Thought Leaders in the College of Letters and Science

In the College of Letters and Science's magazine released in December 2016, we featured faculty and graduate students who provided expertise and insight into the big public issues of the day, from the parenting transgender kids, the political divide and immigration to climate change and poverty.

Transgender and Orlando Massacre

Parenting Transgender Children

While the nation debates transgender students’ access to bathrooms, Krysti Ryan has been studying how parents make room in their families for notions of gender that go beyond conventional concepts of male and female.

Through in-depth interviews, Ryan, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, found many similarities in the journeys of 36 parents who are supportively raising children who are “gender diverse,” identifying as transgender, agender (no gender), bigender (both genders), gender-fluid (boy on some days and girl on others), or gender-nonconforming (expressing preferences that persistently diverge from the expectations of their gender).

Ryan found that mothers play a central role as advocates for their children, often becoming experts in issues of gender diversity, but in doing so, reinforce gender stereotypes of women as the primary nurturers of children. In fact, it is their maternal passion for ensuring their children’s happiness, even as their own social constructs of gender are challenged privately and publicly, that enables many mothers to rethink gender altogether.

She presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle in August.

Expertise in the Aftermath of Orlando Massacre

Gregory Herek, professor of psychology, has long held an international reputation for his expertise on anti-gay violence. A massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June—the worst mass shooting in U.S. history—put Herekin the national media once again.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Herek urged caution against speculating that the shooter could have been motivated by self-hatred as a closeted gay man. Herek told NPR host Ari Shapiro that “it’s really not a very useful way of trying to understand those acts.”

The New York Times also quoted Herek in a story on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people being more likely than any other minority group to be the targets of hate crimes.

While the majority of society may be becoming more tolerant, that cultural shift may push people who strongly oppose marriage equality to extremes, he told the Times: “They may feel that the way they see the world is threatened, which motivates them to strike out in some way, and for some people, that way could be in violent attacks.”

Combatting Climate Change

Students collaborated on real-world greenhouse gas reduction projects in a new class offered this fall by physics professor Lloyd Knox. The 12 students, who come from a variety of majors, were grouped into multidisciplinary consulting teams and taught how to manage a project.

“Many climate-related challenges are best tackled by bringing together people with diverse talents,” said Knox. A cosmologist who studies the beginning of the universe, Knox said he will continue to learn alongside his students. “I’m interested in applying my skills as a physicist to climate change-related challenges, but I have a lot to learn,” he said.

New Report on Poverty Shows Safety Net Works

The national poverty rate declined last year from 14.8 to 13.5 percent, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report. That means 3.5 million fewer Americans lived in poverty, including about a million fewer children.

“Don’t believe claims that anti-poverty programs fail,” says Ann Huff Stevens, professor of economics and director of the Center for Poverty Research. “Our current safety net programs lift millions out of poverty.”

The U.S. Census supplemental poverty measure shows that refundable tax credits alone, which include the Earned Income Tax Credit, lifted 9 million people out of poverty in 2015. A higher minimum wage and wider access to quality vocational education programs could reduce poverty even further, she says.

“As a rich nation,” she says, “the United States has an obligation to reduce poverty for adults and children. It’s a question of political will, not a lack of ability.”

U.S. Census Bureau reports on poverty
Center for Poverty Research response

Political Insights

Perspectives on Conspiracies and the Political Right

Kathryn Olmsted, professor of history, has written four books about the influence of anticommunism on American politics, including Real Enemies, on conspiracy theories and, her latest, Right Out of California, about the origins of today’s conservative movement. The 2016 election put her in the limelight on both topics of conspiracies and the political right.

In articles in Newsday and the Toronto Star, Olmsted said then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump set a historical precedent in giving credence to conspiracy views.

“I think that’s what’s different. It’s that these sites and these purveyors of conspiracy theories that have always existed are now advising presidential candidates,” she said in the Star’s Sept. 14 article, “Body Double? Secret Earpiece? Donald Trump Fuels Hillary Clinton Conspiracy Theories.”

Olmsted’s most recent book provides a new context for understanding the conservative movement. Right Out of California traces the birth of conservatism to 1930s California and a counterrevolution to the New Deal, rather than a commonly accepted view that it was reaction to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. “If she’s right, it means the way we understand American politics today is due for some profound alterations,” wrote Salon magazine.

On the Political Divide in America

Christopher Hare, assistant professor of political science, looked deep below the surface to explore the moral roots of America’s gaping political divide.

Hare and a colleague at the University of Southern Mississippi compared the political and moral views of more than 35,000 people from a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

They found that voters, regardless of religious affiliations, were divided politically according to their basic beliefs in the source of moral truth:

  • On the right were people who believe morality is absolute and comes from God.
  • In the center were people who see morality as absolute but determined by scientific or rational thought.
  • On the left, voters see morality as relative—based on the values of individuals or groups.

“The familiar divides we see in American politics are hardly superficial, but instead reflect fundamental differences in the ways individuals acquire and conceptualize moral knowledge,” Hare said.

Offering Historical Context on Gold Standard

Eric Rauchway, professor of history and author of The Money Makers and other books on U.S. policy and the economy, gave New York Times readers a primer on the gold standard and the reasons why President Franklin D. Roosevelt abandoned it.

“With enough time, the gold standard can create a deflationary spiral that brings an economy completely to a halt — which is what happened in the Great Depression,” Rauchway wrote in an op-ed essay, “Why Republicans Still Love the Gold Standard,” after the November 2015 GOP presidential debate.

“Why is a discredited policy now attractive to Republicans? The gold standard suits a political moment,” he wrote. “Tying the dollar to an arbitrary quantity of shiny metal binds policymakers’ hands, robbing them of their discretion to act: The Central Bank can’t adjust the money supply to counteract crises or prevent them. These limits, for many Republicans, are good things. The gold standard is essentially the monetary equivalent of a government shutdown.”

The Economics of Immigration

With immigration a top issue during the U.S. presidential election, the national news media frequently turned to an expert at UC Davis: economics professor and chair Giovanni Peri

In an interview in July titled “The Economics Behind the Boom in Anti-Immigration Sentiment,” Bloomberg Radio described Peri as “one of the top economists in the field of human migration.”

The Los Angeles Times similarly described him as a leading authority on the subject. The Times and other media cited Peri’s research that shows immigrants are not hurting U.S. workers’ wages or employment.

In a September Washington Post article, “Things are getting a lot better for the working poor,” Peri said rising incomes for Hispanics and immigrants contributed to an overall increase for households in the Western states.

The connection between immigrants’ incomes and the labor market “is an important sign of how much they are really contributing to the economy,” Peri told the Post. “They are almost all working families, almost all working in jobs for which there is demand.”