Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Ostrich Dance

Exquisite. Choreographed by Asadata Dafora, performed by Charles Moore:

Irene Prep Open Thread (by res ipsa)

Was very busy these past few days. In addition to navigating the usual insanity of work, attending this strange, record-breaking baseball game, and treating The GC to dinner at this vegan restaurant (it was good!), there was hurricane prep, i.e., making sure I had flashlight (check), portable radio (check), batteries for both (check), containers of water (check), and a full bathtub (well, the plan was to do that when things really get going here, i.e., later this evening). But then some friends got a mandatory evacuation courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg, and so I lent them my place for the weekend. They'll get the benefit of my prep, and I'll spend today at The GC's, bringing in outdoor potted plants, securing the screens, putting the outdoor furniture in the basement, and harvesting whatever can reasonably be harvested from what's left of my sad little veggie garden), and then it will be cooking, watching movies, reading, looking at the cat, and not a whole lot else.

What to read? Well, a number of people have recommended this John Tierney, article called Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? , so I'll check that out. I'll finish the Teju Cole and maybe start on Good Neighbors, which two friends have recommended. As for movies, there's the latest Mike Leigh -- Another Year -- as well as Queen To Play. The movies are contingent on the power supply, of course. As long as a tree doesn't fall on The GC's house, I think we'll be okay.

Some people here are fed up with the media hype and muscular government-mandated precautions (e.g., widespread, evacuation of low-lying areas, an unprecedented mass transit shut-down, and even casino closings (/eye roll) etc.), but this is my calculus: during a severe storm, maybe fifteen out 100 people do something ill-advised (e.g., drive through a puddle of indeterminate depth, go to the beach to watch the surf, walk across the George Washington Bridge), but with this degree of media and official anticipation, maybe only five will do so. That seems worth it to me. Or maybe I'm dreaming.

Stay safe and dry, everyone

Friday, August 26, 2011

Goodnight, Irene (by Suzie)

You cause me to weep, you cause me to mourn
You cause me to leave my home
-- "Goodnight Irene"
My thoughts are with the people on the East Coast tonight. I also want to acknowledge my friends in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast who must be feeling a bit of PTSD, watching this huge hurricane.

As usual, I try to find female singers who bring a different perspective to songs made famous by men, which, in this case, would be Lead Belly. Before him, Gussie L. Davis sang a similar song. In some versions, the man wants a girl/woman who is too young for him, and he threatens to kill himself if he can't have her.

Against Medicare: A populist argument against a popular program (by Skylanda)

In 1965, a decades-long legislative and social battle culminated in the passage of one of America’s most enduring and populist social programs: government-sponsored health coverage for the elderly and disabled that you know by the name Medicare. So devastatingly popular is this subsidized coverage that it has spawned one of the iconic moments of irony in the decades-long battle over the soul of American health care reform: all the variations – self-deprecating and entirely serious – of the “Government hands off my Medicare!” genre of political protest.

Medicare is a foundationally popular social program for good reason. Along with Social Security, it has transformed the retirement years. Once the province of poverty and privation, the elder demographic has evolved from an unrepresented minority to a powerful force with its own lobby in Washington. Federal subsidies for health care and retirement funding in no small part facilitated the development of the nuclear family – transferring the financial care of elders from the family unit to the government dole and freeing the nuclear unit from in-home care of elders that has shaped the family structure for most of human history; the net benefits and losses of this radical restructuring are arguable, but the effect on the American social landscape is nevertheless marked. The combined forces of Medicare and Social Security have – somewhat unintentionally – helped make the retirement years a golden age, a second life, a well-deserved respite from long years of work before the senescent years of true old age.

Set all of these successes aside for a moment (as well as the fact that Medicare is precisely as socialist as Canada’s wildly successfully experiment with government-sponsored health care), as there is a sinister underbelly to Medicare that is seldom if ever acknowledged in the health care reform debate.

Medicare is designed to pick up two general populations that the bulk of insurers are not fond of: those over the age of 65, and the disabled. (Medicaid, contrarily, is designed to cover the poor.) Medicare cherry-picks its patients in the reverse manner of the majority of insurers: whereas private insurers cull these two expensive, resource-intensive populations from the rolls, Medicare preferentially takes on these same difficult groups by legal mandate. This is a welcome relief for these patients, who would indeed find it very difficult to obtain coverage on the open market; almost by definition, these are the patients who have spent a lifetime acquiring a variety of pre-existing conditions and other red flags that would certainly land their applications for private insurance in the rejection pile.

Medicare serves as a relief valve for private insurance. Private insurers maintain profitability under the guarantee that the most cost-ineffective patients will eventually shift elsewhere. Insurers are safe in the knowledge that their entire client roles are only temporary burdens – the onset of age or permanent infirmity means an automatic shift off the private insurance rolls and onto the public dole. This is a phenomenon known as “cost-shifting.” It has some profound influences on the way that private insurers treat their patients and the way that patients behave in the years leading up to Medicare coverage.

First and foremost, the promise of Medicare means that private insurers have very little incentive to emphasize or pay for preventive care and early effective care for chronic conditions. Appropriately applied preventive care has been shown to reduce cost again and again, but this financial principle only works if the long-term cost of care falls onto the same agency. If cost shifts off an agency as soon as a person becomes elderly or truly debilitated, the return on investment for preventive care becomes very minimal, and private insurers thus have a minimal impetus to pay for preventive care or early care for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and the like.

