Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Daughter Test. Meet Psychotica, My Imaginary Daughter.

I had so much fun with Steven Levitt's "daughter test," this one:
It wasn’t until the U.S. government’s crackdown on internet poker last week that I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity?
If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind those activities being illegal.
On the other hand, if my daughter had good reasons to want an abortion, I would want her to be able to have one, so I’m weakly in favor of abortion being legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses.
The “daughter test” makes it clear why I find the U.S. government’s stance against internet poker so ridiculous.  When I imagine my daughter growing up to be a professional poker player, my reaction is to think that would be a great outcome! Maybe not the absolute best outcome (like her being a great economist or professional golfer, two things I’ve always dreamed of being), but certainly not a bad outcome at all.

Ross Douthat then immediately did his own daughter tests! Grace at Momocrat spelled out in detail what in general is wrong with Levitt's ideas and the whole "daughter test."

But what I found hilarious about all this is that the "daughter test" is supposed to be useful whether one has a daughter or not. If it weren't, only people with daughters could use it. And because real daughter are all different individuals, the test wouldn't be that general or useful.

So the "daughter test" is ideally based on an imaginary daughter who appears not to ever become a full-fledged adult. She is daddy's imaginary sugar-n-spice princess, to be protected.

Well, suppose that my imaginary daughter is called Psychotica. She has long claws, poisonous venom and four pairs of eyes. She bathes in blood and eats little Republican economists for snacks. How would I want the world to be arranged for her sake?

It's not that I don't understand the point of the test. If I put the kindest possible interpretation on it, guys like Levitt and Douthat try to get as close as they can to someone vulnerable and fairly powerless but someone they might actually care about. So they pick the idea of a daughter. At least that would force them to think about abortion from a different angle. If one really dove deep into that slight attempt at empathy, one might actually get somewhere!

But the trial is still tied to one's own family and one's own children daughters, even if they are imaginary. It's not the worst possible starting point for the empathy-challenged. At least they are asked to spread out their imagination a tiny bit. But as Grace points out, it's still a very narrow test, affected by class and race considerations, not a general test about all people in the society.

Congratulations, New York State. And Thoughts About the Traditional Marriage

Same-sex marriage is now legal in New York state:
After a long debate, the state Senate approved the marriage bill 33-29 and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed it late Friday.

"New York has finally torn down the barrier that has prevented same-sex couples from exercising the freedom to marry and from receiving the fundamental protections that so many couples and families take for granted," Cuomo said in a statement. "With the world watching, the Legislature, by a bipartisan vote, has said that all New Yorkers are equal under the law. With this vote, marriage equality will become a reality in our state, delivering long overdue fairness and legal security to thousands of New Yorkers."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had been part of a high-powered lobbying effort in favor of allowing same-sex marriages, called it an "historic triumph for equality and freedom."
And indeed it is a triumph of equality and freedom in important practical ways. It allows gays and lesbians the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples have.

I don't want to spit into the punch bowl of these celebrations. But the concepts of "equality and freedom" and "traditional marriage" started waltzing in my head and I cannot resist pointing out that marriage has a bad history when it comes to equality. Women used to lose almost all legal rights when they married, even their own existence as legal persons (except in criminal law, naturally). The wealthy traded their daughters (and their sons, too) in the marriage markets. Marital rape is still not illegal everywhere in the world and so on. And even today most women change their last names when they marry.

This is because the traditional marriage has never been equal. It has included some protections for the women, true, but they look like protections only because of the contrast to how women with children were treated if they were not married. It was better to marry than to burn, though for different reasons than Paul in the Bible meant.

And much of this history is not history but the present in other countries. Thus, it is certainly true that giving lesbians and gays the right to marry is an important advance and good news. But marriage as an institution has a history very different from a contract between equal and fully informed parties. Indeed, it has been the only generally available way for women to make a living. Perhaps it should have been called an industry?

I cannot help thinking that those who are opposed to same-sex marriage might be opposed to the idea of a marriage where they cannot tell, right off the bat, who should be the high priest and who the congregation in the family. In other words, they treasure the patriarchal form of marriage more than the idea that the partners should be of different genders.

After all that grumbling, my congratulations to New York state.

Friday, June 24, 2011

How About Some Real Regulation of the Banksters?

One of the most disheartening aspects of political blogging is that one has to watch the train-wrecks after watching the powerful engines go haywire while everybody pretends that surely they will voluntarily stop before going off the tracks, that surely the engine-drivers know better than mere passengers, that surely we must not intervene with train traffic, because how would anything be transported then?

That is what happened with the financial markets. They broke themselves, mostly because nobody was regulating the eager banksters inventing new products and nobody bothered pointing out that credit default swaps were not exactly the same as insurance.

It's like a game of cards where people invent new rules as the game proceeds and nobody is allowed to point that out or enforce the initial rules.

