Friday, October 05, 2012

Conspiracies in the Labor Department!

This piece of news has fun stuff about how common conspiracy theories have become:

The big drop in the unemployment rate a month before the presidential election brought cries of disbelief and conspiracy theories from Jack Welch and other critics of the Obama administration Friday. But the Labor Department was quick to dismiss such claims.
"Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers," tweeted Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE, Fortune 500). Welch did not respond to a request for further comment on his tweet.

It's also a good reminder that practically anything one says online becomes public information.  Sorta like giving a press conference.

It's hard to say how seriously  Mr. Welch intended his tweet  to be taken, but the proper way of responding to data one doesn't believe in is to do that dratted and fearsome thing:  Research.

Go and find out if the basis for the calculations has changed from last year.  Go and check whether unemployment usually decreases this time of the year.  Think of alternative theories besides the conspiracy one, and test them against the same data.  And so on.  Or for people like  Mr. Welch, have your staff do this for you.

All that is much more work than tweeting, of course.  But I believe that conspiracy attitudes are becoming more common because of the way people use the Internet, by clustering in small circles of co-believers,  and because of the advent of politics-based news corporations which pre-filter reality for their audiences.  After a few years of that it's pretty hard to agree on what reality might be.

By the way, this works even across countries.  The US news media sometimes offer different takes on news than the news media in other countries.  Checking those alternative sources out can be informative, not the least because it helps in understanding why those furriners think the way they do.

Today's Funny Picture

From here:

It also serves to remind us of the default setting for human beings.  Looking at that picture does not make me think that it's men who might mess up the oceans but that it's  human beings.

If the cartoonist had depicted women,  I would read it as an argument about women only.  Because that's how the default  is set up in our minds.

Added later:  The picture also uses a race default which got me, too.  I think the default race depends on the country one lives in and its racial makeup.  The default gender does not.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

I Haven't Posted This One For A While

The First Presidential Debate. ZZZZZ.

Yeah,  it was boring, as performance art goes, and that's the way the debates are rated, I understand.  Like horse races or ballet or figure skating, and the journalists and talking heads are the judges.

Out of the trio on stage, Mitt Romney was the most awake, even hyper, and Jim Lehrer (the moderator)  perhaps the least awake.  Barack Obama seemed tired and only got going towards the end of the game.

That's enough of my scoring style points.   Fox News found Romney's performance beautiful:

Mitt Romney energized his campaign for president Wednesday night, charging out of his first debate having by most accounts from both sides of the political spectrum dominated President Obama in a stand-off for which he was evidently well-prepared.
The Republican nominee was quick on his feet, polished and feisty as he repeatedly cut off the moderator and challenged his opponent on the facts. His central argument -- that Obama's economic policies have consigned the middle class to an eroding "status quo."

Some voters might find cutting off the moderator disrespectful.  And of course one might wonder what Romney has in mind for the middle class, given the increasing income inequality in this country and his party's willingness to continue that trend.

What about the factual contents of the debate?  Those Romney challenges on Obama's facts, for instance?

Luckily, fact checks are getting pretty common among the mainstream media, though, sadly, that seems to mean that some of them end up a bit biased themselves.  Never mind.  Here are a bunch of sites you might want to look at.

The consensus appears to be fairly strong:  Romney won the debate and he also lied the most. 

I could also spot the usual Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee phenomenon:  The attempt of presidential candidates to place themselves in the middle, back-to-back, in order to catch that elusive Snark undecided voter.  Heh.

There was nothing in the debates about who should have the padlock-and-key to the American vaginas.  Jim Lehrer picked the questions himself, he tells us, so I guess he's not interested in women's reproductive rights and such.  Perhaps that will be the topic in one of the remaining two debates?

Was that too snarky?  My apologies.  I still much prefer Obama's policies to Romney's policies.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

NononoNO. She Gets It Wrong.