Systems where a single agency cares for patients from birth to death have no means of cost-shifting; they absorb the consequences – positive or negative – of all health policy. When I lived in Britain for a year, I established myself at a local National Health Service clinic for routine care. I honestly answered a health history questionnaire by noting that I had suffered some bouts with asthma; it just so happens that I have the variety of asthma that causes a prolonged and persistent cough with every passing virus – the kind of cough that makes people on the subway glare at you and move several seats away – but I have never required emergency care for this mild condition. Nevertheless, every time I stopped into my local clinic for any incidental issue, time was taken to inquire about the frequency of inhaler use, peak flow measurements, and even my knowledge of the quickest route between my home and the nearest Accident & Emergency facility; adjustments were made to improve control of the condition and prevent admissions to the hospital. These inquiries were boiler-plate for asthmatics, and I watched my GP tick boxes on a pre-set template as I answered; this was just one small part of the NHS goal to reduce costs at all points of care possible. In the United States, I have never been asked about my asthma unless I brought it up. Because the NHS takes care of all British citizens from birth to death under a single budgetary umbrella, they have taken preventive measures to new heights – and have been rewarded for these efforts with an average life span a year longer than the average in the United States, achieved while spending half the GDP by percentage on health care as does the United States.

Beyond the lack of incentive for insurers to institute top-notch systems for prevention, many middle-aged people – especially in the recession era circumstance of reduced employment leading up to the retirement years – simply minimize their insurance coverage and cross their fingers that nothing devastating blow out of the winds of fate before Medicare kicks in on the magical date of their 65th birthday. Under-insurance (especially high-deductible indemnity plans) in this demographic often results in delayed care for burgeoning issues of routine age-related conditions like high blood pressure, an issue compounded by missed targets for preventive care like colonoscopies and mammogram. Because private insurers are not invested in the health of individuals beyond the age of 65 – and because the agency that is responsible for health after the age of 65 has no access to patients before that age – many Americans roll into the retirement years far behind the eightball, battling back years of marginally neglected health with only the voodoo insurance of crossed fingers. The promise of Medicare at 65 results in complacency in the years when age-related conditions are rearing their heads and preventive care should be ramping up.

Worse yet, the understated promise of disability-based Medicare means that private insurers have far less incentive than they should to provide services to help with strict control of chronic diseases like diabetes. This problem is particularly pointed in the case of renal dialysis (for which uncontrolled diabetes is the leading indication); by a strange quirk of history, the phenomenally expensive condition of being dialysis-dependent automatically qualifies an individual for Medicare coverage, and as soon as this condition arises, the entire cost shifts off the private insurer. One can bet that if private insurers were looking down the barrel of paying the total cost for every current diabetic who may potentially need renal dialysis in the future, their incentive to get every diabetic under control would rise in grand proportion to those costs that they presently shift to the government. The existence of Medicare – by allowing cost-shifting at most critical moments of age and infirmity – allows for a health care pseudo-system that banks and profits on the avoidance of preventive and early care for all manner of disease, dumping the resultant cost on the public dime.

Medicare, by all measure, is a false god – a shell game built on good intent but a 19th-century understanding of health care and aging, a system drawn from a time when rescuing seniors from poverty was a reasonable goal but building a functioning health care system was not yet on the radar. Medicare is a safety net, and America loves safety nets. We love soup kitchens, homeless shelters, free clinics, and used clothes bins for poor kids in the basement of local churches. We like to base our systems of wealth redistribution on charity instead of the justice of equal access, blindingly forgetting to notice that every other wealthy industrial nation has long-since ceased to rely on charity, instead building a common and formal system for social good – and that our charity-based model is the hallmark of third-world nations. Safety nets are stopgaps only; they do not replace modern, streamlined systems for the delivery of common social goods.

But in the end, I will contradict myself: Medicare is not truly a social evil. Its wild popularity from the far-flung right to the liberal left bespeaks an effectiveness and a commonality that could be used to build a universal health care system – a much-vaunted public option, a Medicare-for-all – via a quiet expansion of the system to a point where all could buy in for a premium that matches proportionally to one’s income. Medicare’s sole fatal flaw is its limited scope, its inadvertent function as the whipping child of a privatized system that allows cost-shifting onto the public dole in the name of profit-making in the private sector. As well as being the crutch that enables America to keep hobbling along while being beaten down by the rapacious system of for-profit health insurers, Medicare is also the genius child of a different era, a time when the vision of common-cause caretaking was not only acceptable but actually embraced, and politicking was slightly less contentious than today. Medicare may be a place where we can regain that common ground, and bring the far right, the far left, and the majority center together to carve out a zone of peace and quiet where the hammering out of a unified national health coverage policy can finally begin.

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

A Re-Post: There Is No Gender Gap in Wages, Silly Women. Part II

Originally from here. See yesterday's post for the first part.

Let's continue with Carrie Lukas' argument that there is no gender gap in wages. After chatting about unemployment and such she states:
Feminist hand-wringing about the wage gap relies on the assumption that the differences in average earnings stem from discrimination. Thus the mantra that women make only 77% of what men earn for equal work. But even a cursory review of the data proves this assumption false.
I am going to agree with Lukas on one thing: Far too often people (not just feminist people) do talk about the gross gap as if it was completely based on direct labor discrimination, such as paying women less for the same work. The reality is more complicated, though there are enough cases to suggest that women sometimes are paid less for the same job or even for superior job.

