Sunday, June 07, 2020

A Short Announcement

My apologies for the silence on the blog.  I  have not been well.  Things will resume when they can.  In the meantime, Black Lives Matter.  Stay well and healthy during the pandemic.

Friday, May 22, 2020

More Covid-19 Era Thoughts: On Gender Roles, The Role Of The Media And Trump's Masks

1.  I am not a fan of rigid gender/sex roles, because they are one of the main channels which have historically been used to keep women second-class citizens.  I would love such roles to be reduced to the absolute minimum.  Indeed, I see no alternative to that if we are actually ever to create a world where male and female people have roughly equal opportunities.

One recent example highlights the effects of the traditional division of labor at home, when combined with the covid-19 pandemic:

In April Dr Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, noticed that the number of article submissions she was receiving from women had dropped dramatically. Not so from men.

“Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month,” she posted on Twitter. “Never seen anything like it.” The response was an outpouring of recognition from frustrated female academics, saying they were barely coping with childcare and work during the coronavirus lockdown.

This particular anecdote is about academic work from home but the same concerns would apply to all who now must work from home and who also have minor children to care for and educate under the lockdown conditions.

More generally, the pandemic-related job losses are hitting women particularly hard because women are more likely to be concentrated in the kinds of jobs which deal with people*, and those jobs are the ones most affected by the lockdowns.  At least some of that sex segregation in employment is linked to societal gender roles and beliefs about the most suitable occupations for men and women.**

2.  It's astonishing how much attention the various protest movements wanting instant reopening of the economy have gotten in the media.  Or at least I find it astonishing, given that clear majorities of people are opposed to the very idea.  Even the most recent Fox News survey found 55% of its respondents agreeing with the statement that the US should wait before reopening the economy, even if this means that the economic crisis will last longer.

I mostly blame the media's need to create angry debates in order to keep getting the most clicks on the stories that are published.  Advertising revenue goes up with clicks and, sadly, most of us are vulnerable to click-baiting.  Given that the ad-based business model is the only one that seems to work at all to fund journalism the situation is not easily remedied.

But still.  I find the outrage-based news media extremely irritating and depressing.  Social media, in general, is even worse.  Twitter, for instance, seems to monetize rage.

3.  Our Supreme Leader refuses to wear a Coronavirus mask in public.  I don't care why he refuses so adamantly.  It could be because of his narcissistic vanity or because of some belief that when a tough 100% manly warlord president glares at the virus the virus will disintegrate without any sissy masks needed.  Or because he wants to stick it to the media.

But in judging Trump's choice not to wear a mask, we should remember this: 

The Coronavirus masks we wear in public, when in contact with others, are there to protect those others, and their masks are there to protect us.  Should Trump catch the virus and not yet know that he has it, he would be somewhat less likely to pass it on if he wore a mask***.   So he is choosing not to care about that.

*  These are also often low-pay jobs.  Even women with children who don't work in traditionally female jobs depend on the traditionally female job category of child care workers to be able to continue their own work outside the home.  (Or so it looks if we wear the traditional gender role blinders and see child care as the responsibility of mothers first and of all female people second).

**  For more on this wider question, see this 2018 article.

*** And considerably less likely if the others coming into contact with him were also masked.


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Trump And Hydroxychloroquine: Another Game

Remember my earlier post about the games Trump, as a great narcissist, plays?  One of narcissistic tricks is to start a new game when it looks like another, still ongoing game is not letting the narcissist win.

That is the best way of understanding why Trump suddenly tells us that he is taking hydroxychloroquine.  Journalists can't ignore this new game, for obvious reasons, and so the media attention moves away from the game Trump no longer wants to be played.

That earlier game is about Trump firing four inspector generals in the last two months.  The most recent firing, that of the State Department's inspector general, Steve Linick, is the most controversial of these.  Trump really doesn't want the media to focus on whether the fired inspector general was investigating Pompeo and whether Pompeo then asked him to be fired:

The State Department Inspector General who was fired by President Donald Trump late Friday was investigating his administration's use of emergency powers to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia despite congressional opposition, according to a senior Democratic lawmaker.

Inspector General Steve Linick is the latest federal watchdog removed by Trump and the latest impeachment player who may have faced some form of presidential retaliation. Pompeo recommended his dismissal and supported the president's decision, a senior State Department official told ABC News Friday.

The watchdog office was also looking into whether Pompeo used staff to run personal errands, according to a congressional aide.

That game doesn't look great for Trump.  So he starts one of his "scandal" games.  Those won't bother his base much at all but will keep the media, and the public,  occupied.



Thursday, May 14, 2020

Kerala And Covid-19. Lessons for the US.

This Guardian story about the "coronavirus slayer" of Kerala makes for interesting reading.  Kerala's fight against covid-19 has so far been near-perfect, and the credit for that goes to its health minister, KK Shailaja:

On 20 January, KK Shailaja phoned one of her medically trained deputies. She had read online about a dangerous new virus spreading in China. “Will it come to us?” she asked. “Definitely, Madam,” he replied. And so the health minister of the Indian state of Kerala began her preparations.

Four months later, Kerala has reported only 524 cases of Covid-19, four deaths and – according to Shailaja – no community transmission. The state has a population of about 35 million and a GDP per capita of only £2,200. By contrast, the UK (double the population, GDP per capita of £33,100) has reported more than 40,000 deaths, while the US (10 times the population, GDP per capita of £51,000) has reported more than 82,000 deaths; both countries have rampant community transmission.

I recommend reading the linked article to find out why Shailaja stresses the importance of proper planning and how she went about achieving it in quite a poor Indian state.  Kerala's decentralized public health care system (every village has a health center) and its relatively strong education system (which guarantees high literacy rates) were also crucial in Kerala's success against the virus, because they allowed information and mitigation efforts to reach almost everyone in a short amount of time.

Though Kerala has won this battle in the war against covid-19 the war, of course, is ongoing, and nobody knows how the future battles will go once India lifts the current lockdown.  But there are lessons we all can learn from Shailaja Teacher's proper planning.

One is that the war against the covid-19 indeed might best be viewed as a war when deciding on how to best defend against it:   That defense must start with plans from the very top government levels, it must be properly coordinated all the way down to local government units, and citizens everywhere must be made active participants on the side of the defenders.

From that angle the Trump administration has really bungled this.  But then, of course, Trump doesn't see himself as the Commander-in-Chief of this war.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Political Tribalism And The Pandemic

Joe Lockhart asks why so few editorial boards of newspapers are calling for Trump to resign.  He contrasts that silence to what happened in the Watergate era:  Nixon's resignation was demanded by most major newspapers.

Why the current silence?  The central reason seems to be this:

I put this question to more than a dozen experts, media columnists, editorial writers, academics and White House reporters. What emerged was not one simple explanation, as journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University explained it, but a number of factors that have discouraged editorial pages around the country from taking this bold step.
Central to these, according to John Avlon, a senior political analyst at CNN and the former editor in chief of the Daily Beast, is that "the reality of the hardened partisanship is beyond reason. We've become really unmoored from our best civic traditions." And one of our best civic traditions used to be holding political leaders to account -- demanding, in extreme situations, that they resign.
Put in simpler terms, Trump won't resign, whatever the demands for it might be, and Republicans won't demand his resignation, because politics has grown increasingly tribal.

It's not just "my country, right or wrong," but "my party, right or wrong."*   And as the mainstream media itself is viewed by the right (and also by some parts of the left) as a member of the "other" tribe and not neutral, it's pretty easy to see why few editorial boards would bother to demand a resignation which will not happen.  Indeed, the recent no-consequences impeachment is still fresh in our minds.

