Post-Slump Links

March 11, 2007

Since every hour that passes I’m more certain I’m not going to keep blogging, here are a few good links for your perusal:

Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum explains carefully why the Saudi production decrease is due to peak oil rather than a voluntary reduction. The minutiae of the Saudi production curve are more consistent with a post-peak slump rather than with a voluntary reduction meant to give Saudi Arabia the power to flood the market at any given time.

C. L. Hanson notes that the two basic principles of relationships – that people have the right to say no to sex and that people shouldn’t sleep with anyone but their partners – are incongruous. As such, she talks about how cheating can save relationships.

Stentor rebuts market-based arguments against environmental legislation. He explains specifically that air pollution needs to be curbed collectively since air is naturally a shared resource. This isn’t an especially novel argument – the tragedy of the commons is a recognized market failure – but some libertarians’ hostility to it requires repeating it more than should be necessary.

Melissa Franklin, Harvard’s first tenured female physics professor, speaks at a conference about women in science that has just given her an award. She recounts experiences ranging from students’ crying because they couldn’t finish their problem sets to sexual assault.

That Housework Study

March 3, 2007

On Feministing, there’s a very long comment thread about a new study that shows once again that not only do British women do less housework than men, but also women do more housework when they begin cohabiting while men do less. Commenter Soullite suggests a way to doubt the study, but inadvertently reinforces its point.

Second, it’s apparent when you dig into the polls that the difference in housework is negated by the difference in work outside of the house. To argue that men should both work more than women outside of the home and do equal work to women in the home is awfully convenient. This is why the same study found that women had more leisure time despite working more often at home.

Also, despite whehter all families need to do yard work, or shovel snow or service vehicles, these activities should clearly be defined as household upkeep and as such should have been included in any study measuring that or it will skew the numbers no matter how slightly.(…)

It’s finding that men and women do equal “work” even if it’s not equal “housework”.

First, false consciousness arguments are generally too embarrassing to be for public consumption. If a man who changes the oil in his car doesn’t consider that any kind of work – household, maintenance, or whatever – it’s not work.

More importantly, the fact that men and women do equal work is well established. An old study from the 1980s reported in every recent Human Development Report shows that in developed countries, men and women do about the same amount of work, but men spend two thirds of their working hours in market-based activities while women spend only one third. The main problem is that those women not only don’t get paid but typically perform work far below their skill level.

Housework is like any other non-unionized skilled work. Some people clean homes; others work at Wal-Mart. It’s possible to overblow what “housework” exactly means and how it should be remunerated – this study is a good example – but the wage of a maid is a good yardstick that measures the substitution effect. The housework men do is incidentally more expensive on a per hour basis by that measure, not because it’s more skilled but because repairmen tend to be unionized while maids suffer from the effect of depreciation of female labor.

The study says cohabiting women do 15 hours of household labor a week in Britain compared with 5 for men (incidentally, other studies tend to get similar ratios but higher numbers). Assuming a female maid makes minimum wage, i.e. £5.35/hour (PPP$8/hour) and a male who performs all the household activities a man does makes half again as much, we get that the woman’s household labor adds £80/week to the combined income pool, while the man’s adds £40/week. So far, so good.

But in terms of who actually gets to keep the money, this isn’t good at all. Although the woman’s household labor saves the household £80/week, in terms of control of the money, her share is proportional to her market income. Even a housewife who gets to spend the family’s money has no real control of the money, since she is consistently dependent on her husband’s charity, which can be withdrawn at any moment.

In case of separation or divorce, even if she gets part of the money, she won’t have any income of her own. If the couple has children she might see some child support, but child support is set at the levels that support the children, not the whole family.

Reagan wasn’t quite right when he said people who depended on government can’t be free. The government tends to be the least demanding money giver, at least in developed countries other than the US, whose TANF system is designed to humiliate. A husband may temporarily love his wife, but that love can disappear without any prior warning, and with no income of her own, the woman will typically be plunged into poverty.


March 2, 2007

The article about hunger’s killing 18,000 children every day is now reverberating through the left-wing blogosphere. One of the persistent problems with hunger is that it’s not an especially spectactular mode of death. Most people who die of hunger die of malnutrition rather than outright starvation. People tend to only start caring when it coexists with a different problem, such as war or disaster:

The response to these disasters and conflicts such as in Sudan’s Darfur region and Lebanon has meant that most development aid has been used to save lives — not to help communities prevent disasters and promote development through agricultural programs, education for children and water conservation, Morris said.

The agency’s biggest operation today is in Darfur, where violence and security are major problems and 2.5 million people have fled their homes and now live in camps.

There aren’t that many posts around about hunger politics, which is regrettable. This is primarily an economic and political issue rather than a scientific one. Globally there are food surpluses; thanks to Norman Borlaug, famines are largely restricted to areas where food distribution is in shambles. Still, since the number of malnourished people in the world is about 850 million higher than it should be, here is a good program for reducing hunger:

1. Abolish first-world farm aid. It undercuts farmers in the third world; although they don’t affect subsistence farmers, they throw everyone else into poverty. NAFTA increased poverty in Mexico not because it’s free trade – free trade agreements everywhere else in the world raise standards of living in the poorer partner countries – but because unlike those other agreements, it let the rich partner dump government-subsidized corn in the poor one.