But Lukas is indeed correct in arguing that just finding a difference in the average earnings of men and women is not the same as finding that whole difference due to discrimination. Earnings between individuals vary for many reasons (some potentially non-discriminatory ones are education, experience, local labor market conditions and occupation*) and only some of those can be interpreted as caused by direct sex discrimination.

Economists do know this, however, and take it into account when studying gender differences in earnings. Where Lukas goes wrong is in steering to the other extreme: If direct discrimination does not account for the whole gender gap in earnings then it doesn't account for any of it! That is what she argues.

And the next paragraph in Lukas' article is off the topic:
The Department of Labor's Time Use survey shows that full-time working women spend an average of 8.01 hours per day on the job, compared to 8.75 hours for full-time working men. One would expect that someone who works 9% more would also earn more. This one fact alone accounts for more than a third of the wage gap.
Why is it off the topic? Because actual studies of earnings difference between men and women take the differences in working hours into account (see my series on the gender gap in wages)! What is studied is not the gross earnings differences but the differences in pay per time unit, such as an hour, a week or a month of work. The research tries to control for obvious reasons why earnings differ and looks at the differences that remain, and hours spent working per week are one of those controlled variables.

Put another way, Lukas is wrong, because she is talking about the total pay packet, not about the earnings per hour, say. It is the latter which economist study when they analyze the gender wage gap. ( For some statistics on the differences between men and women in hourly wages, check Table 9 in these statistics.)

She is also wrong in a somewhat subtler way: She begins at this point to list various non-discriminatory factors which just might (might!) affect the gender differences in average earnings! She then IMPLIES that they do. But the former does not equal the latter. We need to actually study the factors in those lists to test whether they can account all of the gender gap in wages. Just insisting that they do is meaningless.

One example of Lukas' list is this:
Choice of occupation also plays an important role in earnings. While feminists suggest that women are coerced into lower-paying job sectors, most women know that something else is often at work. Women gravitate toward jobs with fewer risks, more comfortable conditions, regular hours, more personal fulfillment and greater flexibility. Simply put, many women—not all, but enough to have a big impact on the statistics—are willing to trade higher pay for other desirable job characteristics.
Men, by contrast, often take on jobs that involve physical labor, outdoor work, overnight shifts and dangerous conditions (which is also why men suffer the overwhelming majority of injuries and deaths at the workplace). They put up with these unpleasant factors so that they can earn more.
She argues that women freely and gladly "choose" certain occupations because they are comfy, safe and interesting, even though those jobs pay less. Men, on the other hand, daringly choose to work in dangerous jobs which pay better.

But note that even if all this were true Lukas has NOT shown that these differences explain the gender gap in earnings. For one thing, the number of men working in truly dangerous jobs is quite small, too small to account for why women earn on average only 80% of what men earn**. For another thing, men who have "chosen" the same industries which are popular with women still earn more on average, at least per week:
Of the 45 million women who worked full time in wage and salary jobs, 17 million were employed in education and health services, and 5 million were employed in wholesale and retail trade. Financial activities and professional and business services each employed about 4 million women.

Median weekly earnings of women employed in education and health services were $717, which was 77 percent of men's median weekly earnings in that industry. In wholesale and retail trade, women's median weekly earnings were $523 (76 percent of men's earnings)
Thus, picking "jobs with fewer risks, more comfortable conditions, regular hours, more personal fulfillment and greater flexibility" doesn't seem to explain the earnings difference within those industries. If you find the industry classification too wide, similar data is available for individual occupations.

Finally, here is where Lukas makes a serious interpretative mistake:
Recent studies have shown that the wage gap shrinks—or even reverses—when relevant factors are taken into account and comparisons are made between men and women in similar circumstances. In a 2010 study of single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30, the research firm Reach Advisors found that women earned an average of 8% more than their male counterparts. Given that women are outpacing men in educational attainment, and that our economy is increasingly geared toward knowledge-based jobs, it makes sense that women's earnings are going up compared to men's.
The mistake is this: When economists analyze the gender gap in wages they ideally wish to know the answer to this question: If we could clone a person with only one exception: the person's gender, would the two clones earn the same amount? This is the goal, to compare a randomly selected male worker to a randomly selected female worker in such a way that we are standardizing for all other variables which affect earnings except for gender.

The Reach Advisors study Lukas refers to does NOT standardize for education levels. It's as if the female clone in my example was allowed to have a college degree while the male clone was not. Comparing the earnings of the two do not tell us anything about the pure effect of gender because we forgot to control for education. Indeed, it is even possible that women still earn less than men in those metropolitan areas, if the comparison is done properly, i.e., by comparing women and men with the same education levels. The Reach Advisors study does not tell us anything about the gender gap when it is properly defined, because it still compares male apples to female oranges.

The studies about young workers have an additional problem: Most discriminatory effects will not be seen early in a person's career, because discrimination takes time to operate***. So do some non-discriminatory reasons for earnings differences, such as labor market interruptions by women for childbearing purposes. But the point is that we cannot use data from only the young to make conclusions about all working men and women.

Lukas ends her piece with a nasty statement:
Should we celebrate the closing of the wage gap? Certainly it's good news that women are increasingly productive workers, but women whose husbands and sons are out of work or under-employed are likely to have a different perspective. After all, many American women wish they could work less, and that they weren't the primary earners for their families.
What on earth does the closing of the wage gap have to do with the problems of husbands and sons? Can we swap a greater gender gap in wages for more jobs for men?

And what on earth does the presumed desire of American women to work less have to do with the closing of the wage gap? If anything, higher wages would enable someone to work less for the same total income.