That would be Hanna Rosin's response at Salon to Stephanie Coontz's op-ed in the New York Times.  Rosin argues that Coontz is wrong in her criticisms. 

But Rosin herself is wrong in quite a few places in her response.  For instance here:

I hesitate to get drawn into data wars (if you have an appetite for them you should visit the blog of University of Maryland professor Philip Cohen). I’ve learned over the course of my research that data can support many different stories. For example, one figure in my book, and in Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex, that’s been much fought over is how many wives earn more money than their husbands.
We all agree that the number of female breadwinners leapt from only 4 percent in 1970 to nearly 30 percent in 2010. Coontz, however, discounts this gain by arguing that when we look at all married couples, not just dual-earner couples, the numbers look much weaker because some wives don’t work at all. This is a fair point. But if we are going to add on extra data samples, then I offer another, more relevant one: the growing number of single mothers. Trends in the United States do not point toward an explosion of full-time stay-at-home mothers but of single mothers who are, by default, for better or worse, often the main breadwinners of their families. We recently passed the threshold, for example, at which more than half of all births to mothers under 30 were to single mothers. I’m not sure this counts as feminist progress, but it does count as a profound shift in the traditional power dynamics of the American family.
In my book I call it “ambiguous independence.” The women are struggling financially but also learning by necessity to support themselves and their children. And because they are less economically dependent on men, these women are also less likely to stay in abusive relationships, as Coontz herself mentions.

Mostly the same data CANNOT support many different stories.  When people argues that it does, most of those stories are fables and not based on the data.  Now, different sets of data may well result in different conclusions.  One's task, then, is not to engage in data relativism but to figure out which data set is the best, which study the most careful and which conclusions therefore the most reliable.

In that quote Rosin begins with the question:  How many wives earn more than their husbands?  But she then argues that data on women without husbands is relevant for this argument.  It's not.  It may well be relevant for arguments about women's independence, but it's completely and totally irrelevant as an answer to the original question.

That's not picky, by the way.  If we move the ground under the questions we never get anywhere.

For another example of exactly that:

Coontz takes on another data set that I discuss in my book: that young, childless women in their 20s have a higher median income than the equivalent men in the vast majority of metropolitan areas. These findings by market researcher James Chung were first reported in a Time magazine story in 2010. Coontz cites a new analysis of similar data showing that this particular demographic includes a disproportionate number of low-earning Latino men, which explains why women in this age group earn more.
For one thing, it’s hard to say if this new data set she points to is a statistical anomaly. Unlike Chung’s, the new numbers only cover a single year. But even if her data is accurate, and young Latino men are weighting the data, should we not care about that? It seems like just a fine-tuning of my thesis, that certain men are struggling in this economy. And even by Coontz’s reading, these young, childless Latino women are out-earning the Latino men, and these young white women and men earn the same—which alone is a remarkable shift. The explanation for that is simple: At that age, many more women have college degrees, and there are generally better jobs available for college graduates.
Coontz mentions a new analysis that will be unveiled later this month proving a wage gap in various professions for that same young, childless set. But how is that new? We know there is a wage gap. We know that Suzy likely earns less money than Bill who sits in the cubicle next to her, for many complicated reasons that I discuss in the book. The new development is this: For many jobs there are a lot more young Suzies in those cubicles these days than young Bills. That’s why these young women as a group have a higher median income.

The ground is shifting!  Try to keep your balance!

What's happening here is a skip from one argument:  young single women earn more than young single men in large metropolitan areas, to a completely different one:  young single women in metropolitan areas are more likely to hold jobs which require education than young single men.

The latter argument could well be true.  But, and this is a huge, giant BUT:  The users of the original Chung study have adopted it as a signpost that we are approaching the era of the Reverse Gender Gap, the monstrous regimen of the petticoats and so on.  The study was rarely used to talk about education, probably because Chung did not control for education. 