Income Inequality: Worse in the US Than in Ivory Coast

An interesting article from the Washington Post on the topic of CEO earnings and American income inequality. A snippet:
Repeated surveys by the National Opinion Research Center since 1987 have found that 60 percent or more of Americans agree or strongly agree with the statement that “differences in income in America are too large.”
The uneasiness arises out of the fear that extremes of wealth can unfairly reduce the economic opportunities and political rights of everyone else, according to sociologists. The wealthy, for example, can afford better private schools for their children or acquire political might by purchasing campaign advertising or making campaign donations. Moreover, as millions struggle to find jobs in the wake of the recession, the notion that the very wealthiest are gaining ground strikes some as unfair.
“Americans think income inequality is excessive and have done so consistently for years,” said Leslie McCall, a sociology professor at Northwestern University who is writing a book on the subject. “Their concerns arise when it seems that extreme incomes for some are restricting opportunities for everyone else.”
Whatever people think of it, the gap between the very highest earners and everyone else has been widening significantly.
Income inequality has been on the rise for decades in several nations, including the United Kingdom, China and India, but it has been most pronounced in the United States, economists say.
In 1975, for example, the top 0.1 percent of earners garnered about 2.5 percent of the nation’s income, including capital gains, according to data collected by University of California economist Emmanuel Saez. By 2008, that share had quadrupled and stood at 10.4 percent.
The phenomenon is even more pronounced at even higher levels of income. The share of the income commanded by the top 0.01 percent rose from 0.85 percent to 5.03 percent over that period. For the 15,000 families in that group, average income now stands at $27 million.
In world rankings of income inequality, the United States now falls among some of the world’s less-developed economies.
According to the CIA’s World Factbook, which uses the so-called “Gini coefficient,” a common economic indicator of inequality, the United States ranks as far more unequal than the European Union and the United Kingdom. The United States is in the company of developing countries — just behind Cameroon and Ivory Coast and just ahead of Uganda and Jamaica.

Just behind Cameroon and Ivory Coast and just ahead of Uganda and Jamaica! Now that's a weird rank in international comparisons for the United States. Though at this rate soon this country will be competing for the right to be called the most income-unequal country in the world.

I keep writing about this topic because it is crucially important. With increasing differences in incomes and wealth go increasing differences in political power. That we no longer have fairness in the media, that we no longer can control the financial markets running amok, that we now discuss ways to cut government spending on the poor (which will increase income inequality further) and that the conversation turned from lack of jobs to too much government spending in a heartbeat: All of this has to do with where the power lies.

It is not clear whether anyone is truly representing the bottom 90% of earners in this country, by the way. Politics needs to be financed, and if income is mostly in the hands of the few, it is those hands the politicians must lick.

But neither is it clear why people vote the way they do if they don't like this rapid march towards a Banana Republic. Too many vote for the Republicans.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Grunting in Women's Tennis

Female tennis players grunt too much:
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Ian Ritchie admitted tournament officials were becoming increasingly uneasy about the practice.
As the Championships celebrate its 125th anniversary this year Mr Ritchie, the chief executive of the All England Lawn and Tennis Club (AELTC), said fans were also becoming frustrated with loud players who they believe are spoiling the game.
He blamed younger players, whom he said suffered from an “education problem” about the issue.
On the first day of the SW19 championships, Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, a player often criticised for her wails, edged towards record noise levels as she made her debut on Court No 2.
Noise machines recorded her reach a level of 95 decibels as she shrieked her way through the first round match against Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova.

Spectators looked on amused, not only at the volume but also the length of her roars, which exceeded 1.5 seconds almost every time she hit the ball before play was suspended due to rain.
Mr Ritchie, a former television and news agency executive, admitted that officials would “prefer to see less grunting”.

Do male tennis players grunt?

Weight lifters do grunt or yell which is the same thing as what this article calls "shrieking." As this quote from the linked article notes, grunting can help the athlete:
Fourth seed Azarenka, 21, was forced to defend her noisy play when spectators began to mimic the din two years ago.
“People can do whatever they want but I hope they can respect all the players who grunt, which are about 70 per cent of the whole tour,” she said.
“I have been doing it since I was 10 years old. I wasn’t really strong and that was what helped me to accelerate more, to put more power to the ball.
“I cannot change it, that’s what helps me to play. I have to keep going with the thing that helps me play.”
The obvious question to ask is whether the audiences would be equally bothered by grunting men.

A World of Testosterone? On The Preference For Sons And Sex-Selective Abortions

Mara Hvistendahl's new book, called Unnatural Selection, was reviewed in the Guardian some days ago:
Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl charts how the trend towards choosing boys over girls, largely through sex-selective abortions, is rapidly spreading across the developing world.
While the natural sex ratio at birth is 105 boys born for every 100 girls, in India the figure has risen to 112 boys and in China 121. The Chinese city of Lianyungang recorded an astonishing 163 boys per 100 girls in 2007.
The bias towards boys has been estimated to have caused the "disappearance" of 160 million women and girls in Asia alone over the past few decades. The pattern has now spilled over to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, the Balkans and Albania, where the sex ratio is 115/100.
The unnatural skewing towards male populations has become so pronounced in recent decades that Hvistendahl, a writer for Science magazine, says it has given rise to a new "Generation XY". She raises the possibility that with so many surplus men – up to a fifth of men will be single in northwestern India by 2020 – large parts of the world could become like America's wild west, with excess testosterone leading to raised levels of crime and violence.
Hvistendal's book is about the role Western organizations and objectives may have had in all this. Richard Dawkins wrote a blog post based on the Guardian review:
I'm sure Hvistendahl is right when she says, "Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live", and when she compares it to the American wild west "with excess testosterone leading to raised levels of crime and violence."
But is she right to blame Western science and governments for making sex selection possible? Why do we blame science for offering a method to do bad things? Science is the disinterested search for truth. If you want to do good things, science provides very good methods of doing so. And if you want to do bad things, again science provides the best practical methods. The ability to know the sex of a fetus is an inevitable byproduct of medical benefits such as amniocentesis, ultrasound scanning, and other techniques for the diagnosis of serious problems. Should scientists have refrained from developing useful techniques, for fear of how they might be misused by others?
Hmm. Science may try to be the disinterested search for truth but we shouldn't just assume that all science has reached that ideal. Which is not to argue against Dawkins' basic point: that it is the desire not to have daughters which drives the sex-based abortions.