When did American politics become this polarized and tribal?

Many would argue that polarization has always existed, of course.  Still, there is something different in the most recent version of it, and that is because legal and technological changes have enabled extensive polarization in what was once called the media or the press and in what now is simply all the different sources of information, rumor and hearsay that consumers use.  Those same changes have made fighting against this trend much harder.

The end of the FCC Fairness Doctrine is perhaps the starting-point of the current polarization epidemic.  Once the Fairness Doctrine was buried, Fox News could be launched**, with its policy of presenting one-sided and selective information as if it were completely neutral.  The era of the Internet now offers almost limitless opportunities for the replication of that Fox News foundational principle.  

The proliferation of politically biased news sites, on both sides of the political aisle though more on the right,  makes staying in the same tribal information bubble easier, and even the comment-ability that the Internet has provided for all of us serves to strengthen feelings of tribal belonging and also to self-police the borders of the tribe***.

This particular topic seemed to me barely worth writing about in these pandemic times, until I thought about the fact that we have Donald Trump leading the effort against the pandemic at least partly because of the new political tribalism and despite the fact that most everyone knows he only cares about his own re-election chances.

* Or whatever ideological group you might wish to see as the relevant tribe if "party" doesn't work in that context.

** An erudite commenter (Alby) noted that Fox News itself wouldn't have been subject to the Fairness Doctrine which covered only public airwaves, though the end of that doctrine did make right-wing radio shows possible (Rush Limbaugh and the like).  But Fox certainly was a sign of the changing times.

*** That is because to truly feel that one belongs to a tribe there must be interactions with the other members, and those interactions must reward opinions which strengthen the tribe and discourage opinions which weaken the tribe.

Now we can have those interactions with total strangers, not just with those whom we meet outside the cyberspace, and that has both good and bad outcomes.

Though being able to talk with strangers online creates many good outcomes, including community building, excess tribalism is one of its bad outcomes.  As an aside, it's much easier to recognize "excess" tribalism than it is to define it, but I think it is operating whenever tribal membership is more important than what a particular person is actually stating in how that person's message is received.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Pandemic And The Deconstruction Of The Administrative State. Or Did Stephen Bannon Get His Way?

Eons ago, in 2017, president Trump still had his own Rasputin standing behind the throne and whispering in his ear:  Stephen Bannon.

Bannon was Trump's chief strategist and the architect of the president's ideological strategies.  Bannon may have disappeared from the Trump administration and also largely from the public view, but one of his most important goals has not: The deconstruction of the administrative state.

What did Bannon mean by that term?   The answer:

The process, he explained, began with Trump's first presidential hires.
"If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction, the way the progressive left runs, is if they can't get it passed, they're just gonna put in some sort of regulation in -- in an agency," Bannon said. "That's all gonna be deconstructed and I think that that's why this regulatory thing is so important."
So did Bannon get his way in this respect?

I think we are learning the answer while watching, in real time:  The way this administration stumbles around in its responses to the current pandemic, how it seems to be passing the proper tasks of the federal government* to individual states without apparently coordinating that change with such federal institutions as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Or compare the US pandemic policies to those practiced in countries which seem to have the pandemic under better control:

While statistics show that this wave of the pandemic in the US is nowhere near peaking, our Supreme Leader wants it to be over so he has decided that it is more or less over.

He wishes to refocus on opening the economy**, whatever the resulting cost in lives lost, because he sees a booming economy as necessary for his re-election.  And that is why he earlier today told us that he will wind down the coronavirus task force, though he has now had to walk back that statement a little bit.

I think Bannon should be pleased with the current state of the federal administrative state, even if some of the destruction has come from the uncertainty and dizziness caused by all of us having to live inside Trump's personal and weird worldview.

*  Even the most conservative of economists would agree that the fight against a globally spreading infectious disease  is the duty of the federal government.

**  It is not wrong to focus on both the pandemic and the economy, of course.
We need to be able to produce food and to get it to consumers, for example,  and even more generally the economy cannot stay in a lock-down forever.

But Trump's plan is not the kind of careful and considered "re-opening in stages" which some other countries are pursuing once it is clear that the peak of the first Covid-19 wave has passed in that country.  It's just a general re-opening, as if the pandemic has left the USA, when it is actually just checked into the second hotel in its tour around the place.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

How We Talk about The Pandemic: A Slightly Different Slant

1.  Those who vociferously protest against the stay-at-home-orders are a small minority.  They are not representative of any large group of Americans.  The media should clearly state this when they cover the protests, and we should all take care that we are not viewing that group as representative of, say, all Republicans in the US.

I get that covering the protests is great click-bait, but to pretend that we are seeing a giant wave of citizens protesting the orders distorts facts.  The media has the responsibility not to distort facts.  Neither should the media allow itself to be used as a PR machine for the groups raging and ranting at various state houses.

2.  In fact, most Americans (and most citizens of almost all countries) have been almost exemplary in their willingness to obey the various mitigation efforts governments have introduced against the Covid-19.  To see this has been heart-warming and has made me slightly more optimistic about the future of humankind.

It is easy not to see the good news when so many news are frightening.  But good news also exist.*  The willingness of ordinary people to work together in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is good news.

3.  I once read, in a book about birds, that crows take care of their elderly and sick.  I have no idea if the story was true, but reading it made me think that taking care of those community members who are of no obvious immediate use value might be one marker of what we call civilization.

Contrast those crows to the opinions of one Northern California city official:

A Northern California city official has been ousted after he suggested on social media that sick, old and homeless people should be left to meet their “natural course in nature” during the coronavirus pandemic.
City council members in Antioch, a city of about 110,000 people 35 miles east of Oakland, voted unanimously Friday night to remove Ken Turnage II from his post as chairman of the city’s planning commission.
NBC Bay Area reports there was a swift uproar after Turnage characterized people with weak immune systems as a drain on society.
He wrote on Facebook: “the World has been introduced to a new phrase Herd Immunity which is a good one. In my opinion we need to adapt a Herd Mentality. A herd gathers it ranks, it allows the sick, the old, the injured to meet its natural course in nature.”
As for homeless people, he added that the virus would “fix what is a significant burden on our society and resources that can be used.”

Mr. Turnage was not writing about a triage situation in some hospital where ventilators might be so scarce that health care providers must decide who can get them**.  Rather, his comments appear to be about everyday life***.  But our resources are not so scarce that we would have to make terrible choices about who can get them.

As an aside, I love him calling that view "a Herd Mentality!"

* For pretty obvious (mostly psychological) reasons, what we call "news" tends to mostly consist of "bad news." We want to know about possible future risks and how to avoid them.  But good news are also news, and trying to see them serves to keep us more mentally balanced.

**  The usual examples where Mr. Turnage's views would be mentioned are all about truly catastrophic situations:  People in a life boat with enough water or food for only a few of them, an isolated tribe facing mass starvation if it tries to feed all members of the tribe, only one available ventilator remaining in a hospital and three patients needing it, and so on.  But Mr. Turnage extended that way of thinking to everyday society, perhaps so that the economy could be quickly re-opened.

***  Even if we all adopted Mr. Turnage's callous world view, it is unlikely that even he would like the world thus created.  That's because almost everyone, including, Mr. Turnage, would one day fall into the category of individuals with no remaining immediate use value while still having some life years left. 

This, in turn, would change the incentives of all individuals about how they would behave toward others in the same community.  Altruism, for instance, would be much rarer because at least some altruism is based on the expectation that if one helps others then one day those others will return the help.  Nobody would be willing to serve in the armed forces if returning wounded or disabled veterans would just be thrown away.  And so on.