This means that his comparisons were flawed from the beginning.  They did not compare men's and women's wages for that age group AND for a given level of education.  They omitted the education variable altogether.  The consequence was that Chung compared single oranges to single apples.  Of course the married apples and oranges never showed any kind of female earnings advantage but the reverse.

Do I sound a bit obsessed about that particular study and its uses?  I am, because not controlling for education in income comparisons makes the conclusions of the study useless.  Rosin tries to salvage her message by moving from the likely finding that female workers on every education level earn, on average, less than otherwise identical but male workers to the also-likely finding that metropolitan areas tend to have a higher percentage of educated young single women than educated young single men.

Note, also, that a proper treatment of the gender gap in wages compares the "net gap" which is arrived at after controlling for all those other variables (education, work experience, hours worked per week,  general occupation, geographical area, marital status, number of minor children etc) that also affect earnings.  The Chung study fails to control for education, and thus tells us nothing about the actual gender differences in the earnings of young metropolitan singles.

What's left of Rosin's argument?  That women are more likely to get educated than men.   But Coontz points out that women have good reasons to be more motivated that way:

Even women’s greater educational achievement stems partly from continuing gender inequities. Women get a smaller payoff than men for earning a high school degree, but a bigger payoff for completing college. This is not because of their higher grade point averages, the economist Christopher Dougherty concludes, but because women seem to need more education simply to counteract the impact of traditional job discrimination and traditional female career choices.
Just think about the kinds of jobs available for a high-school graduate with no further qualifications.  The traditionally male jobs of that type pay considerably better than the traditionally female jobs.

That's no excuse against tackling the problem of getting boys more focused on education, of course.  But neither does it presage a world where all the power lies in female hands.  Probably not even half of all power, even in the United States, given that women are still found over-represented in those academic fields which pay less well.

Or as Rosin puts it:

Coontz makes the broader point that women—and even college-educated women—are continuing to segregate themselves into less prestigious, lower-paid professions. She points out that women are even more concentrated now than they were before in the fields of legal secretaries or “managers of medicine and health occupations.” We can call this by its old disparaging name: “gender segregation.” But we can also see it through a new paradigm—as Coontz so successfully encouraged us to do when looking at marriage—as women making intelligent decisions about what jobs are available in this economy. (You can see this decision-making at work in community colleges, the training camps for the current workforce, where the gap between men and women is the greatest.)
As I write in the book, of the top 15 jobs projected to grow in the next several years, 12 of the categories are dominated by women. Maybe women are choosing health occupations because the health care field is booming, not because they are blindly walking into a female ghetto.

Gender segregation*, whether by choice or by steering, is actually a large chunk of the reason why women earn less than men, on average.  I don't care what Rosin might call this pattern but it is not something new and exciting.  Indeed, it's a pretty depressing pattern because the traditionally female occupations are poorly paying ones.  It may well be the case that they offer more opportunities for "balancing" family and work than the traditionally male occupations (as well as less harassment).

But choosing them for that  reason is not necessarily as laudable as, say, creating a labor market with proper parental leave, annual vacations and more humane working hours.

I wrote about those fifteen jobs which are growing most rapidly before, but here's a reminder:

Finally, let's have a look at those 15 fastest growing professions which are dominated by women. It's not clear which list Rosin's book used as there are several ways of defining "fastest growing" (percentage increases or absolute numbers etc). The one Rosin probably used is Table 2 in this article (scroll down), although it lists twenty occupations, not fifteen.

It's worth noting the text under that table:

The education categories and wages of the occupations with the largest numbers of new jobs are considerably different than those of the fastest growing occupations. Only three of these occupations are in the associate’s degree or higher category. Fourteen of the 20 occupations with the largest numbers of new jobs paid less than the national median wage of $33,840 in May 2010.

Out of the top five listed (all female dominated, by the way), only the first occupation mentioned, registered nurses, has a highish median annual salary: 64, 690 dollars.  The next four:  retail salespersons,  home health aides, personal care aides and office clerks, general, have median annual salaries of $20,670, $20,560, $19,640 and $26,610, respectively.  In other words, dominating twelve out of the top fifteen categories doesn't actually make women the winners in some giant employment race.