Hvistendal responds to Dawkins' post, pointing out that the book is not critical of science as such but of certain goals the science was put to:
What do I actually say in my book? I point out that early research into sex determination techniques like amniocentesis and ultrasound went ahead for various reasons. With amniocentesis, scientists were intent on helping couples at risk of passing along to their children sex-linked disorders like hemophilia. With ultrasound, the focus was on monitoring high-risk pregnancies. But beginning in the 1960s a separate group of scientists proposed pushing along research into sex selection—not simply using existing techniques, but actively funding new work—for a reason that had nothing to do with avoiding disease or improving maternal health.
These scientists were interested in sex selection’s significance in the developing world, where studies had shown many couples wanted at least one son. The idea there was not simply to help parents achieve the family composition of their dreams; it was to stop couples in countries like South Korea, India, and Taiwan from continuing to have girls until they got a boy. To quote from just two of the papers and books mentioning this approach at the time:
“A type of research which would have a great effect on population control would be that related to the discovery of methods for sex determination. It has been suggested that if one could predetermine that the first offspring would be a male, it would have a great effect on the size of the family.” – William D. McElroy, BioScience, 1969
“[I]f a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males, then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.” – Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, 1968

The debate about all this is fascinating, and you can follow it at the link to the Dawkins post.

What I wish to write about here is a slightly different question: What would a world with many excess men look like for women?

The usual arguments about this are of two types. The first type is the American wild west argument quoted above: "large parts of the world could become like America's wild west, with excess testosterone leading to raised levels of crime and violence." Never mind that the American wild west is to some extent, at least, a mythical place, created by novels and movies; we get the point of that comparison.

This argument implies that life would be less pleasant for everybody in such a society, not just less pleasant for women.

But it certainly would be less pleasant for women, because they would be subject to kidnapping, sale and reduced freedom of movement, given that they are now valuable commodities in scarce supply. Prostitution would rise and forced childbearing would rise. Women might be excluded from all aspects of the society that are not about sex or reproduction because of their lesser numbers.

Sounds dreadful, right?

The second type is almost the exact reverse. It argues that scarcity would make women more powerful. This resembles economic thinking: If you sell a scarcer product you can dictate the terms and get a higher price. Translated into societal terms, women's status should rise with their scarcity. They could seek better terms in marriage, and those could include more control over their own sexuality, the timing of children and more freedom to work, for instance. Heterosexual men who are not willing to accept these terms would remain without wives.

Neither view seems quite right to me. One is too pessimistic, the other one too optimistic. But I'm afraid that the first one is closer to reality, at least in the short-run. Not perhaps the wild west aspect, but the impact on women in general. The reason is in the lower general status of women and in the identity of those people who have the power of decision-making when it comes to women's lives.

As long as women are valued only as bearers of children and as providers of sex, the abundance of men will not necessarily improve women's relative position in the society. And as long as women cannot make choices about their own lives, the people who do have that right will react to the increasing scarcity of women the way owners of valuable antique vases would react to their increased scarcity. It is not the vases who decide when they will change hands, it is their owners.

The debate about sex-selective abortions leaves the underlying reasons for women's lesser lives unchanged: Girls and women are not wanted. That's its main problem. Banning sex-selective abortions probably wouldn't work in any case. But suppose it did. Women would still be pressured to produce sons, daughters would still not be wanted. Dowry murders would still take place.

Perhaps this is better than the mythical wild west alternative. But it is definitely worse than trying to raise the value of daughters to equal the value of sons in countries with strong son preference.

This is not an impossible task. Focus on those aspects of the society which support male domination: Increase the earnings power of daughters, provide safety nets for old age independently of the existence of a son or two, work to decrease sexist norms and traditions and so on.

I Love My New Keyboard! And Other Divine Tips About Tools

My new keyboard is a Tactile Pro, and worth every single cent of its expensive price (thanks for paying for it, my lovely supporters, winkwink). The teeny-weeny one that came with the iMac gave me pain in the wrists in just two days and made my arms feel like pretzels, even at rest. And the new keyboard makes lovely clickety sounds, just like the keyboards of real authors!

More seriously, I have learned the lesson that proper respect for one's work requires proper tools. As good ones as you can afford. When I was working on the kitchen I bought a miter saw for those really tricky cuts the moldings required. Sadly, I went for the cheapest possible model, with plastic tightening screws. They broke with the third cut. Then I had to go back and argue with the store and so on.

The same applies to most all tools, including the ones we all use daily to clean or cook. If you respect your own work, get the tools that make it easier. I bought an ergonomic broom, for example, because of my weak lower back. That purchase, about twenty dollars, means that I don't get a day of ache if I sweep for more than five minutes. Money well spent, right?

This may not apply to something you do only once. But the small improvements in life, when added up over time, make a big difference for me. A good big pot, a good set of kitchen knives, a good drill. And if you are lucky, you have to buy them only once, which is good for the environment, too.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That Scott Adams Thingie, Again

Adams is the cartoonist who created Dilbert. He also appears to love controversy, perhaps due to the clicks it gives him. What he appears not to love is women, except in the sense of fried steak dinners which really should be something men can steal whenever they feel peckish. So I wasn't going to write about his most recent post on the topic of men the lions and women the steak dinners, sigh, and Jill already did a good job on all this last week. But it's too much fun to avoid and Adams has already achieved his goal of irritating and insulting people all over the place.

Strictly speaking, Adams' women are zebras and his men lions:
If a lion and a zebra show up at the same watering hole, and the lion kills the zebra, whose fault is that? Maybe you say the lion is at fault for doing the killing. Maybe you say the zebra should have chosen a safer watering hole. But in the end, you probably conclude that both animals acted according to their natures, so no one is to blame. However, if this is your local zoo, you might have some questions about who put the lions with the zebras in the same habitat.
This is the metaphor Adams rides on. That lions eat zebras and don't mate with them is no serious problem for him. The metaphor is just applied to men and women:
Now consider human males. No doubt you have noticed an alarming trend in the news. Powerful men have been behaving badly, e.g. tweeting, raping, cheating, and being offensive to just about everyone in the entire world. The current view of such things is that the men are to blame for their own bad behavior. That seems right. Obviously we shouldn’t blame the victims. I think we all agree on that point. Blame and shame are society’s tools for keeping things under control.
The zebras are setting all the rules! Poor lions cannot eat and ravage as they would like, even though that is their basic nature. Men are predators, women are prey.