2. Divert development aid from economic to political development. Poor countries are usually able to grow on their own given a government that’s interested in development. Every democratic one is by design; most authoritarian ones aren’t.  As Amartya Sen has noted, no independent democracy with a free press has ever had a famine. India’s last one was just before it achieved independence (though it would’ve had a few but for the Green Revolution).

3. Support greater access to genetically modified crops. This largely involves either buying unlimited use licenses from Monsanto in exchange for strands whose seeds can be replanted, or cutting off the research funds of every corporation that asserts a right to trademark DNA and establishing university labs aimed at producing useful GMOs instead. Right now, low-income farmers often find themselves straining to pay for the extra seeds each year. In addition, corporate control is one of the reasons for suspicion of GMOs, which reduces its use below what is scientifically sensible.

4. Unilaterally open first-world markets to third-world goods. As Krugman has shown in his research of international trade, free trade doesn’t always provide comparative advantage to the poorer trading partner. Indeed, with the exception of the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore, every newcomer to the first-world club developed by replacing imports, rather than by inviting foreign corporations to set up shop. However, first-world tariffs on third-world goods negatively impact third-world economies, making it sensible to cut them without expecting reciprocal reductions in trade barriers.

5. Invest economic aid in infrastructure rather than capital or relief. Charity aid doesn’t do anything to help depressed regions; the Tennessee Valley Authority was good for temporarily providing jobs but never promoted any long-term development. Better uses for the money include road networks that make it easier to provide local relief and startup capital for economically productive regions (i.e. cities).

6. Debt relief. Need I say more? The US can afford to pay down its debt – it just chooses not to. Countries with a GDP per capita of 800 can’t. Note to creditors: you’re not going to see that money ever again anyway; deal with it.

Ezra Opens a Second Front in the War on Science

February 28, 2007

Ezra’s latest post complains that the media doesn’t pay enough attention to partisan thinktanks. The idea is that it doesn’t matter that a study is hopelessly biased, as long as it has 500 pages of pretty graphs. Now, I know it’s attractive to project the diametric opposite of your own view onto the mainstream media. However, that’s not a very good methodology for discussing politics.

Social sciences have an outrageously low signal to noise ratio. How couldn’t they? They a) attract people who’re on average less smart than those who do natural sciences, b) give people a lot more incentive to stick to indefensible conclusions, and c) has a proliferation of methodological minutiae that can get you any result you want. For instance, multiple regression analysis depends on the variables you enter so much that the same data can be shown to lead to wildly different conclusions.

With so much chaff and so little wheat, people have to develop mechanisms of throwing out the junk. One good mechanism is the rule of thumb that if a thinktank disagrees with an academic study, the thinktank is always wrong; to take a slight refinement, academics whose chairs are funded by ideologically motivated thinktanks, like John Lott, are barely more reliable than thinktanks.

Right now, the media gives equal credence to peer-reviewed studies and to thinktank hatchet jobs. Even if it does what you imply it should, it won’t improve matters much. Laypersons won’t be any more informed, and experts won’t learn anything new.

A single news article can only offer a cursory analysis of scientific debates, and is hardly more informative than, say, direct-to-consumer drug advertising. It’s impossible to write a 1,000-word New York Times article doing justice to, say, debates within biological community about evolutionary developmental biology. And that’s an issue where it’s relatively easy to produce rigorous research; when you venture into economics, things get exponentially harder.

It’s possible for a newspaper to publish a debate between Lewontin and Dawkins, or even to commission both to write regular features about evolution. But what’s the point? Professional biologists, who know all the relevant facts and have been familiar with those debates for decades have already decided. There’s no point in a rematch in a far less professionally competent arena.

The same principle applies to social sciences. When a thinktank publishes a research, the ideal media’s reaction should be to ignore it. There’s nothing that privileges thinktank fellows over real economists enough to exempt them from peer review. Likewise, there’s nothing that privileges ordinary people’s views. Serious scholars may not be able to describe poverty or unemployment in lurid detail, but frankly the media could use fewer heartwrenching stories and more facts.

The layperson doesn’t need to know anything more than what mainstream expert opinion is, and to what extent expert opinion can be trusted (more so on climatology and evolutionary biology than on welfare economics and political science). If he cares enough to delve into the subject, that’s what books and professional reviews are for. The mainstream media can never be a substitute for scholarly books and articles; even semi-popular magazines like Scientific American are inferior to actually reading what current research is.

