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Category: General

McDonald’s and Franchising

[ 0 ] August 31, 2015 |


You may have some questions about just how McDonald’s runs its franchising operations and why the company is the focus of so much attention with the NLRB’s Browning decision from last week. Of course, franchising can mean a lot of different things with a number of varying arrangements. In the case of McDonald’s, the company seeks detailed control over the franchisee in ways that other fast food companies do not, arrangements that suggest an almost Don Blankenship-level of control over work that makes an argument it is not a joint employer highly dubious. Jeff Spross has more on this.

The funny wrinkle in McDonald’s case is that a lot of the company’s franchisees really don’t like the model. They have to pay the corporate mothership 4 to 5 percent of their revenue for a franchise fee, and then another 4 to 5 percent to go into an advertising fund. The franchises then have to pay another 12 percent to McDonald’s for rent. Meanwhile, the central company gives franchisees a slew of requirements in terms of remodeling, computer systems, and other expenses they must incur to stay in the franchise agreement.

By all accounts, McDonald’s has cracked down on its franchisees in recent years. It controls most of the prices on the menu, and between that and its hefty operating demands, it’s squeezing franchisees so that the way to make the business model successful is to pay the workers less. Dissatisfaction amongst McDonald’s franchise owners is reportedly at an all-time high, so they clearly feel they’re under fire.

But then you have to ask: Under fire compared to whom? The average American worker, or other small business owners pulling down $100,000-plus a year?

Another wrinkle, according to Kalnins, is that McDonald’s is genuinely an outlier in the aggressiveness with which it deals with its franchises. In other chains, franchisees can own hundreds of stores, and sometimes be public corporations unto themselves. But “McDonald’s really wants small owners,” Kalnins explained — somebody overseeing three, four, or five units. “Somebody who’s checking out what’s going on in those units every day.”

The upside for McDonald’s is franchisees who are “much more loyal and will do what you want them to, because of their smaller size.” The downside is a far more aggressive interference on the part of McDonald’s in terms of the running of the stores and its relationships with workers.

Another thing that makes McDonald’s an outlier is it’s one of the few chains that owns the property for every last one of its stores, and thus charges its franchisees the rent. Kalnins said he’s spoken with franchise consultants who figured that while the 12 percent of revenue that McDonald’s charges for rent is high compared to the standard 10 percent small businesses usually face from real estate owners, it’s not extraordinary. But “if you add the rent to it then certainly they’re paying more than for other chains. And that’s relatively unusual.”

Given all of this, how is McDonald’s not the direct employer of the workers? They are of course, even if they’ve offloaded the onerous parts of hiring onto the franchisee. And became McDonald’s corporate so controls all the details of work, this operates in some of the same ways that the apparel industry’s exploitative subcontracting system does–by making sure that the only way the franchisee is going to make any money is to squeeze workers as hard as possible, with a bottom baseline only a federal or state labor law that may or may not be stringently enforced on the ground. This is another reason why we need to push back against these sorts of labor arrangements through holding corporations legally accountable for the workers making their products regardless of whether they are directly employed, subcontracted, franchisees, temp workers, etc. These latter systems exist precisely for the kind of advantages McDonald’s has created here. Hopefully the NLRB will continue bringing this system back under control.

Browning Commentary

[ 5 ] August 31, 2015 |


There was a lot of good commentary late last week to the NLRB decision in the Browning-Ferris case, ruling that joint employer status applied to this contractor for the purpose of unionization and other labor law, potentially repealing some of corporations’ favorite strategies for protecting themselves from legal accountability. Let me link to a couple. First, Catherine Fisk:

The most interesting implication, given the recent strikes in the fast food industry, is whether the decision means that corporate restaurants like McDonald’s are the joint employer with their franchisees. The Board has cases pending that will present this issue and it will decide them in due course. The test the Board articulated in Browning-Ferris is that two entities are joint employers “if they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment” which includes “hiring, firing, discipline, supervision, and direction,” as well as “wages and hours,” “the number of workers to be supplied, controlling scheduling, seniority, and overtime, and assigning work and determining the manner and method of work performance.” And the Board said the codetermination of these matters need not be done “directly and immediately, and not in a limited or routine manner” but it is enough if the control is exerted in an “indirect” or “routine” way so long as the user employer “affects the means or manner of employees’ work and terms of employment, either directly or through an intermediary.”