Mr. Turnage also ignores the fact that the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting black and Hispanic communities.  Although many of the reasons for the higher infection and death rates among black and Hispanic communities are directly or indirectly linked to poverty (which correlates with race and ethnicity) and (especially) for the black communities also to the impact of historic institutional racism, some are due to the fact that many of the now-essential workers come from exactly these racial and/or ethnic groups:

On the first, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NYC is a useful and disturbing example. As the New York Times reported last week, bus and subway workers have been hit hard by the coronavirus: 41 dead and more than 6,000 either diagnosed with Covid-19 or self-quarantining because they have symptoms that suggest an infection, as of April 8.
Who works for the MTA? Black people and Latinos. They account for more than 60 percent of the agency’s workforce in New York City, according to estimates from 2016.
Black people in particular are overrepresented in the MTA; they are 46 percent of the city’s transportation workers versus 24 percent of its overall population. (White people, on the other hand, make up 30 percent of local MTA employees but 43 percent of NYC residents.)
This is, again, true across cities and sectors. As Devan Hawkins wrote in the Guardian, black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be employed in the essential services that have been exempted from state stay-at-home orders, and they are more likely to work in health care and in hospitals. In America as in other countries, health care workers make up a disproportionate share of Covid-19 cases.
 Being an essential worker is exactly the reverse of how Mr. Turnage depicts the victims of the coronavirus pandemic.  These are the people we really need right now, and they are dying at higher rates.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

While Staying At Home: Echidne Stuff Which Might Distract You For A Moment

1.  Things you notice while self-isolating:  The Decline Of The Humble Garlic.

What happened to garlic?  Once upon a time a head of garlic had several plump cloves, easily detached from the head, and very easily peeled. The skin came off with just a little bit of rubbing.

Now, unless I shop very carefully*, I get heads of garlic where someone has glued the skin on with superglue.  Attempts to peel the cloves leave sticky garlic skin over all surfaces, including me and the nearby floor.  And what looks like one medium-sized plump clove turns out to be a group of five or six thin sliver cloves, each wearing its own garlic winter coat skin.  Peeling those micro-cloves requires a magnifying class and takes hours.

This makes me grumpy.

2.  I got even grumpier when scrubbing the floor.  A particular stubborn dried marmalade stain low on a nearby wall made me start scrubbing the woodwork around the door.  It is old and battered, that woodwork, and so my scrubbing allowed a splinter to slide under the nail of my right middle finger.  The "giving the finger" finger.

The pain was pretty exuberant, so I swore as exuberantly while looking for the smallest tweezers in the house.  When I found them I took a deep breath and then yanked the splinter out.  Luckily it came out in one piece.  Less luckily, everything went dark for a second.

After disinfecting (a lot of disinfecting), I felt relief.  Then the lessons I learned:

-  Wear those housework gloves when scrubbing floors, even when they are uncomfortable.
-  There is a good reason why torturers use this particular trick.

3.  Mask-making.  I have now made many face masks.  The first ones I made out of vacuum cleaner bags, using a pattern which follows the shape of the face.  For ties I used various ribbons, piping and elastic thread I had hoarded in the past.

Those work pretty well, but they are rough against the skin, so the next generation of masks has two layers of cotton material (pillowcases) sandwiching several very thin layers of slightly different filmy material from the insides of vacuum cleaner bags.  They are quite comfortable, but I have no idea how effective they are.

I have also made a few cloth masks without any fillers.

While doing all that I mused on the fact that an extremely rich country now has several areas where people are required to wear masks outside (a good requirement), but where getting those masks is left completely to the individuals.  Indeed, one article recommended home-sewing as the answer to this supply-side problem. 

Most people probably don't know how to sew and even fewer have sewing machines.  There are methods allowing the making of no-sew masks, of course, and a bandana works in a pinch.

But still.  There's something very Trumpian about the way a very public health problem is now partly addressed by home-spun and private solutions.  This is because Trump does not seem to see much of a role for the federal government in combating covid-19.  Earlier he implied** that states would be on their own in acquiring masks, gowns, and so on for health care workers.  This has resulted in something like a Wild West market where individual states are bidding against each other.

I believe the reason is that Trump doesn't understand which tasks even conservatives see as the role of the federal government. 


*  Whole Paycheck has some expensive ones which are like the old-time garlic, so not all garlic has suddenly mutated. 

** From here:

Trump initially indicated states should try to buy supplies themselves, but they found themselves competing with each other and the federal government as they scoured the globe for supplies. The president then said he would distribute some supplies, but a failure to start the process earlier and put a single agency in charge exacerbated manufacturing and distribution problems, according to local, state and federal officials.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The President And The Pandemic

The New York Times analyzed Trump's comments about the current pandemic from March 9 to mid-April.  The results will not surprise you at all if you have read my earlier post about Trump's narcissism:

The New York Times analyzed every word Mr. Trump spoke at his White House briefings and other presidential remarks on the virus — more than 260,000 words — from March 9, when the outbreak began leading to widespread disruptions in daily life, through mid-April. The transcripts show striking patterns and repetitions in the messages he has conveyed, revealing a display of presidential hubris and self-pity unlike anything historians say they have seen before.
By far the most recurring utterances from Mr. Trump in the briefings are self-congratulations, roughly 600 of them, which are often predicated on exaggerations and falsehoods. He does credit others (more than 360 times) for their work, but he also blames others (more than 110 times) for inadequacies in the state and federal response.
Mr. Trump’s attempts to display empathy or appeal to national unity (about 160 instances) amount to only a quarter of the number of times he complimented himself or a top member of his team.
Bolds are mine.

That his attempts to display empathy are fairly rare is because he cannot feel empathy but must simulate it.  Neither can he really understand why others find empathy important in a leader.  This is because he literally does not have the capacity to feel empathy (and not because he would be particularly sadistic, say).

These are the consequences of so many people voting for someone with this particular personality type to run the country.  

Other consequences also follow:

Narcissism also makes learning new things seem pointless.  After all, a narcissist must already pretend to be perfect, which makes extra learning unnecessary!  Thus, we now have a president who can't be bothered to learn anything, but who enjoys publicly speculating* about possible treatments that could work against the virus.  Ingesting bleach might work, he speculates.

Trump does not like the new game he accidentally began, about his theories about disinfectants and the effect of light on the coronavirus, because that is a tough game for him to win against medical experts.  His current countermove is to state that he was being sarcastic and that he was talking to the press, his favorite enemy, not to the medical expert present at the time.  Sadly, all video evidence suggests that neither of those countermoves are true.

It will be interesting to see which new outrage-game he will start to move the media's attention away from the game he dislikes.

Actually, it's not interesting at all, and neither is dissecting Trump's various rage tweets or the moves in his narcissistic games.  All this could have been avoided in 2016.

In the meantime, the US covid-19 deaths are likely to exceed 60,000, even with a calculation method likely to lead to severe under-counting of actual deaths either directly or indirectly caused by the virus.

* Because he craves the attention.  Negative attention is better than no attention, though adulation is what he is looking for.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

How Old Are Mass Killers?

The latest terrible mass slaughter in Nova Scotia, Canada made me think about the demographic characteristics of mass killers.  Most violent crime, in general, is committed by young or youngish men*, and this seems to have been true for mass killings in the past, too.