Sad to say, those are not the types of jobs which will result in women becoming the major breadwinners in married-couple families, in general. 

Far down in her column, Rosin seems to write about her reasons for writing about "the end of men:"

Now, of course, I live on this planet and, more specifically, I live in Washington, D.C. I can see that neither the corner suites of corporate America nor the halls of Congress echo with the clacking of heels. After doing dozens of radio shows and interviews to discuss my book, I have grown accustomed to being asked about why, if women are so hot and men are so not, there aren’t more women at the top. But I’m still searching for a way to answer without irritating the host (or op-ed contributor) who insists that it can’t be the end of men until we’ve had our first female president and Coke and Pepsi are both run by women.
But here’s the thing: The upheaval in gender dynamics I’ve spent three years reporting and writing about all points in one direction. Yes, there are zigs and zags. Yes, different sectors of the economy and society are moving at different rates. Yes, in the last decade progress has slowed down (it has slowed down for men, too). Yes, a female MBA earns less than a male MBA out of school (although the difference, before children, is now negligible). Yes, the richest of the rich are still almost exclusively male, or their wives. And yes, we have not yet remotely figured out how to make most American workplaces family-friendly.
But zoom the graph back a few decades and you can see how far we’ve come—and that the lines all point one way: Men’s wages have been stagnating, and by some measures declining, as women’s economic fortunes continue to rise. The wage gap has been slowly closing for women, but the education gap has not been closing for men. We can focus only and eternally on the fact that those lines have not yet crossed or even converged in many professions. But isn’t that vantage point a bit narrow? Why does we’re-not-there-yet mean we’re not headed there?

Headed where?  To a matriarchy?  That's my problem with Rosin's arguments.  To talk about "the end of men" when it is women, in fact, who are shrinking as a percentage of population in China and India seems utterly disgusting to me.  To imply that advances towards greater gender equality are a sign of the death of men or at least all male power seems equally weird to me.  If we take her stance here seriously, then any improvement  in women's relative position could be a sign of some sort of mass annihilation of men.  Women still earn less than men, on average, but the gender gap has shrunk some in the last thirty years:  Sign of the end of men!  And so on.

I don't like games and gambles with serious matters.  That's because I'm a humorless feminazi who believes in a fair world where people are not put into little boxes by gender (or by race or sexual preference etc.) when they try to decide which talents to nurture and which working lives to choose.

 Rosin appears to see the situation as a competition, a "winning-gender-takes-all" game.  But if that's the interpretation one chooses, then the data suggests that it's still not women who are winning.   Things are considerably better for women than they were, of course (though I wonder if anyone wrote about the end of women when women were one third of college graduates, in those halcyon days of yore), but no, men are not ending.  At all.

Let's put all this into a proper perspective in terms of time and place:  After thousands of years of pretty much male domination we suddenly worry about tipping into a matriarchy?  Because sixty percent of new college graduates are women?   That to me seems to be the one type of data which might (weakly) support Rosin's theory.  But then how does she explain Saudi Arabia or Iran (the latter until the government enforced gender quotas)?  Those countries have similar female domination in higher education.

Mentioning Iran and Saudi Arabia brings me to the proper place of Rosin's arguments:  The global one.  No end of men in that wider view.  Male domination seems to be doing very well in many, many countries on this earth.  Come to think of it, it's doing pretty well even in the US government.

I'm not particularly ecstatic when writing these criticisms about "The End of Men" and related topics.  But I feel I must,  because of those data problems and also because these calls sound like "the-sky-is-falling" to me or at least extremely premature.  The latter means that there will be those who argue that we've come to as close to gender equality as we can, without ending all those men.