What the dissent is anxious about is precisely what workers’ rights advocates have been talking about for decades. Should companies that effectively dictate working conditions by the price they are willing to pay suppliers (whether it is suppliers of labor, as in Browning-Ferris, or suppliers of goods, as in supply chain cases) be obligated to bargain with the employees who supply that labor or those goods? Should janitors or security guards in an office building or warehouse workers be able to pressure the building manager or the logistics company (as opposed to the labor contractor for which they work) for a pay raise or safety protections?

One issue the Browning Ferris case does not decide but the dissent talks about at some length is whether the common law right of control test adopted by the majority also has implications for a different issue, which is the difference between employees (who are workers that a hiring entity has the right to control) or independent contractors (workers that the hiring entity does not control). The majority said little about this, but the dissent lambastes the majority for adopting a version of the common law test that might narrow the definition of independent contractor, making more workers employees. If the dissent is right, then the years long effort of Federal Express to run a huge package delivery service without employing any drivers might fail, and so, too, might Uber’s argument that it’s become the country’s fastest-growing taxi service by simply being a technology company that employs no drivers.

Great! Republicans’ worst nightmares are precisely what I and so many other labor supporters hope happens. These follow-up NLRB cases are going to be incredibly important and I think the fears of the dissent point the way they are probably going to go. Of course, there is a legal appeal as well that conservatives will push, which rationally should allow the NLRB jurisdiction but given conservative judicial activism may well not. E. Tammy Kim interviews people on both sides of this issue that lay out the stakes.

“The Board’s tortured analysis will undoubtedly be met with skepticism and will be rejected by local franchise owners, legislators and, ultimately, the courts,” said Steve Caldeira, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association. “IFA and its allies are asking Congress to intervene to halt these out-of-control, unelected Washington bureaucrats to preserve the established joint employer standard relied upon by America’s 780,000 franchise businesses and the 8.5 million jobs they directly create.”

While groups like the IFA accused the NLRB of ignoring the economic reality of the franchise structure, the Fight for $15 fast-food movement applauded the Board’s recognition that large corporations exert control over individual stores and restaurants.

“McDonald’s is the boss — that’s true by any standard,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fight for $15. “The company controls everything from the speed of the drive-thru to the way workers fold customers’ bags. It’s common sense that McDonald’s should be held accountable for the rights of workers at its franchised stores.”

Although the NLRB’s ruling only applies to labor law and not employment cases — minimum wage, overtime or discrimination — it could influence other venues. Several such cases brought by Fight for $15 workers are pending in federal court.

“The Board has been out of whack with federal and state laws with respect to employment,” said attorney Moshe Marvit, fellow at the liberal think tank the Century Foundation. “The decision is influenced by other agency decisions, and OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), for example, will follow the Board’s lead.”

The potential for that influence is real and could be meaningful, albeit pretty reliant on the Democrats winning the election in 2016. Meanwhile, what are conservatives saying? It’s pretty comic!

For example, the NLRB’s new standard could force Silicon Valley startups to hire the receptionists and cleaners they currently get from staffing or property management companies. It will adversely impact the innovative sharing economy, where technology has drastically lowered transaction costs, enabling people to come together to share services in novel new business relationships. In the end, some jobs will be absorbed by companies’ corporate headquarters, to minimize unexpected liability; some jobs will be eliminated. The NLRB has set back the clock 40 years, to an era of corporate giants when few people had the option of being their own bosses while pursuing innovative employment arrangements.

Also great! Outside of the double speak that claims exploitative working relationships is freedom.

DuPont and Teflon, Revisited

[ 4 ] August 31, 2015 |


A few weeks ago, I linked to a good in-depth discussion of how DuPont had poisoned the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia through the production of C8, the chemical making up the key component of Teflon. The Huffington Post now has a very long and in-depth piece on the same subject, which you should also read. I won’t go over the details again except to say that DuPont, like basically all chemical corporations, treat the environment, workers, and the surrounding communities with a complete lack of basic respect in its quest to maximize profit. But two points to pull out. First:

By the early 1970s, Congress was once again debating how to regulate the chemicals that now formed the fabric of American domestic life. Both houses drafted legislation that would empower the Environmental Protection Agency to study the health and environmental effects of chemicals and regulate their use. But the industry unleashed another lobbying blitz. Under the final version of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, existing chemicals were again grandfathered in. Manufacturers did have to inform the EPA when they introduced new chemicals—but no testing was required. The resulting regulatory regime, which exists to this day, is remarkably laissez-faire. Only a handful of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the market have ever been tested for safety—meaning that we are all, in effect, guinea pigs in a vast, haphazard chemistry experiment.

