Friday, August 16, 2019

On Femininity and Masculinity

Masculinity and femininity are tricky concepts to define: They include both the way we interpret biological sex differences and the impact of societal rules and norms* attached to proper behavior for men and women.

Those societal rules and norms and stereotypes about masculinity and femininity serve (whether intended to do so or not) to keep women from reaching equality, and that's why critiquing masculinity and femininity is an important feminist task. 

I tackled that task in this post from last January and  in this post from last summer.

The reason for re-posting them is that I have realized that what I thought were old-fashioned views about the proper behavior for women are not as rare today as I had hoped**.  Not performing femininity or masculinity properly even has a special name in psychological jargon:  It's gender nonconforming. 

Wouldn't it be nice it it was just seen as human?


* Even though anti-feminists often assume that all observed sex differences in behavior are innate, they are clearly affected by social and religious norms. Thus, what is proper feminine behavior in Iceland would not qualify in Saudi Arabia and so on.

** That hope was for obvious reasons.  If femininity, say, is defined as including characters such as humility, while masculinity includes characters such as leadership, it's hard to see how women, if required to perform femininity,  could ever compete in the labor markets and in politics and so on.

I want to stress that I am not discounting the importance of humility, gentleness, empathy and other characteristics associated with femininity.  Rather, I argue that societies code them as exclusively female and often punish women for not demonstrating them. (Men can also be punished for not demonstrating the characteristics assigned to masculinity). 

I believe all those characteristics are mostly human ones, even if different individuals have them in varying combinations.  Societies, however, tend to divide them rigidly into two sets of characteristics, one for men and for women.  The resulting rigid gender roles are not good for anyone but they are particularly bad as obstacles against women's full equality with men.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Anti-Vaxxers: Rational Or Irrational? And The Anti-Gun-Control Folks?

I wrote about the rationality or irrationality of the anti-vaccination movement last March, and concluded that the decision not to have one's children vaccinated may be rational from a purely selfish and narrow point, but that it's deeply irrational from a wider societal point of view:

But the decision not to have one's children vaccinated can also be a rational one, though only on a narrowly selfish basis, at least as long as herd-immunity prevails:

If almost all the other parents in the area have vaccinated their own children and if the custom of vaccination is old enough so that almost all adults in the community have immunity, too, then the benefits from vaccinating your own children become negligible.  Your child won't get infected!

But any kind of vaccination may have harmful, though rare side-effects.  The private (based only on one's immediate family) comparison of benefits from the vaccination to its costs, both financial and possible health risks, would strongly suggest that for one particular family the choice not to vaccinate can be rational*.

Given that you are smart and erudite, my dear readers, you have already spotted the logical flaw in the above calculations:  If not getting the shots is narrowly rational for the one family in the above example, then it is narrowly rational for all the other families, too!** 

But once a sufficient number of families chooses not to vaccinate, whoops!  The herd immunity is gone, the infectious diseases return to the communities, and there will be deaths and very high health care costs and unnecessary pain and suffering***.

Economic theory looks at dilemmas like this as signs (1) that a particular market (here the market for vaccinations) is not producing the socially optimal level of disease prevention and that government intervention in that market may improve the outcomes.  The German government, for instance, is planning to make childhood measles vaccinations mandatory.

The recent mass murders in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton, all carried out with assault weapons, made me ask if there are similarities between those who oppose vaccinations and those who oppose gun control, and if those similarities suggest that some kind of regulation of the relevant markets (vaccinations and guns) might be beneficial.

I believe I found one similarity.  The choice to acquire or to keep guns, and to fight gun control attempts for that reason, is made on the basis of a similar narrow private calculus.  That calculus does not assign any weight on the great social harm easy access to guns causes to others (2).  This might (2) be a reason for controlling the gun market and the excessive number of guns in the US.

(1)  This is because the private comparison of benefits and costs excludes the benefits accruing to other individuals in the community, even though those are the benefits which ultimately end up protecting any unvaccinated children via herd immunity.  Thus, the private calculus results in too few children getting the vaccinations.