Adams then predicts that the society will use chemical castration of men in the future, to protect those zebras, and force everyone to take some other chemical to be nice and cuddly. We are gonna live in a zebra world!

Yeah, it's a pretty dismal view of men, as creatures for whom violence in sex is natural and almost unavoidable without chemical castration. It's also a view of the world familiar from some MRA sites where women supposedly rule every single thing. How that view can be supported is always been a mystery to me, but Adams appears to agree with that view.

Finally, it's a very odd view of how people actually live. Lions marry zebras, fairly often! Lions have zebra children and love them! Lions and zebras are often friends! Even the mothers of lions are zebras. None of that appears to matter to Adams. That's because the initial metaphor is wrong.

Though a zebra tattoo all over the face could be fun.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why Would Wal-Mart Hire Any Men?

If you read the comments (yeah, I know) to this blog post about the Wal-Mart case, you will come across the old chestnut about sex discrimination in earnings. It goes like this:
If women were really as good workers as men but were paid less because of discrimination, why would any firm hire men at all?
The implication is an obvious one: Wal-Mart does NOT discriminate against women. The reason women earn less is that they deserve less, being less capable workers. If this were not the case, wouldn't Wal-Mart just hire all women at those lower wages?

Or put in different terms, a firm run by someone who doesn't discriminate against women would use this information to hire an all-female labor force. Because women would cost less to employ for the same levels of productivity, that firm would have higher profits than the discriminating firms. Over time firms of the former kind would take over the industry, and -- presto! -- discrimination would die a natural and painless death.

This argument was initially made by Gary Becker, an economist, a very long time ago. It is not an uncommon argument from conservatives (or from certain types of anti-feminist sites.) That does not mean that it shouldn't be discussed. So let's do that by looking at what is unrealistic about the specific conclusions.

To do that, the model to begin with is Becker's basic model. He covered the concept of discrimination (whether based on race, gender or other group characteristics) as a dislike (or hatred) by either the owner/managers of the firm, by the co-workers or by the customers. AND he covered discrimination in an artificial model where all participants know all relevant information. That information includes the true productivity of every single worker.

Most of the time Becker treated the three possible discriminating identities separately.
Thus, in the first model only owner/managers have a dislike towards workers from a particular group. That, my friends, is the model from which the above conclusion comes, though even then it would only work to eradicate discrimination from the whole industry if the industry was essentially a competitive one. If the industry is not sufficiently competitive, the bigoted owner/managers can hang on and practice discrimination.

Did that read as rather dry? I can't think of a juicier way of telling the story, but basically Becker argues that if the only problem we have consists of some bigoted owner/managers, while everyone else is just so sweet, sufficiently well-lubricated markets can get rid of those nasty bigots, always assuming that everybody knows everything relevant about everyone else.

There are no misconceptions in the model. Even the bigoted owner/managers of a pizza parlor, say, know that Joe and Jane are equally good pizza-bakers. They just hate Jane and are willing to hire her only if they can get her for less money.

This cannot last if we can find at least non-bigoted nice owner/manager.

That's the background of the old chestnut. Becker, having become immersed in the imaginary world of his simple model, concluded that competitive industries would never exhibit any long-run sex or race discrimination. Only oligopolies or monopolies could survive with at least some bigoted owner/managers.

But what happens if we let not only the owner/managers dislike poor Jane but also the customers Jane serves?

Suppose that some customers storm out when Jane serves them but none do when Joe serves them. In what sense are the two still equally productive? Now Jane won't bring as much revenue to the firm, despite being an equally good pizza-baker. In fact, from the firm's point of view she is a worse employee than Joe, because she will contribute less to the firm's profit. And this has nothing to do with her baking ability.

The situation has changed, has it not? Even a sweet non-discriminating pizza parlor owner might have to get rid of Jane now. Even if her baking skills exactly equaled Joe's baking skills.

The point of this sub-model may be the fact that perfect information about a worker's productivity, a completely unrealistic concept, still wouldn't be sufficient to keep the discrimination against Jane separate from her ultimate productivity. Jane would end up either fired or earning less than Joe.

Which sorta cracks the chestnut, at least in service occupations.

The various Becker models can be played with to produce differing predictions. But they all suffer from that perfect information assumption. Information about people's actual productivity is not freely available. If it was, no firm would ever hire someone unsuitable or subject new workers to trial periods and such. Indeed, if everybody knew everything else life would be very different from how it actually is.

More realistic models allow for missing information about the true productivity of workers, at least in the short-run. What takes its place? One possibility is statistical discrimination.

Suppose that Jane has applied for a job, gotten an interview, and now walks into the firm's human resources office, clad in a neat suit, carefully made-up and carrying her resume. How will the representative of the firm on the other side of the desk assess her likely productivity?

One possibility is that the interviewer will use both the information in Jane's resume, the information produced in the interview and the interviewer's own ideas about how people who "look like" Jane have fared in the past. Or how that person regards them in general. That Jane is female is part of that information.

This might mean that the way the interviewer sees women in general could affect the way Jane is viewed. If the company has never hired women before, Jane presents it with a risk. If the interviewer doesn't think much of women's abilities in the advertised job opening, Jane may be rated lower than an equally qualified applicant who just happens to be called Joe.