I don't get this paragraph in Lukas' piece at all. It's not logically linked to anything else she makes stories about, and I don't see what its function is supposed to be, unless she argues that we shouldn't care about women's earnings at all because the earnings of men are more important and all women would prefer to stay at home. But if that's her thesis, why didn't she write about it?
*I write "potentially non-discriminatory" because some of these can be affected by past discrimination. For instance, if a woman gets laid off first because she is a woman, her work experience might be reduced over time. Likewise, "occupation" is a tricky concept to the extent that two essentially identical jobs might be given different job titles with different pay, to hide discrimination. Also, occupational steering may affect which occupations are open to women or men.
**As I have written earlier, prostitution may well be the occupation with the highest risk of early death, but it is not included in the statistics because it is an illegal one.
***The Equal Pay Act of 1963 makes it hard to pay women and men in the same job different wages (though it happens), and the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes discrimination in hiring illegal (though it, too, happens). If an employer wishes to discriminate against female workers, he or she will have to wait to do it through differential raises, promotions and firings. This is the main reason why data on workers just beginning their working lives cannot prove the absence of labor market discrimination in general.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Re-Post: There Is No Gender Gap in Wages, Silly Women. Part I

This is from last April. This right-wing and MRA argument really annoys me, because it is counter-factual. Or a lie. The second part appears tomorrow.

So Carrie Lukas tells us on Equal Pay Day. She is not an economist, by the way, so I shall be gentle with her arguments. But before I begin, may I recommend my three-part series on the gender gap in wages? The data may be slightly out-of-date but the arguments apply.

Back to Lukas. Here's what she tells us in the Wall Street Journal:
The unemployment rate is consistently higher among men than among women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 9.3% of men over the age of 16 are currently out of work. The figure for women is 8.3%. Unemployment fell for both sexes over the past year, but labor force participation (the percentage of working age people employed) also dropped. The participation rate fell more among men (to 70.4% today from 71.4% in March 2010) than women (to 58.3% from 58.8%). That means much of the improvement in unemployment numbers comes from discouraged workers—particularly male ones—giving up their job searches entirely.
Men have been hit harder by this recession because they tend to work in fields like construction, manufacturing and trucking, which are disproportionately affected by bad economic conditions. Women cluster in more insulated occupations, such as teaching, health care and service industries.
Yet if you can accept that the job choices of men and women lead to different unemployment rates, then you shouldn't be surprised by other differences—like differences in average pay.
Lovely! I really like this way of arguing that "choice" is what drives the gender wage gap, completely, and therefore it must be "choice" which drives earnings differences between men and women, completely.

But note that we are given no proof that women and men in fact "choose" their jobs in the same way they might choose vanilla or chocolate ice-cream. I'm pretty certain that if I applied for a job at a local construction site my being a female goddess would have all sorts of consequences, other than making me into a construction worker. Or most likely NOT making me a construction worker. People guard their turf and the ways to do that include sexual harassment, withdrawal of crucial information and just plain nastiness.

Likewise, the society still steers people into certain occupations based on their gender, and the jobs that women dominate might not be the jobs they "choose" if women were not expected to be responsible for childcare, say.

What about those unemployment figures? Do men really have consistently higher rates of unemployment? And are the female occupations Lukas lists indeed protected against economic downswings?

The answer to the first question is no. Data from 1973 to 2010 shows that there have been years when the female rate was higher than male rate and years when the male rate was higher than the female rate, but on average the rates have been about equal by gender. Thus, Lukas is incorrect when she argues that "the unemployment rate is consistently higher among men than among women." But note that the average earnings do meet the condition of being consistently lower for women than for men.

I promised to be gentle, dealing with a non-economist, so I'm willing to assume that Lukas uses the term "consistently" only in the sense of the most recent recession. And within that context the male unemployment rate has indeed been higher than the female rate. Even the reason for that she gets partly correct: The bellwether industries for both downturns AND upswings are the traditionally male ones.

In other words, it is construction and manufacturing which suffer first when times turn bad. BUT they are also the industries which revive first.

What about the argument that the more female-dominated industries: teaching, health care and services, are more insulated? The fact is that those industries are not saved from economic fluctuations, either. They are not affected as early in a recession as the traditionally male blue-collar industries, but they are affected, as we can see from the recent rounds of state-level layoffs. Their impact is not yet fully visible in the unemployment statistics, however.

It's fun to hide things in writing, by the way. Lukas does that in this part of the above quote:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 9.3% of men over the age of 16 are currently out of work. The figure for women is 8.3%. Unemployment fell for both sexes over the past year, but labor force participation (the percentage of working age people employed) also dropped. The participation rate fell more among men (to 70.4% today from 71.4% in March 2010) than women (to 58.3% from 58.8%). That means much of the improvement in unemployment numbers comes from discouraged workers—particularly male ones—giving up their job searches entirely.
The figures she quotes are for March of 2011, and yes, indeed, the unemployment rates fell for both sexes over the past year: For men it fell from 10.7 in February of 2010 to 9.3 in March of 2011. For women it fell from 8.7 in February of 2010 to 8.3 in March of 2011. Note the much bigger drop in the first set of numbers. This suggests that the unemployment rates are coming together again, the way they are wont to be most of the time.

And what about that discouraged male worker comment? I think that Lukas confuses the participation rate with the rate of discouraged workers. The two are not the same, because individuals have many reasons for not being in the labor force.