(2) That's the similarity between anti-vaxxers and anti-gun-control folks.  But then the two cases diverge, because anti-gun-control people fear all those guns already out there and see owning guns themselves as a necessary defense.

In other words, they don't just exclude the harm to others in their private calculus concerning gun ownership and anti-gun-control stances, but include the general easy access to guns as one reason why they, too, need to be armed to the teeth.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Insulin And The Pharmaceutical Industry

There have been recent cases where young people have died from Type I diabetes because of a combination of rapidly rising insulin prices and health insurance policies which have bad coverage.  The latest one is typical of the other cases I have read about*.

Now why exactly a drug that has been available for a very long time would rise in price as much as insulin has done in the recent decades is a tricky question, and the answers to that question intertwine with the US health insurance system which still does not guarantee that all people have insurance to cover life-saving medications adequately.

A proper response to that question would take a book, but this 2016 article lays out many of the reasons for the current steep insulin prices in the US.  I would add the clearly oligopolistic nature of the pharmaceutical industry.  It gives the individual firms a lot of price setting ability and results in the kinds of outcomes where small improvements in quality can be used to defend giant price increases, and where this happens:

The modern age of insulin innovation kicked off with Eli Lilly’s introduction of Humulin, in 1982. Using genetic engineering, biologists figured out a way to modify bacteria into tiny, specialized factories that could create insulin that matches the kind the human body produces. Allergic reactions became rare as more people used the newer version.


Humulin could be created in vats instead of harvested from cows or pigs, and it relieved doctors’ worries that the looming diabetes epidemic would cause a shortage.
“These were an incredibly efficient way of making insulin. We’d never run out; it would keep the prices under control,” Nathan said. “How that has changed.”
The Danish company Novo Nordisk began making its own bioengineered human insulin in 1991. Rather than lower the price, however, competition had an unusual effect: The list prices began to rise.

Bolds are mine.

The industry argues that list prices may have gone up but that the final prices consumers are paying have not.  But this doesn't seem to be the case anymore, at least for those young people who age out of their parents' health insurance policies and who cannot afford an equally generous policy themselves.

The industry also argues that pharmaceutical prices cannot be set without considering the high costs of research and development, most of which doesn't result in any new profit-making drugs but must still be paid for.

And that's true, as far as it goes.  Still, how high those prices should be depends on many other factors.  Clearly, both the  low price elasticity of demand and the level of market concentration are among them.  

What the former means, in plain language, is that people needing insulin to survive are willing to pay almost anything for it rather than go without, should there only be one source selling it.  What the latter means is that if firms co-ordinate their prices (which can happen in an oligopoly), the market in practice is approaching the case of only one source selling insulin.

We need to enforce anti-trust laws better in this industry as in so many others industries.

*  In some cases individuals try to make their expensive insulin go further by lengthening the interval between the doses.  In other cases, individuals shift to a different older type of insulin which is cheaper, but harder to administer correctly.

Monday, August 12, 2019

How To Write About Politics In The Trump Era

I struggle with it.  I wrote about my concerns last January, and also in 2018, in a post about how the selection of information we receive may be biased but doesn't look like it.

And what I have recently learned about the games Trump makes us all play hasn't exactly helped.  Perhaps the only effective way to influence political thought in this chaotic era is through emotions?

So have a cat picture!

 Just kidding...

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Mass Killers And Misogyny

A recent NYT article notes a correlation between a man becoming a mass killer and earlier expressions of hatred of women:

The man who shot nine people to death last weekend in Dayton, Ohio, seethed at female classmates and threatened them with violence.
The man who massacred 49 people in an Orlando nightclub in 2016 beat his wife while she was pregnant, she told authorities.
The man who killed 26 people in a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., in 2017 had been convicted of domestic violence. His ex-wife said he once told her that he could bury her body where no one would ever find it.
The motivations of men who commit mass shootings are often muddled, complex or unknown. But one common thread that connects many of them — other than access to powerful firearms — is a history of hating women, assaulting wives, girlfriends and female family members, or sharing misogynistic views online, researchers say.