More realistically, bigoted views about a certain group of workers can seldom be fully separated from their assessed productivity. Someone who dislikes Jane because of her gender will find fault with her pizzas, too. There are few jobs where the measurement of productivity is easily disentangled from the overall impression a worker gives someone. And it's the latter which often determines pay raises and promotions.

Which is a long way to say that firms mostly cannot tell the true productivity of their workers. It's bound up in the same tight bundle with all sorts of views, including possibly discriminatory ones, as well as personal likes and dislikes. A Wal-Mart manager who expects women to quit to have children will promote fewer women to management, not because she or he hates women but because of the use of the class "women" in the evaluation of all individuals in it.

And yet the basic Becker model doesn't even allow for such motives!

Neither does it include social norms. Social norms matter. A lot. Yet they are absent in that old chestnut, as well as in Becker's general work.

To see why they matter, suppose that in a certain society the social norm states that women should not supervise men at work. Suppose, also, that there are quite a lot of trained women in that society who could do the job of supervision, defined in the technical sense. Borrowing from Becker's world, wouldn't an owner/manager who doesn't care about this social norm have a great opportunity there? Just hire all these women for management jobs! They will work for less, given the lack of opportunities the social norm causes, right?

To make things really simple, suppose, finally, that there are enough male workers who don't mind a female supervisor and enough nice customers to patronize this firm. I have set up the whole thing so that great profits are an obvious conclusion.

Until the firebombs and the broken windows and the death-threats, perhaps, to make things lively. If the rest of the society cares enough about the upholding of this particular social norm, the fact that all the direct players don't care about it is irrelevant. The firm which violates the social norm will be punished. Perhaps not with violence but economic boycotts would work, too.

The point of this example is that well-lubricated markets and non-bigoted direct participants may not be enough to end discrimination against women or minorities.

This post has gotten very long, for which I apologize. I could have written even more about the problems of taking simple economic models for reality and the mistakes that causes. And on empirical findings which contradict the conclusions of the old chestnut. And so on.

Poor Wal-Mart

It would be cruel to force Wal-Mart to face class action suits. From May, 2011:
Over all, however, earnings beat analyst expectations, helped by sales strength in international stores and at its Sam’s Club unit. The company said its quarterly profit was $3.4 billion, or 97 cents a share, up from $3.3 billion, or 87 cents a share, a year earlier. Wal-Mart had forecast a profit of 91 to 96 cents a share for the quarter, and analysts expected a 95-cent-a-share profit on average.
No, this is not directly relevant in the context of Wal-Mart and sex discrimination. But it does matter when interpreting yesterday's "quote of the day" about the court case. There are other ways prices could be held low.

Just for the sake of comparisons, some data on the salaries Wal-Mart pays can be found here.

Free Money For Rich People

That is how Atrios named his post about this proposal:
FORTUNE -- The campaign by U.S. multinationals to sell Congress on a corporate tax break for their overseas profits has looked so far like tilting at windmills. Even backers of the so-called repatriation tax holiday have quietly acknowledged it's a political stinker that faces long odds in the Senate.
That may be about to change. Senate sources tell Fortune that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber and a one-time opponent of the holiday, is testing his colleagues' interest in marrying the proposal to a new infrastructure program.
The idea is to encourage corporations keeping a collective total of more than $1 trillion parked abroad to bring it home by temporarily lowering the tax rate to about 5% from 35%. The tax receipts from that holiday then would be dedicated to an infrastructure bank that would help fund new building projects.
My title for this post might have been "They got us by the short and curly," the "they" being those who have power in this country. The increasing inequalities in the income distribution also mean that the power gets concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. And the same hands in different arenas of public life.

Now contrast and compare all this with what is happening to the less fortunate in this country. No, the women of Wal-Mart don't get bribes while being told that ten dollars an hour is a fair wage after decades of experience and good performance.

Belated Happy Father's Day!

I forgot that it was yesterday. I hope you had fun.

Don't Mind the Man Behind the Curtain

It may be painful to read banking or economics posts but less so if you look for the man (or woman) behind the curtain, along the lines of the Wizard of Oz. This post is a good example of the fascinating type. At first glance it looks to be about something really yawn-inducing. At second glance you see How It Is Done.

A snippet:
Capital matters. Let me put that another way. The current fight over additional capital requirements for the banking industry, eye-glazing though it is, also happens to be the most important reform moment since the financial crisis broke out three years ago. More important than the wrangling over Dodd-Frank. More important than the ongoing effort to regulate derivatives. More important even than the jousting over the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If investment banks like Merrill Lynch had had adequate capital requirements, they would not have been able to pile on so much disastrous debt. If A.I.G. had been required to put up enough capital against its credit default swaps, it’s quite likely that the government would not have had to take over the company. If the big banks had not been able to so easily game their capital requirements, they might not have needed taxpayer bailouts. A real capital cushion would have allowed the banks to absorb the losses instead of the taxpayers. That’s the role capital serves.
Adequate capital hides a plethora of sins. And because, by definition, it forces banks to use less debt, it can also prevent sins from being committed in the first place. “There is no credible way to get rid of bailouts except with capital,” says Anat Admati, a finance professor at Stanford Business School and a leading voice for higher capital requirements. “The only cure is capital,” says Daniel Alpert, a founding managing partner of Westwood Capital. A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial applauding the recent suggestion by Daniel Tarullo, a Federal Reserve governor, that the biggest banks hold as much as 14 percent of assets in capital. I couldn’t agree more.
Which is why a hearing held last week by the House Financial Services Committee was such a sorry sight. Under the guise of examining whether the new financial regulations — including proposed capital requirements — were making American banks less competitive, the Republican majority peppered U.S. regulators, including Tarullo, with skeptical questions about the need for increased capital requirements. It was pathetic.
As pathetic as the end-of-season bargain price sale on women's work at the Supreme Court yesterday? You decide.