If she in fact is talking about discouraged workers, another Bureau of Labor Statistics table tells us that the number of discouraged male workers fell from 624,000 in March of 2010 to 569,000 in March of 2011.

That is sufficient on the question of unemployment. Lukas tried to use it to explain why women "deserve" to earn less. I don't think that she succeeded in that, but whatever. My next post addresses her actual earnings arguments.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Report (by res ipsa)

What I am reading now: Open City, by Teju Cole. Here's a review from the New Yorker. The author's personal website is here. I discovered the book thanks to The Economist. (The "Books and Arts" and "Science and Technology" sections of The Economist are its secret weapons, by the way.) I am really enjoying the book. The word that keeps coming up for me is "compassion". I can already tell that I'll be a bit sad when I'm no longer spending time with the narrator.

The end of a good book is a bit of a loss. I felt this way about The Handmaid's Tale, too.

What are you reading?

A Re-Post: Should Women Show Sadness Or Anger in Management?

I re-posted this one because I hear so much about how women don't know how to negotiate for a good salary. This may well be true, but the invisible implication in these stories is that if only women acted like men they would get that great salary. Reality is a bit more complicated, as this study from 2007 shows.

A recent study by Victoria Brescoll suggests that women in management might do better if they don't show anger. This is what she did in the study:

She conducted three tests in which men and women recruited randomly watched videos of a job interview and were asked to rate the applicant's status and assign them a salary.

The people in the job interview were either male or female but followed the same script. Each of them expressed either anger or sadness over losing an account due to a colleague being late for a meeting.

According to Brescoll, anger gave the men higher status and higher salary estimates. The reverse was true for women. It seems that it's better to be a sad CEO than a mad CEO if you are of the girly persuasion.

The usual popularized take on this study seems to be that anger helps men get ahead but keeps women back. Strictly speaking, this is not quite what the study found, as the study compared anger not to, say, general pleasantness, but to sadness as a possible reaction to one particular type of event (the loss of an account).

I couldn't get hold of the actual study which limits my ability to judge how reliable the findings are. As an example of the kind of data I'd love to see is the number of subjects who were asked to rate the videos. But supposing, for the time being, that there are no hidden bugs in the study, what do the results mean?

Brescoll herself says that angry women are seen as "out of control". This is fascinating, because the proper antonym for that in this context might not be "in control" but "under control". If anger is viewed as a legitimate reaction by someone who is entitled to dominate others (as the article from which I quote suggests), then those who are not seen as entitled to dominate others would indeed be "out of control" when expressing anger. This doesn't apply only to women who have traditionally not been allowed to show much anger, but to almost anyone in a subordinate position.

That sadness works better for women than anger fits into that framework pretty well. Besides, sadness is not directed to anyone outside the person. It is non-threatening. On the other hand, women are not supposed to be sad in public if they have power, because crying is seen as a sign of weakness. A Catch-22 indeed.

I was astonished by the salaries men and women were assigned in this study. Men were awarded much higher salaries than women (remember, the applicants were objectively identical), and the resulting differences are much larger than the actual average differences in full-time pay by gender. Both male and female reviewers assigned women lower earnings, and I have seen similar results from other studies.

One interpretation would be that the study subjects are trying to guess what a person with particular characteristics would earn in the real world, and assign sums accordingly, thus taking into account their knowledge that women, on average, earn less. Another one is that people in general are a lot more sexist than we perhaps have thought and rate and rank women lower than men on that basis.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

La Souris Blanche RIP (by res ipsa)

I am reading the obituaries again.

Today I read one for Nancy Wake, Proud Spy and Nazi Foe, who died on August 8th.

In April 1944, when [Wake] was 31, she was among 39 women and 430 men who were parachuted into France to help with preparations for D-Day.

There she collected night parachute drops of weapons and ammunition and hid them in storage caches for the advancing allied armies, set up wireless communication with England and harassed the enemy.

“I was never afraid,” she said. “I was too busy to be afraid.”
She sounds like a badass. With a sense of humor:

Film and television producers have used Ms. Wake’s early life as the basis for various works, and she generally approved of them, except for those suggesting that she had love affairs during the war.

She did not have affairs, she insisted in a 1987 Australian documentary.

“And in my old age, I regret it,” she said. “But you see, if I had accommodated one man, the word would have spread around, and I would have had to accommodate the whole damn lot!”

According to her Wikipedia page, she was the Gestapo's most wanted person in 1943. They called her "The White Mouse" because of her ability to elude capture. RIP.

A Re-Post: What's Sauce for the Gander...

This post is worth reading again, because the popular media seldom pays any attention to studies which do not reinforce the stereotypical evolutionary-psychology explanations of sexual behavior. Thus, we get told that women are monogamous, men polygamous, by nature.

Doug in the comments linked to a column by Natalie Angier in the New York Times. The column is worth a post all its own, because of this:

Small wonder that many Darwinian-minded observers of human mating customs have long contended that serial monogamy is really just a socially sanctioned version of harem-building. By this conventional evolutionary psychology script, the man who skips from one nubile spouse to another over time is, like the sultan who hoards the local maidenry in a single convenient location, simply seeking to "maximize his reproductive fitness," to sire as many children as possible with as many wives as possible. It is the preferred male strategy, especially for powerful men, right? Sequentially or synchronously, he-men consort polygynously.

Women, by contrast, are not thought to be natural serializers. Sure, a gal might date around when young, but once she starts a family, she is assumed to crave stability. After all, she can bear only so many children in her lifetime, and divorce raises her risk of poverty. Unless forced to because some bounder has abandoned her, why would any sane woman choose another trot down the aisle — for another Rachael Ray spatula set? Spare me extra candlesticks, I'm a one-trick monogamist.