But the Nova Scotia butcher was fifty-one.  The Las Vegas killer, in 2017, was sixty-four

Mass shootings are statistically fairly rare events.  That makes it hard to see if the two examples I give here are just outliers or if something might actually be changing in the age distribution of mass killers.

Still, this looks to me like a question worth exploring with proper research.**  If there is a change in the age distribution of mass killers, what might be driving it? 

Different weaponry?  Social change now appearing to threaten some in the older age groups?  Different ideologies becoming dominant (Fox News type), some perhaps disseminated by hate online sites and now reaching older age groups than in the past?  Different medicines and supplements older men might be routinely taking now but not in the past?

* Based on published statistics.

** Or it could all be my imagination.  That is always a possibility.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Why Trump Temporarily Stopped Immigration

He may have done that to toss some raw meat to his base, but his main reason has to do with narcissism (see this post for more information):

Narcissists play games.  All debates are games, and a narcissist must win all such games.  When it becomes clear that a narcissist might not actually win a particular debate, he or she will first try to turn the tables in that debate*, but if this cannot be done, the next solution is to start new games, games which the narcissists know they will win.  And those new games must be made so attractive to others that they forget to play the game the narcissist was losing.

Trump cannot win the conversation about how competent he has been in leading the country during this pandemic, and so he doesn't want that game played anymore.

To lure the media, and the rest of us, away from the game he wishes to be buried, he offers us alternative games, truly outrageous ones, and because he is very good at being a narcissist, the games he creates are like shiny baubles for magpies:  Journalists will flock to report on them, and this makes it less likely that Trump will have to lose the debate about his incompetence.

Those recent alternative games he has set up include his claim that masks in hospitals are rare because health care workers are stealing them, his de-funding of the World Health Organization,  and now his decision to temporarily stop all immigration to the US**.

Whatever other reasons he may have had for starting those particular games, their major function is to shift the play away from the one game he does not wish anyone to play.  And that is the question how well or poorly he is leading the country during a pandemic.


*  My description of the narcissistic games here is kept simpler than how such games actually work.  When I write "turning the tables" I mean the trick of taking whatever someone is being accused of and simply reversing that argument or finding comparable arguments that can be used against the original accuser.  In a sense those, too, are alternative games.

And of course many people who are not narcissists play some of those games, too.  The difference is that the narcissist always plays these games, always, and never admits to any kind of defeat.

** This particular alternative game is so very clearly intended for only that purpose.  Immigration is not exactly booming during this pandemic, and Trump cannot currently defend his immigration move as an attempt to protect Americans against the virus coming from abroad, given that the virus is already here and raging.

Friday, April 17, 2020

And More Plague Thoughts. Or On The Politics of The Current Pandemic.

A. I see the law of the hammer ("I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.") in action in the way the current pandemic is treated in various political contexts (1).

Those who have always been activists of a specific type still try to do that activism (a hammerer looking for nails to hammer) even when the current problems don't fit into that framework.  Creepy-crawlies floating in the air can't easily be hammered down, but if all you have is a hammer, well, you are going to try.

This is easy to relate to.  We have all been yanked out from what we used to regard as "the way things are," into a new and somewhat frightening reality.  Reflex actions and old learned reactions will happen under those circumstances, even if they don't make that much sense.  We all have our favorite tools for understanding the world and for trying to influence it.  We also all have our favorite causes, and it can be tough to see that others currently pay no attention to them or what we say about them.  We then hammer even more.

Do not confuse what Our Supreme Leader is doing with just the law of the hammer.  Or at least do not think that he might, with time, learn to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.  He will not, because it's not just that all he has is a hammer:  He Is The Hammer.

That seemed like a good sentence at first but of course it's pure crap, and an example of my own hammering tendencies (2).

Trump is not a hammer but an extreme narcissist.  Because of that, he runs the pandemic in ways which protects his ego from all real and imaginary attacks (see this post for more).  He doesn't care about any other aspect of the pandemic. 

As part of that protection strategy, he starts several simultaneous games with the media and with various international organizations, all intended to take any blame away from him, and many intended to be so outrageous that the journalists will flock to play some alternative game to the one currently threatening Trump's ego (that he is incompetent).  His most recent alternative game is to cut payments to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The proper response to Trump's games has always been not to play them but to stick to the important questions about how he is dealing with the pandemic in this country.  And yes, that proper response is a hard one to stick to, given that this particular narcissist just might be the most powerful man in this world.

B.  Speaking of powerful men, an NYT briefing from ten days ago asked how the new global crop of populist right-wing dictators is coping with the pandemic (3).

That is a good question.  In theory, at least a benevolent dictator (should there ever be such a creature) should have all the powers needed to enforce quarantine orders, to allocate health care supplies properly to those areas needing them most and to create a testing plan which quickly gets the epidemic under control.

In practice a "benevolent dictator" might be an oxymoronic term (4). The new populist strongmen sound to me a lot like our own wannabe dictator, where many motives can best be traced back to narcissism.  One recent example comes from Brazil where the strongman dictator Jair Bolsonaro fired his health minister because the latter was far more popular than Bolsonaro himself.

C.  Returning to that law of the hammer, it is pretty easy to see that the Trump administration, and the Republicans in the Senate,  are still focusing on their real main task which is to build more and more pipelines to move the maximum amount of wealth into the back-pockets of the Rich Boyz.  Remember all those tax cuts?

Something similar is happening with the coronavirus relief package:

More than 80 percent of the benefits of a tax change tucked into the coronavirus relief package Congress passed last month will go to those who earn more than $1 million annually, according to a report by a nonpartisan congressional body expected to be released Tuesday.
The provision, inserted into the legislation by Senate Republicans, temporarily suspends a limitation on how much owners of businesses formed as “pass-through” entities can deduct against their nonbusiness income, such as capital gains, to reduce their tax liability. The limitation was created as part of the 2017 Republican tax law to offset other tax cuts to firms in that legislation.
Suspending the limitation will cost taxpayers about $90 billion in 2020 alone, part of a set of tax changes that will add close to $170 billion to the national deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the nonpartisan congressional body.
I don't get the Republican insistence on all this.  Any country with extremely skewed income and wealth distributions will be an unpleasant and dangerous place to live in, even for those who have money.  Why can't the Republicans be content with the current (already far too skewed) distributions?

I guess the answer is in short-term victories and short-term greed.

(1)  Both in official places and online. Twitter, Facebook, political blogs and so on are all demonstrating how difficult it is to suddenly shift one's focus.

(2)  Using my "elegant" sarcasm and my forked tongue and my "supreme" rationality (flaps eyelashes, looks down along the nose) to attack all sorts of crap in politics, including political tribalism, falsified data, lying and so on.  That hammer has long been useless as most other people are now equipped with nail guns which run on emotions, persuasion, shaming, greed and so on.  All those are more powerful in politics than the sort of stuff I used to do here.

(3)  For some reason the link didn't work for me today.  This is what it said:

In responding to the coronavirus pandemic, the world’s autocrats are turning to their tried-and-tested tool kits, employing a mixture of propaganda, repression and ostentatious shows of strength to exude an aura of total control over an inherently chaotic situation.
For Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, that meant deploying chemical warfare troops, clad in protective suits and armed with disinfectant, to the streets of Cairo, in a theatrical display of military muscle projected via social media.

Russia’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, donned the plastic suit himself, in canary yellow, for a visit to a Moscow hospital for coronavirus patients. Then he dispatched to Italy 15 military planes filled with medical supplies and emblazoned with the slogan “From Russia with Love.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a prodigious jailer of journalists, locked up a few reporters who criticized his early efforts to counter the virus, then sent a voice message to the phone of every citizen over 50, stressing that he had everything under control.
And in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most repressive countries, where not a single infection has been officially declared, the president for life, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, promoted his book on medicinal plants as a possible solution to the pandemic.