This is a really key issue. Like fracking and so many other technological developments of industrial life, we have given corporations carte blanche to create profitable markets in chemicals without meaningful testing, and especially without meaningful public testing that would give people a right to know what chemicals are in their air, water, food, and workplaces. Only if disasters strike of the thalidomide level does real accountability to corporations ever take place. Meanwhile, more chemicals can be created, dumped, and forgotten about, all at continuing profit. Even here, with overwhelming evidence of how DuPont created birth defects, massive wildlife and livestock dieoffs, cancers in workers and local residents, etc., the company still have not faced real accountability. Instead it is using every known tactic of corporations to delay compensation and try to offload legal liability. This gets us to the second point.

Meanwhile, this past July, DuPont spun off its specialty chemicals division into a separate company called Chemours. The new enterprise will assume the liability for DuPont’s most polluted sites, including Washington Works—but it will only have one-quarter of DuPont’s revenue. Many people with cases pending against DuPont worry that it will use this arrangement to avoid paying damages or, at the very least, stall any resulting payouts. “I’m sure part of their theory is the longer they delay, the more people will die,” said Deitzler, the Parkersburg-based lawyer. “It’s already worked. Before we could even file cases, many of the people who’ve been affected passed on.”

Creating new companies that are underfunded in order to deal with liabilities is an old corporate trick. Dollars to donuts Chemours declares bankruptcy in the next decade that allows DuPont to escape from any meaningful compensation at all.

Meanwhile, DuPoint has moved on from C8. But to what?

Under the current regulatory system, DuPont is not required to ensure that these chemicals are free of the qualities that made C8 so toxic. While relatively little is known about these substances, most of them have very similar structures and properties to C8, and the limited information that is available reveals troubling effects. Also, while some of the replacement chemicals break down faster than C8 does, they need to be used in larger quantities to achieve the same results, a fact that has caused alarm in the scientific community. This May, 200 scientists—chemists, toxicologists, and epidemiologists among them—signed a statement urging governments to restrict the use of these chemicals because of the “risks of adverse effects on human health and the environment.”

Until that happens, these substances will continue to spread, unchecked. Not long ago, the Little Hocking water district commissioned a study to see whether any of the C8 replacements were contaminating the town’s aquifer. Researchers tested worms unearthed from Little Hocking’s well field, a scraggly meadow overlooking the vast expanse of storage tanks and smokestacks at the Washington Works plant. They found a number of C8’s chemical cousins, including C5, C6, C7, C9 and C10. Once again, local residents may have been unwittingly exposed to toxins whose ultimate effect on human health is unknown.

The weak regulatory system combines with the nation’s profit-first ideology and corporate malfeasance to ensure that nothing will change here. Maybe one of these chemicals will, 20 years from now, be found to also kill people. If the system is similar to today, another decade will pass before any kind of compensation is required and then DuPont will continue to find more ways out and local people will suffer.

The “Repugnant Conclusion” Is Aptly Described

[ 89 ] August 31, 2015 |


I don’t have strong feelings about whether it was right for Vox to pull the essay it commissioned from Torbjörn Tännsjö about the “repugnant conclusion.” As a freelancer, I’m inclined to think that when you ask for something you shouldn’t then reject it because it was what you asked for.

On the other hand, as to whether Matthews or Klein is right about the merits of the essay…let me say that is unpersuasive in the extreme. Perhaps the fact that the core premises (we can know that most people are happy, people have an obligation to potentially make themselves significantly less happy out of an obligation to unborn people even when the ongoing existence of the human race is not an issue, etc.) remain begged questions is unavoidable in a brief essay. Presumably his scholarly work deals with these questions in more detail, although I would be shocked if he defended his assumptions convincingly.