At the same time, I sorta agree with Rosin's basic conclusions here:

The place I would like to arrive after the “end of men” is not Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s Herland, a mystical biological matriarchy in which the men are literally obsolete. It’s a place where my son’s girlfriend earns more money than he does and no one cares or interviews him about it for a story. It’s a place where he decides he wants to work four days a week and spend the fifth picking up the kids from school, or doing his sculpting, and no one thinks there is anything wrong with him. It’s also a place where, if he decides he wants to work all five days, and his wife decides she doesn’t, they can both make that work. It’s a place where the single standard for power and success is not hours logged and paychecks earned. It’s a place where we use our imagination to give men and women, both, a little more room to breathe.
I just don't think rigid definitions of masculinity can be changed by writing books about the "end of men."  Rather the reverse, to be honest.

*This deserves a proper long and dry post, this topic.  I shall get to it one day.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

What's For Breakfast? A Brand's Reputation!

I was reading about Mitt Romney and the Bain company, and came across this:

Companies like Bain Capital call themselves private equity firms, but as I explained in my book “The Buyout of America” they really provide no equity. They make money by putting businesses at risk. They say they turn struggling businesses around. But Sealy was not a turnaround — it was the market leader in its sector.
Romney first tried to boost Sealy’s profits, so it could pay its debt, by acquiring one of Sealy’s biggest retail customers, Mattress Discounters. But MD expanded too quickly and went bankrupt.
Bain then pushed Sealy to design the no-flip, or one-sided, bed. To cut costs they eliminated the bottom cover, making the bottom simply a foundation. With two-sided beds, consumers can flip their mattress, like they rotate a tire, for longer wear, so getting rid of the bottom would shorten the life of the mattress.
But Bain was more interested in cutting costs and boost short-term profits than in providing value to consumers. For a while, it didn’t seem to matter. Bain and co-investors sold — “harvested,” if you like — Sealy in 2004 to fellow private equity firm KKR for $1.5 billion, pocketing $741 million for its $140 million investment.

That's not quite the same thing as those firms which acquire another firm with a good reputation for quality or durability and which then eat up that reputation by lowering the quality or durability of the product.  Doing that makes a nice short-term profit for the acquiring firm and its owners but of course it makes the consumers ultimately angry and destroys the brand.

All this is easiest with so-called experience goods:  Those things which you have to use for quite a while before learning how good they are.

Mattresses certainly qualify.  If a mattress used to last ten years and now only lasts five years, you wouldn't want to pay as much for it, right?  But it takes five years to learn that a previously ten-year mattress now only survives five years.  This gap lets the acquiring firm milk down that reputation bank account.

Closer at home, I use Arabia's Teema mugs as the divine-coffee containers.  They are expensive, yes (22 dollars for a mug though I get mine for less while in Finland)  but they are so smooth on the eye and what's most important, they used to last almost forever.  The glazing was very thick.  I have dropped these mugs on tiled floors several times (accidentally!)  and never could break one (except for once the handle breaking off).

All this means that my china choice was probably saving me money, despite the high initial purchase price.

But the two I bought this summer seemed different to me.  When I got back to Snakepit Inc.  I weighed them and compared the weights to the old mugs.  The new ones are much, much lighter.  And they have small chips (from the dishwasher) after less than two months' use.

Now, whether this is a conscious policy of milking down Arabia's reputation (for high design and high quality in the past) by the new owner, Iittala,  I don't know.  But  when a brand is mostly known for, say, high quality, choosing to lower that quality to cut costs may have the same effect as a conscious policy of reputation-eating.

OK.  After glancing this through I just wanted to complain about my mugs...


Thanks, Distance Readers

Information about your existence is very helpful.  From where I sit, all I get told are the actual visits to this blog.  All others are invisible to me.  That can create weird incentives.  For instance, suppose that a hundred regular readers all switch to Google Reader, say, simultaneously.  What I would then observe is a drop of hundred readers.  Then I'd wonder what I'm doing wrong and if I should stop this shitty blog right away and so on.  That's what comes with being a neurotic goddess.