(4)  Perhaps a hereditary ruler might in some rare cases qualify for that label?  I am not certain.

But those who come into power through some type of populist uprising tend not to be benevolent at all.  Indeed, several marks of narcissism appear to be common in the various strongmen rulers.  Also marks of misogyny, of course, but then a truly oppressive right-wing dictatorship cannot run without it.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Plague Thoughts

1.  The daily numbers about people dying from Covid-19 and about new cases found through testing are useful information, but when they are employed for international comparisons absolute numbers (counts) are not that informative.

That's because countries have quite different population sizes and because there are very few places where we have even an inkling of the TOTAL numbers of individuals who have had the virus, including those who had mild or asymptomatic cases.  Also, the level and type of testing which is done varies wildly.

I am not saying that we shouldn't also report the counts because they are crucial for making sure that the health care systems are prepared.  But relative counts are also needed.  For the most obvious example, the case casualty rate (mortality rate) depends on the total numbers of people who have been or are infected by the virus.  We don't know what those totals might be, except perhaps for countries like Iceland.

2.  Trying to get information on the etiology of Covid-19 is extremely difficult for everyone, even for the experts, because we are talking about a brand new virus.

There is no substitute for proper studies and doing those studies requires data which is not yet available. 

Until we get those studies my advice for us lay people is to take everything we read (about miracle cures or about abandoning all hope and so on) with a big pinch of salt (not real salt!) and to err on the side of caution in how we live our lives.

3.  I watched the Queen's Speech about this pandemic, even though I am not British, and it made me tear up a bit.  Mostly because she demonstrated moral leadership* only a day or two after Our Supreme Leader demonstrated its exact opposite in that face mask debacle:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump announced new federal guidelines Friday recommending that Americans wear face coverings when in public to help fight the spread of the new coronavirus. The president immediately said he had no intention of following that advice himself, saying, “I'm choosing not to do it."

4.  Domestic violence rates are rising in many countries because of the policies encouraging or ordering people to stay at home.  The reasons for such increases are pretty obvious:  The pandemic causes extra stress, abusers use violence as a release valve for that stress, and the usual targets for that violence are conveniently nearby and unable to easily escape.

On the more positive side, several countries are aware of this extra risk and are working on solutions.

5. What do you do for your mental and emotional health under these very trying conditions?

I have upped my tai chi and qigong practice, baked Finnish cinnamon buns** and fixed a few things that annoyed me at Snakepit Inc, including a broken handrail in the staircase.  I even dragged out my old sewing machine (it's extremely old, bought used and I have had it for a long time) which I used to make lots of face masks and also several new throw pillows for the living-room.

Reading books which have nothing to do with today is also a good escape.  Or if you like to read something vaguely relevant, the Decameron*** might keep you busy for a few days.


*  Whatever your opinions of the monarchy and so on might be, you can't argue that Elizabeth doesn't know what her actual job is and I think she does it quite well.  Trump, on the other hand, cannot stop from centering himself in everything he utters.  Or does.  The latter is the more frightening part of him having all sorts of secret presidential powers.

**  Like cinnamon buns except also flavored with cardamom and, ideally,  with some nib sugar on top.  The way they scent up the whole house while in the oven is wonderful. 

***  I read it as a preteen for the first time (borrowed it from the local library not knowing what it was as I was going through the books methodically in alphabetical order).  It was exciting because of the sexual bits, but even at that age I knew that the sex wasn't described from the woman's point of view.

If you like to read something vaguely relevant but sad, Camus' The Plague might suit you.  I don't recommend it, to be honest, and neither do I recommend spending a lot of time on those online sites where the message is omygodweareallgonnadienow.

That's because protecting our mental health is also pretty important.

Monday, March 30, 2020

On Trump's Assertion That Masks Are Stolen In Hospitals. The Games He Plays.

I used to write, all the time,  about Trump's inane statements, about his ignorance, his lack of interest in learning and about his extreme selfishness. 

I no longer think those writing exercises improved the health of our nation in any way (1).  Enough Americans (and Vlad "The Impaler" Putin) in 2016 had no problem with electing an ignorant narcissist to run the so-called Free world.  They knew what they would get, liking it well enough.  And they still like him well enough.

So I haven't written much about Trump in recent months. (2)  But perhaps this is worth re-stating:

Trump is a narcissist.  This means that he doesn't have certain moral senses most of us share.  He can intellectually understand empathy, and he can even mimic it, but he doesn't know how empathy feels. 

He lives in a world centered around his ego.  The crucial part of understanding this is not that he is selfish (though he is) or that he sees himself as the Sun God of this century (though he does).  The crucial part to understand is that for him his ego, his very self, is like a soap bubble, hovering in a dark world full of sharp objects.  It is extremely fragile. (3)

It must be defended!  Anything piercing that soap bubble would burst it — pop! — and then there would be no Donald Trump.  And the things which threaten that soap bubble consist of everything which threatens the greatness of Donald Trump.

Once you understand this, you can predict almost everything he will say or do.  He will judge all news on the basis of how they make him look, and he will deem the news fake if they make him look bad. He will vigorously attack all criticism and all critics, and he will punish the critics with all means available to him.  He. Must. Win.

Winning, for him, equals keeping the iridescent soap bubble intact.  If he doesn't win, the bubble will burst.  That's why he never gives up in his stupid email fights, and that's why those fights so often seem to be about little personal things which a president should not care about.  But for Trump the personal barbs are the worst barbs.  They threaten his very existence, and must be fought.

If it looks like he is not winning a particular debate, he will convert it into a different debate, one which he cannot lose.  All narcissists are masters in that game, and this is one instance where, indeed, Trump might be the greatest of all.

That is the background against which we should read his comments about masks being stolen in New York hospitals:

President Donald Trump alleged that a New York hospital lost protective masks or even allowed them to be stolen, questioning how demand for the product could have spiked so rapidly during the coronavirus outbreak.
Trump cited no evidence and didn’t identify the hospital.
By suggesting something this outrageous, Trump takes some pressure off himself, because the diversion he opens here is one journalists will eagerly follow.  Not because they believe what Trump is stating, but because they do not believe it, and wish to make the facts in the case quite clear.  But by doing that they are cooperating with Trump by doing what he intended:  To shift the debate away from the problems of his leadership in this pandemic to other outrageous topics which do not threaten his soap bubble.

(1)  That is a bit grandiose.  I don't have enough readers to make much of a difference, though I do have many influential readers (believe it or not) and all my readers are wonderful brainy and compassionate people.

(2)  Or about anything else. The reasons are complicated, but I have been ill for a couple of months.  It's likely that I had the Coronavirus in February, though without easy testing for antibodies there is no way of telling now.  Whatever it was, it caused a tornado of various after-effects.  I'm slowly recovering and getting shiny eyes back and so on.

(3)  I am not a psychologist so cannot talk about the reasons for Trump's fragile ego, though his parents and especially his cold and rejecting father probably had a role in creating him the way he is now.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Short Posts About Women And Gender: Sexism in Politics, Online and In House-Cleaning; New Definition of Feminism And Some Fun Stuff

1.  One study strongly suggests that sexism played some role in Elizabeth Warren's performance in the primaries:

Data for Progress surveyed 2,953 likely Democratic primary voters in August, 2019 and then re-interviewed as many of them as possible (n = 1,619) at the end of January, 2020 -- just before the Iowa caucuses. In the first wave of the survey, respondents reported how much they agreed or disagreed with four statements that are meant to gauge one’s level of “hostile sexism”: 
  1. Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.
  2. Women are too easily offended.
  3. Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them.
  4. Women seek to gain power by getting control over men.
As you might imagine, many Democratic primary voters tend to strongly disagree with all of these statements, but this is not true for everyone. Roughly one-third of likely Democratic voters do not, on average, disagree with these statements.