But I don’t think he can get a pass for one particular elephant in the room. Klein mentions the issue of reproductive freedom. Tännsjö’s argument does seem to imply that it is immoral to abort a healthy fetus, although it doesn’t necessarily require that abortion be criminalized. But this is only the beginning of the gender equity problems. Pregnancy — even when a pregnant woman has access to decent medical care — cares substantial health risks and imposes substantial discomforts. Moreover, these burdens are not equally distributed. Only people with female reproductive organs can become pregnant; all but a vanishingly small minority of people who get pregnant identify as women. And because women are a historically subordinated class, they generally bear a disproportionate amount of the burdens of childcare as well as bearing the burdens of pregnancy. A claim that there is a moral duty to have as many children as possible entails massive gender inequities.

How does Tännsjö deal with this obvious objection? He doesn’t. At all. Indeed, the essay keeps saying “I” and “we” in the context of having children when the person who will get pregnant is in fact a “she.” And, needless to say, the fact that Tännsjö does not have to bear the health risks and discomforts of pregnancy makes it much easier for him to ignore them entirely when arguing that women have an obligation to maximize their reproductive output. Even in a short essay, to entirely ignore issues of gender equity in this context is, how shall I put this, repugnant.


But the other issue was that the piece was commissioned when we were looking to launch a new section for unusual, provocative arguments. That section, for various reasons, didn’t launch (though maybe we’ll revisit it someday!), and so we didn’t have a place to put this piece where it felt to me like it would make editorial sense.

Whether or not they should have published it having commissioned it — and I’m inclined to think that Klein’s editorial judgment was sound — Tännsjö’s essay is a good illustration of why the idea of publishing “provocative” arguments for the contrarian sake of it should remain dead and buried.

Our Army Corps of Engineers Problem

[ 28 ] August 31, 2015 |

As Michael Grunwald observes, Katrina was a man-made disaster, and there are likely to be more where that came from:

In his speech today in New Orleans for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Obama described the storm as a natural event that became a manmade disaster, thanks to a sluggish government response to a city with rampant economic inequality.

It was a manmade disaster, all right. But the government wasn’t just slow to respond to the tragedy. It directly created the tragedy. New Orleans wasn’t drowned by poverty or climate change or the laggards at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It was drowned by bad government engineering and bad government priorities about water resources. If its floodwalls hadn’t collapsed, FEMA’s tardiness wouldn’t have been such a big deal.

A decade later, the engineering problems have been addressed with a new state-of-the-art flood protection system around the city, and the Big Easy is much safer. The president was right to highlight the city’s impressive physical and economic recovery today, as well as the persistent challenges faced by low-income African-Americans in the Lower Ninth Ward where he spoke. But it should not be forgotten that Washington’s skewed priorities left the Lower Ninth underwater—and those priorities are still out of whack.

The United States still has a dysfunctional water resources agency, the same Army Corps of Engineers whose mistakes helped kill more than 1,800 Americans ten years ago, and no real water resources policy beyond the whims of the politically savvy Army Corps and its doting patrons in Congress. So while New Orleans is better prepared for a Katrina-type storm, the nation remains vulnerable to Katrina-type failures.

More links here.

Springtime for Donald

[ 149 ] August 30, 2015 |


What does Donald Trump actually want? That is the practical question posed by his increasingly bizarre, and increasingly successful, “campaign.” Jon Chait gets the essence of Trump’s appeal exactly right: it’s not just that, as many people have noted, Trump employs an air raid siren rather than a dog whistle when pandering to the racist id of the GOP base — it’s that he has either cannily decided to exploit, or simply stumbled upon, the huge disconnect between that base and the party elites:

By design or (more likely) by accident, Trump has inhabited a ripe ideological niche. Both parties contain ranges of opinions within them. And both are run by elites who have more socially liberal and economically conservative views than their own voters. (There are plenty of anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-same-sex-marriage Democrats not represented by their leaders.) But the tension between base and elite runs deeper in the Republican Party. Conservative leaders tend to care very little about conservative social policy, or even disagree with it altogether. Conservative [leaders] care a great deal about cutting the top tax rate, deregulating the financial industry, and, ideally, reducing spending on social insurance — proposals that have virtually no authentic following among the rank and file.