And how about this article form a few days' ago?
Arguing that the U.S. food supply is 99 percent safe, House Republicans cut millions of dollars Thursday from the Food and Drug Administration’s budget, denying the agency money to implement landmark food safety laws approved by the last Congress.
Saying the cuts were needed to lower the national deficit, the House also reduced funding to the Agriculture Department’s food safety inspection service, which oversees meat, poultry and some egg products. And lawmakers chopped $832 million from an emergency feeding program for poor mothers, infants and children. Hunger groups said that change would deny emergency nutrition to about 325,000 mothers and children.
The reference to the emergency feeding program for poor mothers, infants and children is to the WIC program. It's astonishingly effective. Even those who try to kill it allow that. But it's helping women and actually born children so it is not allowed.

So I got a Mac

The change has its problems. I still haven't managed to extract any of my research files from the dead computer. Lots of topics I wished to cover, from Saudi women's driving protest to the submissive wives' club of Indonesia and everything between them. And I don't have my bookmarks.

But even if I had the data using a new computer is like learning to walk again. Hard to chew gum (read:write) at the same time as one figures the use of the right and left foot.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Quote of the Day on the Wal-Mart Case

Is certainly this one:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups applauded the ruling. The Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento said the court, by rejecting "a costly and unjustified litigation threat," made possible "lower prices for things we need, and more employment opportunities for all - especially women."
I love it. If it lowers the prices at the store, we should do it!

And about the litigation threat being unjustified, well, have a look at this earlier post I wrote.

Welcome to Wal-Mart: The Discriminating Employer!

The aisles to the left of you have low-wage dead-end jobs for women, the aisles to the right of you have better-paid careers and management opportunities for men only!

No, this is not discriminatory at all because the headquarters of Wal-Mart have hired me with full freedom to run this store and they don't have a general policy of discrimination. And no, that the same seems to happen in many Wal-Mart stores has nothing to do with anything but people like me being hired to run those stores! That's how we generally think, you know. It's not the fault of Wal-Mart.

This appears to be the thinking of Justice Scalia in the Wal-Mart sex discrimination case:
Scalia concludes that (even in advance of a lawsuit) the women could not show that Wal-Mart "operated under a general policy of discrimination." That's partly because "Wal-Mart's announced policy forbid sex discrimination" and partly because he rejects the plaintiffs' claim that Wal-Mart's "policy" of allowing discretion by local supervisors over employment matters constitutes a policy at all. As Scalia sees it, in giving local managers so much leeway in making personnel decisions, Wal-Mart actually established "a policy against having uniform employment practices." It's not Wal-Mart discriminating against women. It's just all these men doing it, and God knows men don't have unconscious biases and prejudices against women.
I expected a five Justice decision that would make class actions lawsuits more difficult. After all, that's what the Republican Justices are there for: to take care of the firms and the people with money and to make their lives easier. That class action suits might be one of the few ways that poor people could seek justice in discrimination cases does not matter to them. That not having to face class action lawsuits makes life more comfortable for firms does matter to them.

What I did not expect was the extremely open bias of the five Republican men, making decisions about the lives of poor women, essentially:
In a ruling that raises new barriers to class action lawsuits against large nationwide companies, the U.S. Supreme Court derailed a sexual discrimination suit against Wal-Mart on Monday by more than 1 million female employees, saying the female plaintiffs failed to show that any of the retail giant's policies had denied them equal pay and promotions.
The justices unanimously overruled federal courts in San Francisco that had allowed all women who worked for Wal-Mart since December 1998 to join in a single nationwide suit seeking back pay. But on the most critical issues in the case, a five-member majority led by Justice Antonin Scalia set tough new standards for future suits:
-- A company that allows local managers to decide pay and promotions can't be held responsible for sex-based corporate disparities unless they can be tied to some company-wide practice that amounts to "a general policy of discrimination."
-- A company whose policies denied women equal pay would be entitled to individual hearings on the amount due to each worker. An appeals court would have allowed hearings for a sample group of employees to determine back pay for the entire class, an approach that would save time and money but, Scalia said, would be unfair to the company.
The court did not address the merits of the plaintiffs' claims that female Wal-Mart employees were paid less than men in every region and were under-represented at every level of management.

It took some time for me to retrieve my jaw from the floor after reading through that. Not the unanimous bit which has to do with a technical (though important) question, but the list of issues the Five Frat Brothers presented us.

Take that first point on the list: If the company headquarters can hire anyone on a local level and give them complete autonomy in hiring, to the point of letting them discriminate, the company is not at fault! That takes out the teeth of most anti-discrimination laws when it comes to big firms.

And the second point means that each person considering suing a large firm will now have much higher legal costs in doing so. Fewer people will sue because they cannot afford it. Good news for the firms.

Finally, the third point is one of those which I don't understand. Suppose that you show Wal-Mart pays women less and promotes them less often than other firms in the same industry, as was shown by at least one study. This says nothing about Wal-Mart as an employer? Pardon me while I pull all my scales off.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Presidential charity and AIDS relief (by Skylanda)

Note: This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the identification of the first cases of AIDS - first called GRID (gay-related immuno-deficiency) - in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The transformational nature of this remarkable disease and the immense scars it has railroad-tracked across the world in the intervening decades should at least give us a minute of pause to consider the nature of poverty, disease, and inequality, and the way in which these things intertwine to drive health and mortality in our own country and abroad. I wrote the article below a year ago but never posted it; though the newsy parts are a year out of date, the overarching themes - I believe - are still relevant today, and bear repeating.