...Warren received little-to-no support from the roughly one third of the Democratic primary electorate that does not reject these sentiments. The current front-runners, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, have support from voters with a variety of views on these items.

The linked article stresses that there are many other reasons why someone might not have cared for Warren's policies.  But sexism seems to have played a role.

It's also possible that some primary voters engaged in what the linked article calls second-round sexism, i.e., the belief that other voters are likely to be sexist and that having a woman as the Democratic candidate in the general elections is going to make defeating Trump less likely.  This strategy, then, would explain why the remaining two Democratic candidates are white men roughly Trump's own age:  Minimize all differences except for the bits about Trump people hate so that as many as possible will not vote for him.

2.  Sir Tom Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world-wide web, is worried about the way women and girls are treated online:

Berners-Lee highlights three areas that need “urgent” attention. First is the digital divide that keeps more than half of the world’s women offline, largely because it is too expensive, or they do not have access to the equipment or skills to use it.
Second is online safety: according to a survey by Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation, more than half of young women have experienced violence online, including sexual harassment, threatening messages and having private images shared without consent. The vast majority believe the problem is getting worse.
The third threat comes from badly designed artificial intelligence systems that repeat and exacerbate discrimination. “Many companies are working hard to tackle this discrimination. But unless they dedicate resources and diversify teams to mitigate bias, they risk expanding discrimination at a speed and scale never seen before,” he writes.
I would add to that list all the misogynistic hate sites, including the incel sites, and the radical hatred of all women they disseminate.

I have no idea what a workable solution to this problem might look like, though it could help if other users strongly disapproved of social media behavior which consists of misogyny, sexual harassment and the like.  In other words, the social norm on this needs changing.

3.  I felt a strong sense of deja-vu reading a new Guardian piece which asks if it is ever acceptable for a feminist to hire a cleaner.  That's because roughly the same story was written by my favorite anti-feminist, Caitlin Flanagan, some fifteen years ago, and I wrote about it then.

The hidden framework both those articles use goes something like this:

Most unpaid work at home shall be defined as Women's Work.  If a woman refuses to do it so that she can do more paid Men's Work outside the home, then poorer and more oppressed women must fill the gap she is leaving by that refusal.  Because that unpaid work at home is Women's Work.
This means that the liberation of middle-class women comes at the expense of working-class women, and is not real liberation.  

The only ethical solution is for all feminists to do their own Women's Work *. 

It's worth spelling that out given that the class (or capitalist) analysis the argument otherwise applies is equally valid for studying similar ethical questions in the lives of, say, male stockbrokers who choose not to clean their own offices at work and who choose not to launder their own suits or iron their own shirts.

Perhaps the ethics of those choices tend not to be questioned because they are seen as taking place in the public sphere or in a marketplace and not at home?

But what about that same male stockbroker who employs a cleaning lady to clean his fancy townhouse?  Why would the ethical considerations there be any different?   In any case, why are questions about who cleans the toilet seen as somehow the responsibility of women alone when lots of people use those toilets in many households?

The problem with this analysis is that it conflates two different questions.  One of them is low-pay work and the exploitation of workers.  The other one is labeling certain chores as belonging to women and then holding women to different standards than men when it comes to exploiting low-paid workers.  The solution to the worker-exploitation problem is better labor market protections and fairer wages.  The solution to labeling certain chores as inherently belonging to women only is to stop doing that.

4.  The Planned Parenthood website has a glossary of terms.  One of them defines feminism in a manner I have not seen used before:

The belief that people of all genders should have equitable economic, political, sexual, and social rights.
 My guess is that this definition tries to update and expand the traditional definition of feminism which has to do with equitable rights for both sexes.  But switching from sex to gender causes difficulties which the writer of that definition might not have thought about:

When someone writes "all genders" the basis for defining "gender" is probably coming from the gender identity school of thought, which assumes that all individuals have a gender identity which is not based on their actual biological sex but may correlate with it (in which case one is called cisgender inside that school of thought) or not (in which case one is called transgender or nonbinary).

The decoupling of biological sex from gender identity and the use of the latter to define "gender" (what men and women and nonbinary people are) then means that all the genders in the above definition will contain both female-bodied people and male-bodied people (though the relative percentages vary widely).

Suppose abortion was banned.  Would the new feminism, as defined in the above quote, be concerned about this ban?

I don't see how it could be concerned, because the imagined abortion ban would not be singling out any particular gender, as long as all genders contained some male- and some female-bodied people.  All genders would be equally constrained by that abortion ban, and in that sense their rights would remain equitable**.

If this is the way feminism is now defined, then no social justice movement addresses sex-based oppression, despite it still being probably the type of oppression in this world which has the largest number of victims.  So I hope that this is not the generally used new definition, or that people using it figure out how to amend it to allow the traditional tasks of feminism to still be carried out.

5.  Finally, some fun things about women.  Here are ten inspiring stories about individual women (from the International Women's Day celebrations).  This story is about a painting now attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi which was earlier attributed to a male pupil of her father.  And here are colorized pictures of British women working in factories and such during WWI.


* This is, in fact, also the conclusion of the author of the Guardian piece!  The unequal distribution of work at home (child care, cooking, cleaning, laundry) is one reason why women earn less than men, on average, so it's odd to see a self-declared feminist recommend that more women increase their share of that work, and it's even odder to see how quickly she gets past the idea that men should chip in more.

It's also somewhat difficult to see how not hiring cleaning ladies would make their lot better, or how the valuing of  traditional women's work would increase if more women voluntarily do it for bed and board.

**  Similar problems crop up with pregnancy discrimination in the labor market.  When individuals from all genders can get pregnant, discriminating on the basis of pregnancy is actually not gender-based discrimination.

Actually, similar problems crop up with all aspects of sex-based oppression, including sex-based labor market discrimination, sex-based religious rules which limit women's lives, sexual violence and harassment which are predominantly aimed at female bodies (or bodies which look female to others) and so on.

It's worth noting that trans women, for instance, can also suffer from sex-based oppression when others view them as women, and that female-bodied nonbinary individuals are unlikely to be able to escape sexism, given that sexism depends on how others view us, not on how we view ourselves.  Thus, the importance of understanding (and being able to measure and analyze) sex-based oppression is not limited to just those the gender identity school would call cisgender women.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Trump Administration And the Coronavirus Pandemic

Two years ago Donald Trump, Our Leader Extraordinaire:

ordered the shutdown of the White House National Security Council's entire global health security unit. NBC News had a good report on this recently, noting that the president's decision "to downsize the White House national security staff -- and eliminate jobs addressing global pandemics -- is likely to hamper the U.S. government's response to the coronavirus."

And how does he now justify that decision?  Like this:

"I just think this is something, Peter, that you can never really think is going to happen. You know, who -- I've heard all about, 'This could be...' -- you know, 'This could be a big deal,' from before it happened. You know, this -- something like this could happen.... Who would have thought? Look, how long ago is it? Six, seven, eight weeks ago -- who would have thought we would even be having the subject? ... You never really know when something like this is going to strike and what it's going to be."

This is the kind of presidential awareness millions of American voters felt comfortable with..