This chart by Lee Drutman, tracking public opinion on immigration and Social Security, displays the disconnect:

ss table

The sparsely filled bottom right corner represents the libertarian-ish leanings of the Republican elite, which would like to liberalize immigration law and decrease Social Security benefits. The upper left corner, thick with dots, represents the populist, opposite combination: higher Social Security spending and less immigration. The Republican field — all of which, other than Trump, has endorsed raising the Social Security retirement age — is fighting over the tiny right side, leaving the huge upper left all to Trump. A new poll shows Trump leading New Hampshire with 35 percent, and the next-highest candidate, John Kasich, pulling in 11 percent. A South Carolina poll has Trump pulling in 30 percent of the vote.

Trump has homed in on a bona fide weakness in the Republican Party structure, one that has fascinated liberal critics in particular. The Republican Party has harnessed one set of passions, and then channeled them into unrelated policy outcomes favored by the party elite. Historically, the passions they have harnessed have revolved around foreign policy — like anti-communism, or the surge in nationalism following 9/11. Some of those passions have revolved around culture — a love of guns, the Pledge of Allegiance, a disdain for politicians who look kind of French, and so on.

But the classic formula seems to be yielding diminishing returns.

Now, as Chait points out, from the perspective of a businessman exploiting a potentially profitable niche, turning himself into an updated hybrid of Huey Long and George Wallace is a great idea. From the perspective of somebody trying to become president it’s a sure-fire loser, which means, of course, that the Republican elites will probably do just about anything to keep Trump from getting the nomination.

So what, ultimately, is Trump trying to accomplish?

Which brings us back to the question of what it is Trump is after. His presidential campaign seems to have come at enormous financial cost. His undisguised (or less-disguised) racism has made him an economic pariah. He has lost sponsorship agreements from a long list of corporations that want to sell things to people who aren’t white. He’s traded his lucrative brand for Pat Buchanan’s brand.

This immunity from consequence gives Trump the power to wreak apparently limitless havoc upon what is currently his party. The consequences Republicans impose for Trump’s offenses have no effect on him. You cannot threaten a man if you don’t even know what he cares about. Is Trump running to spite the reporters who mocked him as a bluffer? As an expensive lark, like the time he got piano lessons from Elton John? To use his political fame to trade up for his next wife? Does Trump actually believe he can become president of the United States?

It’s a good question, and my guess of an answer is that Trump’s campaign started as a publicity stunt, but has since spun out of control. It’s the plot of The Producers, but, increasingly, the joke’s on the GOP. And, now that Trump’s bottomless narcissism is being fed by the spectacle of his transformation into a “serious” candidate, it’s hard to predict where all this will ultimately end up.

“We Need To Build Three Walls. Mexico, Canada, and…the, uh, What’s the Third One There?”

[ 160 ] August 30, 2015 |

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

I’ve been resistant to the idea that Scott Walker was the Rick Perry of 2016. And I suppose it’s nearly impossible to be that bad, and with Jeb!’s campaign leaking at least as furiously I wouldn’t even say he can’t win the nomination. But it’s becoming increasingly hard to deny the wisdom in djw’s analysis. The desperate attempt to out-Trump Trump by appealing to the non-existent Republican constituency terrified by Canadian immigrants would seem to be pretty clear evidence that he has no particular idea what he’s doing.

…Roy is also off the bus:

some very smart thoughts about Walker’s parochialism problem, which Dana also raises in comments.

Has the decline in law school applications bottomed out?

[ 14 ] August 30, 2015 |


Final figures for the 2014-15 application cycle are now available, and, as I predicted last December, the steep decline in applications to law school that began four years ago appears to have slowed dramatically, if not stopped completely. The total number of applicants — 53,548 — is slightly less than two percent below last year’s figure. Applicant totals are down 39% from 2010, and 47% from their 2004 peak:

law school apps

Since the ABA Section of Legal Education saw fit to approve 17 (!) new law schools over the past decade, increasing the number of ABA law schools by nearly 10%, the ratio of total applicants to ABA law schools has declined even more, from 535 to 1 to 262 to 1. Total 1L enrollment this fall, if we assume that last year’s 80% acceptance rate can’t go any higher, will be around 37,200, meaning that first year enrollment will be down 30% from its 2010 peak, despite a sharp drop in admissions standards. Here’s the percentage of applicants admitted to at least one ABA school over the past ten years:

2004: 55.6%
2005: 58.6%
2006: 63.1%
2007: 66.1%
2008: 66.5%
2009: 67.4%
2010: 68.7%
2011: 71.1%
2012: 74.5%
2013: 76.8%
2014: 79.8%

After five straight years of declines, June LSAT administrations were up by 6%, so it’s likely that American law schools are at what is at least a temporary bottom in regard to the cratering of applicant numbers. This plateau, if that’s what it proves to be, rests upon the potentially very thin ice of the continuation of the federal government’s Grad PLUS loan program, which is still loaning out the full cost of attendance to essentially anyone any ABA-certified school chooses to admit, no matter what that school charges. The Grad PLUS program is under increasing political pressure, however, so law school administrators had better not be refinancing that second ski chalet just yet.

