 to 2010 was associated with a higher death rate of middle-aged whites in that county in 2012-2014, largely attributable to the prevalence of obesity, inactivity, smoking, drinking, and suicide.

Young, F., “What’s the Matter with Kansas? Now It’s the High White Death Rate,” Sociological Forum (forthcoming).

Getting a word in edgewise

How bad is our politics relative to a century ago? According to an analysis by several economists of speeches entered into the Congressional Record from 1873 to 2009, the words speak for themselves. “We find that the partisanship of language has exploded in recent decades, reaching an unprecedented level. From 1873 to the early 1990s, partisanship was roughly constant and fairly small in magnitude: in the 43rd session of Congress (1873-75), the probability of correctly guessing a speaker’s party based on a one-minute speech was 54 percent; by the 101st session (1989-1990) this figure had increased to 55 percent. Beginning with the congressional election of 1994, partisanship turned sharply upward, with the probability of guessing correctly based on a one-minute speech climbing to 83 percent by the 110th session (2007-09). . . . Manually classifying phrases into substantive topics shows that the increase in partisanship is due more to changes in the language used to discuss a given topic (e.g., ‘estate tax’ vs. ‘death tax’) than to changes in the topics parties emphasize (e.g., Republicans focusing more on taxes and Democrats focusing more on labor issues). . . . While we cannot say definitively why partisanship of language increased when it did, the evidence points to innovation in political persuasion as a proximate cause. The 1994 inflection point in our series coincides precisely with the Republican takeover of Congress led by Newt Gingrich, under a platform called the Contract with America.”

Gentzkow, M. et al., “Measuring Polarization in High-Dimensional Data: Method and Application to Congressional Speech,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2016).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at