Next summer, just before independence day in 2011, a somber anniversary will mark the third decade since a handful of doctors in New York and Los Angeles noticed a peculiar constellation of pneumonias, skin cancers, and intractable diarrhea in otherwise healthy young male patients - patients who would go on to die as their immune systems withered into the dread affliction that we would come to call AIDS. In the intervening thirty years we have seen the AIDS pandemic transform from a disease of the globally connected to a disease of the global poor - as well becoming a chronic condition in wealthy nations while remaining a fatal infection in poor regions. Nowhere is this metamorphosis more apparent than in the recent flap over President Obama’s pull-back of AIDS funds to Africa at a time when Americans are struggling with basic needs at home. Desmond Tutu recently took Obama to task on the pages of the New York Times for failing to expand the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program as much as promised on the campaign trail, adding only several hundred million rather than the promised $1 billion per year.

Support for AIDS drugs in Africa has been held up as shining moment of humanism in the otherwise dark years of the Bush reign, an anomalous moment of unbridled benevolence that defies an era shadowed by the unresolved neo-imperialist invasions of two sovereign nations and the spectre of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But the kindly glow surrounding the last ten years of US foreign aid for HIV in Africa belies another story, one far less charitable than the Republican propaganda machine at home and abroad would paint the legacy of the younger Bush - and revisiting the history of Bush’s AIDS program is key to understanding why Obama’s measured approach might underlie a wiser vision than Bush’s well-funded jump into the arena of AIDS charity.

In 2003 PEPFAR was initiated to provide a targeted plan for HIV-related aid in the hardest-hit regions of the world - twelve nations in Africa, two countries in Latin America, and one in Southeast Asia. PEPFAR boasted a multi-pronged plan for AIDS relief: over half of the initial $15 billion earmark would go toward direct treatment, and the rest would be split between palliative care, prevention, and care for AIDS orphans.

This historic public-health outlay toward drug acquisition claimed to put expensive medications in the hands of suffering patients unable to afford brand-new patented drugs freshly minted off the HIV pharmaceutical pipeline. In reality, the brain-child behind PEPFAR was a most curious - and decidedly uncharitable - source: the American pharmaceutical lobby itself, in a quest to protect its very lucrative market for antiretroviral AIDS drugs from the ravages of generic knock-offs rapidly emerging in industrializing second-world nations.

The peak of the pre-antiretroviral AIDS epidemic coincided with a curious moment in the history of globalization of trade. Even as the so-called second-world nations like Brazil, India, and Thailand were scrambling to join the spoils of the industrialized health era by knocking off expensive medications patented in first-world nations at cut-rate prices for use in the third world, the benefits of playing by the rules were becoming apparent, and nations at forefront of the generic pharmaceutical production gradually agreed to abide by international patent regulations on the lucrative drug trade. India, for example, signed onto the World Trade Organization in 1995 and was given 10 years to align its generics pharmaceutical production with world-wide patent law - a nascent industry upon which its burgeoning middle class is disproportionately dependent, largely due to a post-colonial era law that banned the patenting of food and drug products and fostered the domestic generic medication market. The WTO has no legal means by which to enforce intellectual property patented in one nation, but the threat of embargo against member nations who violate patents generally carries enough weight to prevent overt transgressions. The intervening decade saw radical advances in the treatment of cancer, HIV, and inflammatory conditions - just the sort of diseases that command a premium price for life-altering compounds, many of which must be taken for years to maintain effect. At a time when the AIDS cause was emerging from the ghetto of raucous demonstrations on the streets of San Francisco & New York to the upscale world of red-dress gala fundraisers on the doorsteps of Beverly Hills, first-world pharmaceutical companies were facing down the very serious prospect of losing an entire continent’s worth of profits to the generic knock-off market: if Africa could buy antiretrovirals from India or Brazil at a fraction of the cost, there would be no reason for tens of millions of desperately ill people to purchase the drugs from GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott, or Bristol-Myers Squibb for premium prices.

PEPFAR entered the fray the same year that Bush was ramping up support for the Iraq invasion, with all the warts and freckles of a pork-barrel gimme. The US Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 was fought and passed by a coalition of admittedly strange bedfellows, including the re-energized religious right (which, fresh from a long stint of blaming AIDS on a host of sinful iniquities, had unearthed a deep fount of salvageable souls in the epidemic), the increasingly verbose celebrity quarter in the form of Bono, and a newly-formed non-governmental organization from the pharmaceutical lobby which generously named itself the Coalition for AIDS Relief in Africa. Under the umbrella of a larger trade organization called the Corporate Council on Africa, prominent makers of HIV drugs - backed by the neo-liberal PR think-tank the Hudson Institute (whose notable other endeavors have included obfuscating science and policy on behalf of the tobacco industry and ominously equating Obama’s health care reform with nefarious quasi-Soviet intentions) - were successful in earmarking billions of dollars for pharmaceuticals alone and placing such stringent regulations on the drug sourcing so as to virtually guarantee that no generic knock-offs would be bought with those funds . In effect, PEPFAR enacted a massive subsidy of first-world pharmaceutical makers under the guise of charity - a sleight-of-hand so seamless that activists even applauded a law that set the stage for an invasion of inappropriately priced drugs and abstemious finger-waving at the expense of mass treatment and culturally-appropriate prevention programs.

In 2005 the US government saved millions of dollars by quietly tanking the anti-generics clause of the 2003 statute and accepting generic drugs that met World Health Organization quality standards into PEPFAR programs, but other problematic aspects of PEPFAR remained until the waning days of the Bush administration: a heavy-handed abstinence-only approach to sexual transmission of the disease, which decoupled the intricately linked issues of reproduction and sexual health; the open disbursal of funds to agencies that refuse to engage with the LBGT community; a ban on effective harm-reduction techniques such as needle exchanges; and an anti-prostitution clause demanding that sex workers sign an oath forswearing their trade - a particularly burdensome piece that put an untenable barrier between service providers and one of the most high-acuity populations in the heterosexual AIDS epidemic. (PEPFAR’s problems did not end there; its first appointed head - Randall Tobias, already criticized for conflict-of-interest over his former role as CEO of Eli Lilly - ended his diplomatic career in disgrace when his abstinence-only educational mission was tainted by his association with a notorious DC-based escort service from whom he admitted to receiving massages.)