Yet in a report published in the summer issue of the journal Human Nature, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California, Davis, presents compelling evidence that at least in some non-Western cultures where conditions are harsh and mothers must fight to keep their children alive, serial monogamy is by no means a man's game, finessed by him and foisted on her. To the contrary, Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder said, among the Pimbwe people of Tanzania, whose lives and loves she has been following for about 15 years, serial monogamy looks less like polygyny than like a strategic beast that some evolutionary psychologists dismiss as quasi-fantastical: polyandry, one woman making the most of multiple mates.

Doug also jokingly wonders if this refers to some loose piece of feminist research, and of course it's hard to know without reading the actual research. But if research consisting of following a tribe for fifteen years, recording the number of marriage-like relationships and recording the numbers of children which survive past the crucial age of five is loose research, what the fuck should we call all those ask-the-American-undergraduates-to-rank-pictures-of-desirable-women evo-psycho pieces? So loose that the universe and our brains fall through it?

Let me calm down a bit there. Whatever the quality of this research might be (and I will check if I have time), at least it actually measures reproductive success. The importance of this cannot be overstressed. Practically all the studies I have seen speculate about the reproductive success of men who cast their seed around widely, while not offering actual evidence. Likewise, very few studies address the complaint I've made many times that getting a woman fertilized does not equal having produced a fertile adult offspring. Before that is possible the pregnancy must result in a live birth, the resulting baby must be fed and kept safe all through the next ten plus years. Only then can we measure the reproductive success in the sense of the genes being passed on.

So what were the findings of this study? Here:

In her analysis, Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder found that although Pimbwe men were somewhat more likely than their female counterparts to marry multiple times, women held their own and even outshone men in the upper Zsa Zsa Gabor end of the scale, of five consecutive spouses and counting. And when Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder looked at who extracted the greatest reproductive payoff from serial monogamy, as measured by who had the most children survive past the first five hazardous years of life, she found a small but significant advantage female. Women who worked their way through more than two husbands had, on average, higher reproductive success, a greater number of surviving children, than either the more sedately mating women, or than men regardless of wifetime total.

Angier emphasizes that the results are preliminary. It will be most interesting to follow future studies of this data set.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What I Made This Weekend (by res ipsa)

Double chocolate (raspberry) layer cake for The GC's birthday.

This recipe is just great. The cake was a huge hit. The ganache is super-chocolatey, but not sweet. The raspberry filling is light and not sweet, either. The cake is both rich and sweet, not to mention incredibly moist, so moist that it took some wrangling to split the layers horizontally, which I wanted to do so that I'd wind up with three layers of raspberry. The recipe calls for "fine quality" semisweet chocolate. I used Ghiradelli. No idea if that qualifies, but it worked out beautifully. I made the ganache and the raspberry filling a day ahead, and nuked the ganache for less than ten seconds to get it spreadable. (Yes, I know that's not ideal, you're supposed to do it a la minute, but that's what I did, and it worked well.)

By the way, the recipe makes a LOT of cake. I had two big 9" layers, plus six good-sized cupcakes.

A Re-Post: The UK Daily Male Hates Women and Uppity Feminists

This post is worth reading again, because it shows the thriving sexism in a Western newspaper with a large circulation. Many forces push us towards pretending that these types of articles are not routinely published. But they are.

The UK Daily Mail is a treasure trove of the 1950s values about gender! It has a section called Femail where women lecture other women about how bad feminism is for them and the Men's Rights Activists chime in with pertinent commentary. On the 18th of January an article was headlined:

The high fliers with the ultimate status symbol - wives they can afford to keep at home. So whatever happened to feminism?

And on the 20th of January an article there states:
Women who want to succeed at work should resist the temptation to act like men, scientists said yesterday.

Their studies show that women who take an aggressive approach are often less likely to get ahead than those who exhibit more feminine traits.

If however, they try to conform, promotion comes their way.

The findings, which will dismay feminists, suggest the best way for a woman to succeed in a man’s world is to act like a lady.
The picture attached to this story speaks more than a thousand words:

Fun, eh? If you search for "feminism" on the Daily Mail site you will find that Femail has in the past posted articles such as these:

Feminism was going to liberate both sexes, but instead it destroyed a generation of men
How feminism destroyed real men
Has feminism killed the art of home cooking?
Why I loathe feminism... and believe it will ultimately destroy the family
Feminism has turned men into second-class citizens, but have women's victories come at a price?
You've got what you want, girls, stop whining: Has feminism made women unhappy? (well THIS certainly will)
'Quit work to help your husband', says a controversial new book that has infuriated feminists

And so on and so on, for 407 references. And I didn't even try "feminist"!

Now, who is it who owns the Daily Mail?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reading THE HANDMAID'S TALE: IV (by res ipsa)

So ... could it happen here? I read that Margaret Atwood considers The Handmaid's Tale to be speculative -- rather than science -- fiction, the difference being that in speculative fiction, everything that happens in the story is possible right now, whereas science fiction describes things humans cannot yet do. So if we look at at Handmaid's is it possible? And, twenty-six years after its publication, is it probable? (I have to admit that the whole freezing-womens'-accounts-via-electronic-banking thing gives me the creeps. That was possible in 1986 and with the volume of data that's been collected, stored, and cross-referenced since then, it's possible to an even greater degree of accuracy now.) In 1985, when the book was published, what did people say about the possibility of a theocratic Christian regime staging a terrorist attack, blaming it on Islamic fanatics, assassinating the president and congress, suspending the Constitution, and re-ordering society from the ground up? What would they say about it now? As I mentioned, I didn't pay too much attention to Handmaid's when it came out (too cool for school, that was me). How was it received? Did people scoff at such fiction? Declare Atwood "hysterical"? Or did they seriously discuss the likelihood of such a takeover?