And ABC News addressed the same question:

Many questions remain in the motivations of the man who allegedly committed a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, last weekend, leaving nine dead before responding officers shot him to death.

But officials briefed on the investigation told ABC News the suspected shooter demonstrated a misogyny that was far more extreme than any of his political leanings.
In that, he follows a bleak pattern among mass shooters.

What is this "bleak pattern" among mass shooters?  I think there are two possible patterns, though in practice they may be intertwined and entangled. 

The first applies to those men whose killing appears to have been directly motivated by their feelings that they have not received the kind of female attention they felt they were entitled to.  This anger is then turned into generalized hate at every single biologically female human being.

Mass killers such as Elliot Rodger*, Alec Minassian, Scott Beierle and George Sodini fall within that pattern, because their motivation was directly based on the hatred of women as a class.  This is the class of butchers which gets succor and support on the misogynistic websites**.

The second possible pattern applies to those mass killers whose killing appears motivated by misanthropy or racism or extreme religious hatred or homophobia, but who also have a history of violence against women.  They probably did (or do, if alive) hate women, but they also hate many other demographic groups, perhaps people of other races, religions or ethnic backgrounds, and don't necessarily decide to massacre people specifically on misogynistic grounds.  When they are radicalized online the hate sites may not focus solely on the hatred of women but on the hatred of other races or religions.

A history of domestic or intimate partner violence against women and girls may belong to both patterns.  It should always be taken seriously.  More seriously than still is the case in most of this world's cultures***.


*  My long post on Rodger is a good general example of a misogynistic mass butcherer.

**  From the NYT article:

David Futrelle, a journalist who for years has tracked incel websites and other misogynistic online subcultures on a blog called “We Hunted the Mammoth,” described incel websites as a kind of echo chamber of despair, where anyone who says anything remotely hopeful quickly gets ostracized.
“You get a bunch of these guys who are just very angry and bitter, and feel helpless and in some cases suicidal, and that’s just absolutely a combination that’s going to produce more shooters in the future,” Mr. Futrelle said.
 So it's succor and support in their suffering and the warped views they hold, not succor and support in recovering from all that suffering.  As I have written many times before, those sites remind me of the anorexia sites where commenters used to cheer on each other's weight loss and share tips about how to lose even more weight.  The difference is that anorexia sites only hurt the sufferers themselves, while hate sites of all kinds can seriously hurt many innocent outsiders.

*** And we should also take seriously those types of cultural constructs of masculinity which rely on the contempt for women as part of the teenage bonding rituals, because they allow misogyny some credible cover.

My Batty Night

That was Friday night.  First I closed a heavy door over my left thumb.  I now have a brilliantly purple and green thumb.  Then I sat down in my study to work at the computer, around midnight*, expecting some calm time for creative writing.  Suddenly something quite large**, black and winged flew around the room.  It wasn't a swallow, my first guess, but a bat.

Now how it got into the house is still a mystery, though one window was open by about one inch.  Anyway, it wanted to leave the house, and I fervently agreed.

In my first shock I had left the room but then crawled back, below its circular and frenzied flying,  to open all the windows.  But when I crawled out of the room, the bat followed me.

Fun and games for several hours followed. The bat flew from room to room, I followed it, opening all windows and doors, while the bat decided to fly only in circles and not go out at all.  Except that it wanted to go out, only didn't know how.

When it grew tired (poor thing, I could see it panting), it would hang off the top of my bookshelves or a Finnish rya rug I have on the wall.  After a little bit of rest the flying resumed.  It was around 4am when an open front door finally did the trick.

So I didn't get a lot of sleep that night.  What was most interesting was the way my emotions changed from initial shock to watchful waiting to real empathy toward the poor little bat, to thinking that it looked rather charming, and finally to relief when it left the house.

I Googled "bat in the house" and found that I had done most things right, and that this was probably a teenage bat who wasn't very good at hunting yet.  It may now have learned its lesson concerning nice shiny lights in windows.

* I may have some bat genes, because my creative period is quite late in the day.
** Lots bigger than the bats I have seen in Finland.  Swallow-sized.  Maybe a baby vampire...