There's a reason why we want smart, knowledgeable and experienced people running countries and important public organizations.  There's a reason why having years of experience matters.  There's a reason for not engaging one's hind-brain in the selection of leaders.

My anger about Trump's incompetence, denials and clear lack of overall understanding comes from seeing how terribly poorly the US is coping, compared to other industrialized countries.  Testing for the coronavirus in this country has been almost a farce so far:

A week later, the United States declared a public health emergency, a process designed to speed the development of diagnostic tests and other medical products. The CDC received the first “emergency use authorization” to make and distribute its test to the backbone of the public health system in the United States — mostly state labs.

But the emergency policy, intended to keep quality high, also discouraged hospital labs from quickly developing in-house tests. They would need specific approval from the FDA to do so.

“Since CDC and FDA haven’t authorized public health or hospital labs to run the tests, right now #CDC is the only place that can. So, screening has to be rationed,” Gottlieb tweeted on Feb. 2.

The CDC manufactured kits, and on Feb. 6 and 7, 90 test kits were shipped to the public health labs. Some labs began to have trouble with the test. On Feb. 12, the CDC announced the test was providing inconclusive results in some laboratories. The problem was in one of the three components of the test.
How do other countries manage to test thousands of people, then?  What about using the test kits they use?  The answer:

Some critics have questioned why the CDC didn’t switch to tests being used by other countries as soon as the problems arose, but the official said it would have taken longer to apply for a new authorization from the FDA and validate and manufacture a new test than it would to fix a test they knew worked in their own lab.

So it goes.  Currently the US testing is too narrow to allow us to tell much anything about the possible spread of coronavirus in different areas.  This means that we have no idea how correct the numbers of those infected might be.  And then there is this bit:

On Feb. 13, HHS Secretary Alex Azar testified before Congress that a limited five-city pilot would begin to add coronavirus to the usual flu surveillance system to see whether “there is broader spread than we have been able to detect so far.” But the plan was delayed because coronavirus tests weren’t available.

Wider testing for the virus is required to properly plan the need for hospital facilities and medical staff and for deciding when stronger quarantine policies might be in order.  So far the US testing has been totally inadequate for these purposes.  To put it into perspective:

As of Sunday, 1,707 Americans had been tested for the novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. South Korea, by contrast, has tested more than 189,000 people. The two countries announced their first coronavirus cases on the same day.
This looks like a clown show, to be honest.


Sunday, March 08, 2020

On Gender Norms And Women's Roles. Results From UNDP Surveys.

The New Sex/Gender Norms And Roles Survey:  Main Results

The UN Development Program (UNDP) has published new near-global survey results on social norms about gender.  The findings come from data collected in two waves in the World Values Survey.  The latest wave, from 2010 to 2014, covers surveys done in seventy-five countries.  For a sub-group of thirty-one countries, data is available for both waves in the World Values Survey (2005-2009 and 2010-2014). The latter allows us to see what might be happening over time in various countries about how people, both men and women, view women's proper roles and women's abilities and capabilities.

I spent some time with the results, what with today being the International Women's Day.  How gender roles, norms and gender stereotypes actually work in practice seems a useful topic for thought today, right?  After all, they are one of the main channels which guarantee that women don't stray outside the narrow and rigid traditional sex roles or retrogressive views about what femininity means and how it is properly demonstrated*.

The survey questions try to measure how people, both men and women, view women's empowerment in politics, education, economic life and in physical integrity within a particular culture.  The table below (click to make it larger) shows the questions that were asked:

Both the BBC and the UK Guardian reported on the main findings from the surveys.  Here's the Guardian:

Almost 90% of people are biased against women, according to a new index that highlights the “shocking” extent of the global backlash towards gender equality.
Despite progress in closing the equality gap, 91% of men and 86% of women hold at least one bias against women in relation to politics, economics, education, violence or reproductive rights.

And the BBC:

A new UN report has found at least 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against females.
The "Gender Social Norms" index analysed biases in areas such as politics and education in 75 countries.
Globally, close to 50% of men said they had more right to a job than women. Almost a third of respondents thought it was acceptable for men to hit their partners.
There are no countries in the world with gender equality, the study found.
The indices referred to in the above quotes are two.  The first one simply counts the percentage of people who hold at least one bias, and the second one counts the percentage of people who hold at least two biases**.

The report itself also summarizes more of the overall findings and also results about change over time in the sub-group of thirty-one countries with data from both waves.  Here are some extra overall findings:

About 50 percent of men and women interviewed across 75 countries say they think men make better political leaders than women, while more than 40 percent felt that men made better business executives. Almost 30 percent of people agree it is justifiable for a man to beat his partner.
Women are skewed towards less bias against gender equality and women’s empowerment. Men are concentrated in the middle of the distribution, with 52 percent having two to four gender social norm biases. More than 50 percent of women are biased in the political arena. Men present biases higher than 63 percent in both the political and economic dimensions, especially for the indicators “Men make better political leaders than women do” and “Men should have more right to a job than women.”Globally close to 50 percent of men agree men should have more right to a job than women.
And here are a few findings about changing social gender norms over time for the thirty-one countries with data from both waves:

More worrying, despite decades of progress in advancing women’s rights, bias against gender equality is increasing in some countries, with evidence of a backlash in attitudes among both men and women.
According to the GSNI2, the proportion of people with moderate and intense biases against gender equality grew over the last few years in 15 countries (out of 31). The share of both women and men worldwide with moderate to intense gender biases grew from 57 percent to 60 percent for women and from 70 percent to 71 percent for men (table 3). Surveys have shown that younger men may be even less committed to equality than their elders.34

Progress in the share of men with no gender social norms bias was largest in Chile, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands (figure 7). At the other extreme, indicating a backlash, the share of men with no bias fell in Sweden, Germany, India and Mexico. The share of women with no gender social norms bias increased the most in the Netherlands, Chile and Australia. But most countries in the sample showed a backlash, led by Sweden, India, South Africa and Romania (see figure 7).

All the above findings matter, of course.  But it's worth diving much deeper into these survey results, to see stuff that becomes invisible in the averaging process that produced those frightening overall percentages.   That's what I do in the next section.

Individual Country Data And Change Over Time

Certain overall patterns are visible across all countries in both the waves of the World Values Survey.  The most important one is that women, almost everywhere,  are less likely to hold the biases the report analyzes than men, though the differences are not large.  That the male and female average biases go together within each country demonstrates the importance of culture, tradition and religion.  All of us grow up absorbing the cultural and religious norms of our communities, after all.

To give an extreme example of this, consider the respondents without any gender social norm bias in the country data of the surveys.  Sweden, a gender-egalitarian country, has extremely high percentages of both men and women who expressed no gender bias in the two waves of the survey, though those numbers declined from the first two wave to the second: 

In 2004-2009 82.2% of women and 79.79% of men showed zero gender bias, while in 2010-2014 the respective percentages fell to 71.69% and 68.29%.

In contrast, corresponding numbers for Jordan, a country with little gender-equality, looked very different.  In 2004-2009 the percentage of both men and women without any gender norm bias was 0.4%, and in 2010-2014 rather similar results applied, with 0.83% of women and 0.5% of men showing zero bias.

The point I wish to make is that the overall averages reported in the BBC and the Guardian hide large amounts of variation between countries

Some countries (Jordan, Ghana, India, Malaysia, Rwanda, South Africa and Turkey among the countries for which data is available for two waves***) show very strong bias against women's empowerment (so that the percentage of respondents showing no bias at all is at most only a few percentage points), while some other countries (Sweden, Australia and the Netherlands among the countries for which data is available for two waves) show strong social agreement about the desirability of social, political and economic equality between men and women (so that the percentage of either men or women or both who hold no bias exceeds fifty percent).