After I finished the book, I clicked around in search of some reviews and I found this one by Mary McCarthy, (yes, that Mary McCarthy). McCarthy's main gripes are that the book extrapolates too far from then-current conditions, there's no Newspeak equivalent, and that women just aren't funny. With regard to the first criticism, I wonder what she'd say now? If she got a load of say, this person, could she see an Aunt in waiting? Or a Serena Joy in this person? And how would this woman fit into the narrative? About the lack of a Newspeak-equivalent, well, there's only one Newspeak. And with regard to women not being funny, well, I'm rolling my eyes. (Besides, Offred could actually be quite droll.)

The GC told me that when Handmaid's came out, Atwood was interviewed and reported that the reaction to the plot differed by nationality of its readership. The English would say, "Great story!" Canadians would say, Do you think it could happen here?" And Americans would say, "When do you think it will happen." Why was the book prophesy for Americans? Did the difference between the English and American reactions (in the age of Thatcher and Reagan) have to do with the fact that Thatcher was female?

I Told You So! (Except I Was Wrong)

I know this isn't how Blog Time works, but I've been stewing for more days than I should about this New York Times piece by Rebecca Traister. Stewing while I drive, and garden, and work, because honestly, I just don't know what I think.
The empirical choice between Clinton and Obama was never as direct as those on either side made it out to be; neither was obviously more equipped or more progressive than the other. The maddening part, then and now, is that they were utterly comparable candidates. The visions — in 2008, of Obama as a progressive redeemer who would restore enlightened democracy to our land and Hillary as a crypto-Republican company man; or, in 2011, of Obama as an appeasement-happy crypto-Republican and Hillary as a leftist John Wayne who would have whipped those Congressional outlaws into shape — they were all invented. These are fictional characters shaped by the predilections, prejudices and short memories of the media and the electorate. They’re not actual politicians between whom we choose here on earth.

Traister, you might recall, writes for the Times and Salon, is the author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, and one of the few members of the press corps who seem unafraid of claiming the feminist mantle.

Now, our blogfriends have already weighed in here, of course:
Matt Yglesias points out that in the spring and summer of 2008, the world looked very different: "Our experience of the Obama administration has been dominated by the fallout of events that mostly happened after the election. So when people say that they thought Obama would be like this or thought he would be like that, in many ways they’re misremembering. If you’re honest with yourself, three years ago you just weren’t thinking much at all about how Obama would respond to persistent 9 percent unemployment."

Amanda notes that Hillary was a Kenyanmuslimsocialist long before it was cool: "The Republican base not only hates Clinton, but they've hated her for decades now. The paranoid base really cut their teeth constructing elaborate conspiracy theories about her. Before Obama was accused of faking his birth certificate, remember that Clinton was accused of murdering Vince Foster, a good friend of her family's. Republicans would have ambushed and stonewalled her, too. Don't forget that they impeached her husband after basically dogging him for years, looking for any tiny thread they could cling to to rationalize it." The Tea Party wouldn't be the Tea Party, of course--"the nickname and the costuming of the base uproar" would be different, as Amanda says--but it would be something just as noxious and obstructionist.

And Scott notes what many of us realized at the time: "in policy terms the 2008 Democratic primary was about almost nothing." Which was, after all, one of the most frustrating things about the 2008 primary: I was routinely called a racist corporatist centrist by people I had thought were my friends, simply because I thought Clinton was a viable candidate. Hell, in policy terms, I liked John Edwards. What the hell did I know?

And so I don't feel the need to weigh in on those points: they're well covered. But I think the fact that I was a Clinton supporter has made me generally less frustrated with Obama: since I never thought he was the Liberal Savior anyway, the fact that he has not turned out to be is just less, well, personal for me.

I'm reminded of a review I once read on Pitchfork--back when I thought I needed to read Pitchfork to be cool--of Weezer's 2005 album Make Believe. The reviewer didn't like it, but that wasn't enough. Instead, he had to go back and smear all of the back catalog, in a comical "I break with thee!" moment of adolescent angst. A lot of Obama-hate feels like that to me.

I've been out of political blogging a while now--partly disenchanted, partly working on a book--but I'm not such a big person that I don't remember the pain of that personality contest. At the time, I flashed a lot on the Reese Witherspoon-Matthew Broderick movie Election, and suspected that, like Tracy Flick, Hillary was being castigated for seeming to want the nomination so much. Female desire for power--like all female desire--was unseemly and kind of icky and had to be smacked down.

But I'm curious, as a feminist, how often the metaphor of Obama's strength or weakness is expressed in terms of sexual potency. The Daily Beast piece Traister cites gives several quotes, it assures us, from lots of otherwise nice little old ladies impugning Obama's manhood, particularly in comparison to Hillary.
At a luncheon in the members’ dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday, a 64-year-old African-American from the Bronx was complaining about Obama’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the implacable hostility of congressional Republicans when an 80-year-old lawyer chimed in about the president’s unwillingness to stand up to his opponents. “I want to see blood on the floor,” she said grimly.