More precisely, I need that information for the purposes of possibly  getting an agent for the so-far imaginary book  (they want a "pre-market," heh), and also for the purposes of figuring out funding for what goes on here (and the chocolates).

But essentially the problem is that I have no way of knowing my total readership right now.  The Google Reader suggests that I have over 1400 subscribers but who knows what that means, and in any case it's just Google Reader.  On the other hand, perhaps many of those subscriptions are never read.  On the other hand, much bigger blogs have fewer subscribers.  And so on and so on.

None of this is of interest to you but since I'm still working on the old comments transfer and similar matters my creative juices are running slow. 

Let me also say that I'm honored by every one of my readers.  Smart lot, you are.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Technology Sucks And Other Blog News

That's my divine opinion today, and it has direct roots in this business of changing everything about the blog in less than a week.  My fault, naturally,  for waking up only a few days before the demise of Echo, but there must be some excitement in life, right?

Or just call me the goddess of procrastination.  Anyway, the reason why technology sucks today is not because I'm a Luddite (which I am, in some ways) or opposed to technology (I love washing machines!  And fast cars!).

Nope.  The reason why I am so exhausted and disgruntled has to do with the One Time Only aspect of almost all changes that I have been forced to obey during my blogging career.  From an economist's angle the learning costs are always a new hurdle to scale, and once all that necessary learning is over it's pretty much useless for the future.  Because the next change is also One Time Only with brand new learning costs.

After a dozen or so of these event one gets jaundiced.   And becomes a procrastinator.

Returning to the recent changes, most things should be working by now.  I will go through the blogroll in the near future to update it.  Whether the old comments will appear or not is unclear right now.  I gave my weekend to them, including having to learn how to edit xml files.  We shall see.  Or not, depending on the gods of blogging.  But I got rid of quite a few gremlins.

I'm planning to put links to some of the series I have written in the right-hand column.  If you can think of any other improvements, please let me know.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Myth of Male Decline

Stephanie Coontz has written a good opinion column, "The Myth of Male Decline",  on the recent rush of those oh-my-god-men-are-dying books.  I recommend reading it and also my earlier post on the Hanna Rosin book.

This, for instance, is quite important in Coontz's piece:

Proponents of the “women as the richer sex” scenario often note that in several metropolitan areas, never-married childless women in their 20s now earn more, on average, than their male age-mates. 
But this is because of the demographic anomaly that such areas have exceptionally large percentages of highly educated single white women and young, poorly educated, low-wage Latino men. Earning more than a man with less education is not the same as earning as much as an equally educated man. 
Among never-married, childless 22- to 30-year-old metropolitan-area workers with the same educational credentials, males out-earn females in every category, according to a reanalysis of census data to be presented next month at Boston University by Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. Similarly, a 2010 Catalyst survey found that female M.B.A.’s were paid an average of $4,600 less than men in starting salaries and continue to be outpaced by men in rank and salary growth throughout their careers, even if they remain childless. 
Among married couples when both partners are employed, wives earned an average of 38.5 percent of family income in 2010. In that year nearly 30 percent of working wives out-earned their working husbands, a huge increase from just 4 percent in 1970. But when we include all married-couple families, not just dual-earner ones, the economic clout of wives looks a lot weaker. 
In only 20 percent of all married-couple families does the wife earn half or more of all family income, according to Professor Cohen, and in 35 percent of marriages, the wife earns less than 10 percent.

The bolds are mine.  This is important, because that earlier study got wings and an ability to carry bombs (to kill all men)  and so on, all the time being a  gender comparison only within single, childless workers without any standardizing for education levels.  Sorta like comparing the earnings of a man without a high school diploma to the earnings of a woman with an MBA, to make the example extreme.

The reanalysis compares like with like, and seems to find that men earn more, on average, in each educational category.  As men earn more among those young workers who are married and/or have children, the overall reading is that young women, as a group,  earn less than young men, as a group, even in metropolitan areas.