Unsurprisingly, PEPFAR’s notable success has been a drop in mortality of 10% in first five years as the scaling up of treatment funds richocheted around the developing world, according to a 2009 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. PEPFAR’s glaring travesty has been a wholesale failure of prevention, where five of the original fifteen target nations now a run an HIV prevalence in the double digits (the same study noted that the total number of people living with AIDS did not change at all, and the incidence - that is, the number of new cases - was not measurable with statistics kept by PEPFAR over that time). The tiny south African kingdom of Swaziland - which began receiving PEPFAR funds in 2007 - boasts the dubious distinction of suffering the world’s highest HIV rate: over twenty-five percent. Fully one of every four Swazis alive today carries the virus in their body - and almost one out of every two pregnant women in the tiny nation now harbors some spectrum of the disease - from the timebomb of HIV to the onslaught of full-blown AIDS. (Some believe the rate is not higher only because so much of the young, productive segment of the population has already died of it.)

Moreover, antiretroviral drugs are not benevolent, and they are not cures. They are profitable agents of life extension that come at a high financial price and severe physical cost: at the mildest, chronic stavudine users develop a disfiguring (and stigmatizing) redistribution of facial fat known as lipodystrophy; at worst, nevirapine commonly causes a severe allergy-like skin reaction called Stevens-Johnson syndrome that is brutally painful if not fatal in itself. In America physicians handle severe Stevens-Johnson cases with intensive care units and burn protocols; in sub-Saharan Africa, one finds little assistance for the intricacies of care for those who do not tolerate the medicinal miracles we bestow on them, and severe drug complications themselves are often as fatal as AIDS itself. Without top-tier infrastructural support beneath the bottles and jars of little pills, antiretroviral drugs become a poor answer to a question whose solution can only be prevention: stopping the disease from spreading in the first place.

Given PEPFAR’s checkered history, one might be tempted to understand the origins of the program as its most cynical core: a fatally efficient means of guaranteeing a continued market for profitable AIDS drugs far into the future - and a guaranteed payer so long as PEPFAR exists - by emphasizing drug distribution over prevention and engaging in high-minded and heavy-handed prevention tactics that were destined to fail. Though the generics ban fell away from the program shortly after its inception, the persistent theme of medical treatment over any reasonable approach to prevention remained the thorn in the rose of PEPFAR until the day that Bush left office in 2009. Seen through that lens, PEPFAR fits perfectly into Bush’s larger foreign policy doctrine: paternalistic, voraciously exploitative under a sheen of charity, back-handedly engaged with the highest bidder and loudest lobbyist, and with a keen knife-edge of fundamentalism that fused the abstinence-only PEPFAR rule with seemingly unrelated policy flubs like the global gag rule - which together paired to make his reign a particularly deadly time for women struggling with health and fertility in developing nations. And given that onerous history, one needs not wonder why Obama may be reluctant to follow blindly in his predecessor’s footsteps without a wholesale retooling of the whole paradigm of AIDS support to Africa.

Neither accolades for Bush or condemnation for Obama are in order at this juncture. Nor is a total junking of the treatment model - no small part of the PEPFAR legacy is a world where ten nations worldwide are now coping with known double-digit HIV prevalence rates, and the uncomfortable truth is that the majority of carriers in the world are unaware of their status: there is no escape now from the long, hard road of mass treatment with antiretroviral drugs.

But while PEPFAR is in limbo under Obama’s reign - with a questionable budget and unclear future - now is the time to pressure Obama to pull together a real strategy for AIDS relief around the world: a strategy not based on dual loyalties and appeasing lobbyist agendas, but on creating a future that looks profoundly different than the holocaust of the last thirty years. Envisioning this future requires us to remember the tactics that have proven to work, beyond the piecemeal outcomes measure of number of drugs dosed out: evidence-based approaches to education; balancing cultural appropriateness with cultural change; peer support for testing and compliance with treatment; social marketing campaigns that use sophisticated techniques borrowed from the world of advertising to move messages and effect behavior change; harm reduction, including condoms for sex workers and needle exchanges for drug addicts (as well as the poorly-heeded call to end the drug war itself); infrastructure to ensure that health care centers are not contributing to blood-born contamination; empowerment of women over their sexual choices; and most of all, community development to place the future of this work in the hands of those who will sustain it - not in the hands of the grinding international aid bureaucracy. In other words, effective AIDS relief needs to leave the model of charitable convenience and moralistic finger-waving, and grow up into the world of social justice.

No one could not reasonably expect that kind of radical policy departure from the waning Bush dynasty, and one should certainly not ignore the nagging voice of the skepticism that something rotten underlay the untarnished glow of the original PEPFAR charity. But we can expect better from Obama, if only we demand it of him. Desmond Tutu was correct; now is not the time to back down from aggressive AIDS intervention in Africa - now is the time to move forward: thoughtfully, carefully, re-imagining a global future in which a true partnership emerges between American generosity and the resilience of a continent not yet beaten by three decades of battering by the dual demons of poverty and a plague that no one could have conceived of in that fateful summer twenty-nine years ago. Reimagining a future in which the grim spectre of AIDS finally loosens its grip on Africa’s future.

Cross-posted from my recently relocated and relaunched blog, America, Love it or Heal It.