Grad PLUS is a classic example of a bad government program, that lots of people are trying to replace with an even worse privatized program, i.e., private educational loans that will continue to be non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, and won’t feature even the limited protection of the income-based soft default provisions available to those who can’t repay their government loans.

And people who think no private lender is going to fork over $200,000 for somebody to go to Thomas Jefferson or Touro are almost certainly wrong about that — private lenders will be more than happy to make even very risky loans at five or six or seven percent over prime, if debtors can’t get rid of those loans in bankruptcy. Getting rid of Grad PLUS will kill some schools that ought to die, but continuing to make private educational loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy — an egregious giveaway to the financial industry created by the 2005 bankruptcy “reform” bill — will ensure that many others that should go out of business will survive, and that a large percentage of their graduates will spend the rest of their lives buried in life-wrecking amounts of debt.

The good news is that even as distorted and perverse a “market” as that for law degrees paid for with no-questions-asked government loans is still not completely immune from the effects of supply and demand: not only have applicant totals fallen nearly in half, but real tuition (sticker minus discounts) is now almost certainly lower than it was three years ago, in defiance of the apparent law that the price of higher education in America can only go up (If nothing else, American law schools have proven that with enough greedy recklessness it’s possible to kill even that heretofore immortal golden goose).

A mordant illustration of the latter fact is provided by the good folks at Indiana Tech’s fledgling law school, who have just admitted a first year class of fifteen intrepid souls, despite cutting tuition to zero. The school thus seems to have found a theoretical and practical limit to P.T. Barnum’s and H.L. Mencken’s most famous dicta.

Fuck Nuance

[ 54 ] August 30, 2015 |

An outstanding polemic/manifesto from Kieran Healy on theorizing as a practice and its internal enemies. The general critiques and lessons here apply well beyond sociology:

When faced with a problem that is hard to solve, or a line of thinking that requires us to commit to some defeasible claim, or a logical dilemma we must bite the bullet on, the nuance-promoting theorist says “But isn’t it more complicated than that?”; or “Isn’t it really both/and?”; or “Aren’t these phenomena mutually constitutive?”; or “How does your theory deal with Structure, or Culture, or Temporality, or Power, or [some other abstract noun]?” This sort of nuance is fundamentally anti-theoretical. It blocks the process of abstraction that theory depends on. By now it covers large parts of sociological theory much as kudzu covers large parts of the South: it is so widespread and well-established that it seems to be a native feature of the landscape. But in fact it is a pernicious and invasive weed.


It is difficult to participate in seminars or attend professional meetings in contemporary Sociology and not hear an audience member say to a speaker that their theory or research is missing something, or has ignored some dimension, or neglected to adequately address some feature of social reality. This is the kudzu of nuance. It makes us shy away from the riskier aspects of abstraction and theory-building generally, especially if it is the first and most frequent response we hear. Instead of pushing some abstraction or argument along for a while to see where it goes, there is a tendency to start hedging theory with particulars. People complain that you’re leaving some level or dimension out, and tell you to bring it back in. Crucially, “accounting for”, “addressing”, or “dealing” with the missing item is an unconstrained process. at is, the question is not how a theory can handle this or that issue internally, but rather the suggestion to expand it with this new term or terms. Class, Institutions, Emotions, Structure, Culture, Interaction—all of them are taken generically to “matter”, and you must acknowledge that they matter by incorporating them. Incorporation is the reintroduction of particularizing elements, even though those particulars were what you had to throw away in order to make your concept a theoretically useful abstraction in the first place.

Cheery Contrarianism About Reproducibility in Psychology

[ 54 ] August 30, 2015 |

The Open Science Collaboration’s attempt at replicating 100 findings from cognitive and social psychology is up, and the headline finding is that only 36% of them succeeded, using the criterion for success of a p-value less than .05 (for a finding in the direction of the original effect, of course) in the replication study. The article is open-access.