Most countries fall between these two extremes.  The United States comes closer to the latter group than the former, with 46.09 % of women and 39.08% of men showing no bias in the 2010-2014 wave of the survey.

The United States is also one of the countries for which reported bias shrank between the two survey waves, for both men and women.  The change was especially large for men (from 33.06% to 39.08%).  This is, of course, great news.

The following picture demonstrates changes in how respondents view gender norms about women between the two survey waves:

In interpreting it, keep in mind that, for instance, Swedish men and women still hold much more gender-equal views than Chilean men and women.
In general, I would counsel caution in how we would interpret the data on changing gender norm bias over time.  Stuff like this, reproduced from a quote above:
Progress in the share of men with no gender social norms bias was largest in Chile, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands (figure 7). At the other extreme, indicating a backlash, the share of men with no bias fell in Sweden, Germany, India and Mexico.
That's because this particular survey has only been done twice.  Specific events (and news about them) immediately preceding a particular wave of the survey could influence the answers of the respondents in that wave, even if there was  no longer term trend toward more or less bias against women's empowerment.  It's also worth checking if demographic changes in the populations to be surveyed are controlled for before interpreting the findings as changes in the gender norm biases rather than in the population composition.

Relating to all this, note that the general dismal findings might perhaps not be so dismal.  This, too, has to do with the fact that these surveys are very recent.  My guess is that data from earlier times would have shown even more gender norm bias.

On Descriptive And Normative Bias

What does all this data really mean?  It's important to note that the questions respondents were asked could elicit both descriptive and normative bias.  The former relates to how things actually are in a particular society, the latter to how things "ought to be" in that same society.

It is possible that some respondents interpreted in the results as holding biases are answering on the basis of descriptive bias.  As an example, if you live in a country where men are almost all the bread-winners stating that it's more important for men than women to get a university education might just be a statement of fact, not an expression of one's normative beliefs of how that society should be arranged or how women's lives should be regulated.  Likewise, a respondent agreeing that men make better political leaders than women gives a statement hard to interpret if no woman has ever held political power in that respondent's country.  How does one evaluate a statement like that without any data?  Perhaps by assuming that the way things are is based on actual male advantage?  But that assumption hasn't actually been tested.

Final Comments

I hope you read this far.  I almost didn't write this far, what with my body falling apart and so on.  The take-home message to me, after wading through lots of tables and text, is not to take it for granted that equality between men and women will just go on increasing, rather than stalling or even reversing.  In fact, the survey itself notes that advances appear to have slowed down and may have even ended in some parts of this earth.

For those wishing a happier concluding comment, you can always look at the complement of the overall findings:  If one third of the respondents seem to think that men can use physical violence against their partners, then two thirds don't think that way, and if almost half of all men think that men have more right to a job than women, then more than half of all men don't think that way.

*  In my view getting rid of all the gender roles, norms and stereotypes about femininity and masculinity that we possibly can is the only functional road to a more feminist and fairer world.

** The cutoff points and aggregation methods used in the report when constructing the two indices from qualitative answers are, of course, to some extent based on choice. Some choices are easier than others.  For instance, to call an answer biased when it "strongly agrees" or "agrees" that men's access to jobs matters more is a fairly straightforward choice.  But what does one do when someone's agreement or disagreement with an assertion is a number picked from a ten point scale?  Where, on that scale does one draw the bias line?

***  This choice is based on nothing but my current lassitude, caused by ill health.  All the same stuff can be seen in the larger data set, but I wasn't going to go and copy numbers twice, sorry.  Rests weary head against the cool pillow.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Dispatches from the Fever Bed

I have the flu.  I have the flu after I got the flu vaccine.  This is the third year in a row (vaccine-flu, vaccine-flu, vaccine-flu).  Someone up there (Zeus, you bugger?) does not care for me. 

That is an explanation for part of the silence on this blog.  The rest is to do with my deep self-doubts about the value of doing the kind of work I have tried to do here.

When I get some clarity on the latter I will let you know.  Because you are all, of course,  waiting for that with bated breath....

Just kidding.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A Parroting Interlude

Have a singing and dancing Finnish parrot, Nakke:

My own current parroting/writing abilities are taking a vacation right now.  No joy in Snakepit Inc.

Nakke, by the way, appears to vocalize in a rather meaningful manner.  In the next video he drops a mug off the counter in the kitchen and then states "look."  When he drops the tea towel, he mutters "finished."

Sunday, February 16, 2020

My sensitivity To Tap Water

Last weekend I traveled to New York City and for various reasons, largely laziness, ended up drinking a lot of tap water and coffee and tea made out of tap water.  I then spent three days sick with stomach pains and extreme diarrhea.  My apologies for you having to read that. 

I cannot drink tap water now without getting sick.  If that sounds like something from the Twilight Zone, I understand.  I wouldn't believe me, either,  if I hadn't experienced this.

My problem began six years ago, two weeks after (as I found out later) my local water authority changed the way water is treated.  At that time not all areas had switched to the new water-treatment system, and for a few years I could drink tap water while traveling in areas which had not yet  made the switch.

Indeed, this was how I realized the connection to tap water, early on:

I had experienced some vague symptoms for about a week, when I went away for a week and all symptoms disappeared.  I returned home, and after two days the symptoms were back.

I had to make another week-long trip after another week or so, the symptoms disappeared again, only to return when I returned to the Snakepit Inc.   Clearly, then, whatever was affecting me was linked to my home.

I began testing foods  and thinking about any possible home-related stressors (I always react with my stomach to everything*, even to falling in love).  At some point I shifted to drinking bottled spring water and the symptoms, which by then had gotten worse, got better.  When I began making tea and coffee with spring water, too, the symptoms completely disappeared.

I then designed a set of tests and went through them, methodically, to see which types of water caused the symptoms, by spending three days drinking each type of water and then returning to a week of spring water drinking.  The results of these experiments were that tap water, boiled tap water, filtered tap water, and purified water all caused the symptoms**.  Only spring water did not.

Fast forward to the present, and I am perfectly fine as long as I drink only spring water.  I can use tap water in, say, boiling pasta, but I can't make coffee with it.  That boiling the water makes no difference suggests that I am not reacting to bacteria in the water but to something different.  The timing of this problem strongly suggests*** that it is linked to the use of ozone treatment in water purification, possibly a sensitivity to the residuals created by it, even when their total amount is below the legal upper limit.


*  When I was a child my family moved to newly built accommodations shared by several families, all getting water from the same new well.  We lived in those accommodations during the five-day work-week and went away for the weekends.  Every week I got a stomach complaint by Wednesday and every week I recovered by Sunday night.  A medical checkup found no reason for this.

The inspection of the new well had been delayed.  When it was finally inspected, it was found to be polluted with E. coli bacteria.  Many others had drunk the same water, including other children, but I was the only one who showed symptoms.

When it comes to the stomach, I am the princess from the Princess And The Pea story.

** I also had the house water tested and it tested fine.  As an aside, I found the same sensitivity to coffee and tea served in the local area cafes, which further supported the theory that the flaw wasn't about the plumbing at Snakepit Inc. but somewhere else.

***  I contacted a few experts at the water authority about it and this is as far as they came with their suggestions, when I finally managed to convince them that I wasn't a total Mad Hatter.  Sigh.  Now that was fun, that convincing.