A 61-year-old white woman at the table nodded. “He never understood about the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy,’” she said.

Looking as if she were about to cry, an 83-year-old Obama supporter shook her head. “I’m so disappointed in him,” she said. “It’s true: Hillary is tougher.”

Among Clinton fans, particularly older women, the language was frequently far more caustic. “Obama has no spine and no balls,” said a 67-year-old New Yorker.

Jeez, when the grandmas have the long knives out, look out!

But of course, our go-to person for all psychosexual attacks on Democratic men does not fail us. No one does the "Democratic men are secretly women! Or pussy-whipped! Or something!" trope better than Maureen Dowd: it's the one medium she truly understands.
President Obama was on the way to Alpha when a plea came for him to be, well, more alpha.

LuAnn Lavine, a real estate agent from Geneseo, a rural town just up the road from Alpha, Ill., the last stop on the president’s Midwestern bus tour, told The Times’s Jeff Zeleny: “Everyone was so hopeful with him, but Washington grabbed him and here we are. I just want him to stay strong and don’t take the guff. We want a president who is a leader, and I want him to be a little bit stronger.”

For Dowd, Obama's weakness is clearly demonstrated by the D after his name, and the fact that he, uh, took a vacation in August, like all Americans who can afford to. "The truth is, he doesn’t want [Congress] back in the capital any more than they want to be back. It would have screwed up his vacation and upset Michelle, who already feels trapped in the Washington bubble." Dowd doesn't quite quote Bill Murray in Ghostbusters--"It's true: this man has no dick."--but it's pretty damn close.

I wanted to end on a decisive note, but I find I don't have one. Obama is dealing with a level of obstruction I have not seen in my lifetime, and is in the position of trying to defend programs against a raft of Neitzschean, Randian ideologues who are interested in nothing but corporatist hegemony for the people who elected them, and third-world anarchy for everyone else. They do not care if they drive the whole bus over a cliff.

Obama is standing between us and them. Ineffectively, maybe, but he's there. Hillary may have played it differently, but the cliff would still be there, and they'd still be determined to drive off it. And things would be just as fucked.

(crossposted at WhiskeyFire)

A Dental Appointment

This short story is a re-post, but I couldn't find the original link. The overheard discussion actually happened.

A Dental Appointment

Sara is late. She is running for the train. The driver sees her running and takes off exactly one second before she reaches the still open door. Sara swears silently. She can still make it, she hopes. The coin exchange machine is malfunctioning again. She starts turning her pockets and bag over in search for coins. The next train should come within ten minutes. Her appointment for a root canal isn't for another forty-five minutes. Not that she is looking forward to it.

Once she has the coins she sits down on the bench and looks at the pigeons perching on the roof of the deserted station building or flying through the empty shell of its second floor. The station house is a ruin, of some long-gone civilization, and the pigeons are the new power that has taken it over. Lucky birds, they have no teeth.

A woman and a man cross the tracks and join Sara and another woman already there at the train stop. The new arrivals look Middle Eastern, probably a mother and a son. He looks affluent, Americanized, in his forties. She doesn't look Americanized. Her scarf is on crooked and she wears no bra. She has missing teeth in the front.

Sara practices deep breathing. Her stomach rebels against the prospect of a dental visit. The couple seem to know the other woman on the bench. The mother doesn't speak any English. She wants to compare how dark her hair is to the other woman's grey curls.

The train arrives. Sara finds a single seat in the back and continues deep breathing and relaxation. She has a phobia about drills. The trio from the stop seat themselves across from her. The man has brilliantly white teeth. Breathe gently, breathe deeply.

He talks with the American woman over his mother's head. "Do you know how many children my mother has had? Sixteen! And do you know how many survived? Eight!"

The train takes off from the station and slowly rolls through the suburban landscape. Backyards and trees go by. Birds without teeth. One neat fence has graffiti which Sara can't read. She can never read any graffiti, and it is all in the same handwriting. She imagines a jet-setting graffiti artist, flying from one country to another, scrawling graffiti everywhere. Most likely someone with perfect teeth.

The train stops and takes off again. The houses look more expensive now, and less of them is visible from the tracks. There are proper woods now, green. Sara tries to relax in the green.

"Don't you think that women belong in the home?" asks the Middle Eastern man of his neighbor. Sara can't hear her answer. A group of schoolgirls enter the train, laughing and chattering. Sara hopes that their voices would drown out the man but they move on.

Now the landscape is citified. Poor backyards with clotheslines and derelict cars, more graffiti. Then highrises. Soon the train would go underground. Then she'd be nearly there. Breathe in, breathe out.

"My mother never liked girls", says the man. "Why do you think she doesn't care for girls?" There are no free seats, no standing room anywhere. Sara starts to sing quietly to keep his voice out. Her stomach has clutched into a tight fist. It won't relax. It won't let go.

The train dives into darkness. The color inside changes to greyish cold. Everybody suddenly looks tired and old and in need of dusting.

Sara counts the remaining stops. Three. She is afraid that she'll need to find a restroom soon. The train slows in preparation for a stop. Large advertisements flash by. Do you need to lose weight? A woman in bikinis lying in the sun. Two happy people buying insurance. No graffiti. Nothing about root canals or the dislike of little girls. They take off again.

Sara has forgotten to sing, so she can't avoid hearing the man. "What is wrong with selling your daughters if you don't want them?" She has to get up. She has to leave right now. On the next station. It means having to run three more blocks. She gets off. She runs three more blocks. She is late for her dental appointment.