Maybe it’s a symptom of the dim view of the state of the field I already had, but I don’t think the news is so terrible, at least compared to what it could have been. There are other ways to evaluate replication success besides clearing the p < .05 bar, and they are included in the paper in Table 1. Combining the original finding and the replication attempt in a meta-analysis, 68% of the findings were significant at p < .05. Admittedly, it's certainly possible that one replication does not provide enough additional subjects for a good estimate of the true effect. This graph is an illustration of how effect sizes can plummet the more subjects you add and your estimate converges toward validity. Less encouragingly, but still a little brighter than the headline number, 47% of the replication studies fell within the 95% confidence interval. (“Confidence interval” is often incorrectly defined. I’ll just outsource the correct definition.) In any case, this:

In the investigation, a whopping 75% of the social psychology experiments were not replicated, meaning that the originally reported findings vanished when other scientists repeated the experiments.

is incorrect reporting. In most cases, the effects didn’t vanish, they got smaller.

Psychology in most instances investigates small effects. That is, there is a ton of variation in behavior we have no idea how to capture in a model, so the effect size, a ratio of signal to noise, will necessarily be small. If effect sizes in psychology were very robust we wouldn’t need inferential statistics. Further, if your study isn’t large enough to reliably detect small effects (statistical power, the ability is a function of effect size and sample size), then by definition, if you found a significant effect at p<.05, you overestimated the effect size. For this reason, I long ago shed any illusion that most studies I read were estimating the effect sizes accurately. For that matter, I don't believe one study, even as an indicator of the direction of the effect, at all. But if a meta-analytic combination of two studies is still yielding a significant result, I read that as, hm, we still don't know the effect size, but maybe we start to tentatively believe something about the direction of the effect, which, if it's consistent, might tell us something theoretically interesting even if it's small.

I think it’s just as well people read this result as bleak, since psychology (like many other fields) very desperately needs to change incentives so that researchers are rewarded for producing replicable work rather than getting their p-values below a line. But my cynical heart is a bit warmed by the fact that psychology is producing some signal in the noise.

Weekend Links

[ 123 ] August 29, 2015 |

I got bumped from a scheduled appearance on Australian Public Radio, but I will survive.  Some readin':

Hollywood Sequel Doctor

[ 120 ] August 29, 2015 |

Key & Peele is, like most sketch shows, hit and miss. This sketch, however, achieves brilliance. Or at least achieves making me laugh my ass off.

“Studios just bring me into oversee things when they ‘bout to drop a deuce.”

It’s called “Hollywood Sequel Doctor.” It’s about a flamboyant guy who crashes a meeting of “Gremlins 2″ writers. He’s Magic Jackson, the Hollywood Sequel Doctor and here’s here to make sequels more fun!!! If you don’t want to watch the sketch, here’s a quick synopsis:  The doc goes around the writers’ table, asking that each writer “create his own Gremlin.” The dumber the idea, the more thrilled with it he seems to be. The sketch is all Peele’s and he’s on fire through the whole thing. Some highlights from his jaunt ’round the table:

To the suggestion that the movie have a “brainy” Gremlin: “You talkin’ about a gremlin with glasses who could talk and sing ‘New York, New York’. That’s brilliant. It’s in the movie. Done.”

To the suggestion Hulk Hogan star: “You sir are a raging psychopath. Don’t let this town take that away from you.”

To the suggestion that the movie have an “electricity” Gremlin: “You just said noun and gremlin, like you playing Mad Libs. You just like a child. You have the brain of a child. You do not have a high IQ, but you haphazardly came up with a gremlin that’s just made out of bolts and is zig-zagging all over the room and is done completely in animation. You a crazy person, and your idea’s in the movie! Done. Next.”


Here’s the thing: the sketch ends with Key’s character saying “You know none of this stuff is actually going to be in the movie, right?” And then the words “All of these things were actually in the movie.” flashes on the screen. Never having seen Gremlins 2, I was like “NUH UH.” Then I wikipediaed it. Holy Magic Jackson. It just makes the sketch more delicious.

So, it’s an homage to crazy sequels. I know a lot of sequels are bad. But some sequels are as good as or even better than the movie that spawned them. Discuss.



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