Check out my post on religion and welfare. The post has 1,500 words; counting graphs and tables as a number of words taking equal space, the study it critiques has 15,000. And the post doesn’t do anything that I’d expect of similar coverage in the mainstream media: literature review, quoting other experts, actually checking the data, fleshing out alternative theories. In its most cursory form, therefore, a satisfactory critique needs to be about a tenth its object study’s size. When the study in question has the 500 pages the hack Ezra quotes brags about, it takes 50 to take it apart.

Tuesday Night Links

February 27, 2007

Echidne examines the consequences of shrinking government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. She looks at what spending cuts have done to the FDA, which is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago (link). I don’t want to blow government out of proportions; I just want to increase it to the size that I can ride the subway without being infected with cholera, eat uncooked chicken without getting salmonella, and walk under a shed without worrying about the possibility of a collapse.

Ezra writes about free trade; although he has populist sentiments, he’s fairly pro-trade. In a heated argument between Brad DeLong and Jeff Faux, he comes down clearly on DeLong’s side after Faux dodges a legitimate question about free trade’s positive effects on China. Ezra takes Faux to task for ranting about Chinese domestic economic policy for being bad for the poor. Why impoverishing China by slapping tariffs on it will cause its government to change its policy when similar sanctions against other countries have miserably failed is beyond me.

Samhita asks whether it can truly be called feminist empowerment when women in Pakistan protest the demolition of illegally built mosques. The people on the comment thread tend toward realizing that, to quote EG, “Women are a huge segment of the population, and no social/political/religious movement would succeed without any support from women. But that doesn’t make the movement inherently feminist.”

Jenny explains why it’s not a feminist duty to support Hillary Clinton. Just like I don’t accuse anyone who opposes Obama of hating black people and anyone who opposes Richardson of hating Hispanics, so do I oppose allegations that opposing Clinton is something sexist. The proper feminist or antiracist or pro-gay or pro-atheist thing to do is support a candidate based on real issues, regardless of gender/race/sexual orientation/religion. Feminism doesn’t exist to empower Hillary Clinton, but to empower the 3,249,999,999 women who aren’t so powerful as to have a shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world.

Lindsay writes about the difference between the left-wing American blogosphere and the right-wing one. While the left-wing blogosphere seeks to turn itself into part of the Democratic Party, featuring a motley crew of policy analysts, movement activists, fundraisers, and screamers, the right-wing blogosphere only engages in scalping of the type Donahue did to Amanda.

Ruchira reproduces an article about Tehran that seems to strike the correct chord in depicting the city as highly cultured and developed and at the same time suffering from a fundamentalism problem. This isn’t Kandahar or even Baghdad we’re talking about, but a modern city that doesn’t have many ingrained problems a revolution won’t solve.

Brent notes that Mitt Romney is hardly the only person in the US who thinks atheists can’t be Presidents. A clueless law professor at Colorado University rants about atheists from about every imaginable angle, including coming out in support of Romney’s bigotry. Brent takes him to task for spouting inanities about atheists’ morality.

Skatje takes down arguments for preserving the Pledge of Allegiance so that you don’t have to. Hitting the nail right on the head, she says, “An oath of loyalty is something you see in totalitarian regimes, not something you’d expect in a nation that prides itself on freedom. In a classroom with children from as young as age five robotically chanting at a flag every morning, I’d also expect a big silver screen on one of the walls. I’ve already written about nationalism. Submission and obedience to a government is another leg of it.”

Tyler rants about excessive moderates who in order to look centrist compare atheists to fundamentalists. Unlike Tyler I don’t care enough for Dawkins to get agitated when someone does a hatchet job on him, but I do care enough for reality to see that atheism is as extreme as fundamentalism to the same degree that supporting full racial equality is as extreme as apartheid.

Religion and Welfare

February 26, 2007

In most countries secularism is positively correlated with support for welfare, but does welfare make people more secular? Anthony Gill of the University of Washington says yes; in 2004, he and grad student Erik Lundsgaarde published a paper arguing that welfare provides a substitute for church attendance, making people less likely to attend church.

The full theory goes as follows: in the 19th century, the power of Christian churches came from their ability to provide social services such as charity, education, and health care. As the state started providing the same services without requiring or expecting church attendance, it became less economic for people to attend church, and less economic for church leaders to focus on welfare activities.

This theory has a lot of holes in it, but the study has some empirical backing. There’s a statistically significant relationship between a Christian country’s welfare spending as a percentage of GDP and the percentage of people in it who report attending church weekly, even when controlling for such variables as education and whether the country is Catholic or not. The weakness of the study comes not from its lack of data, but from flaws in how the variables are defined, failure to look for alternative explanations, and problems with individual case studies.

First, the study doesn’t explicitly say how welfare spending is measured. This is significant because it right off the bat fails to control for key factors. Most importantly, the most expensive part of the welfare state is social security, whose cost increases with the old age dependency ratio. But more religious states have higher population growth rates, leading to younger demographics and lower social security costs.

It’s possible to get around that by looking at states that buck the trend and are both relatively religious and relatively old. The best case study here is Poland, which is simultaneously the most religious nation in Europe and one of the oldest. Additional examples include Spain, Portugal, and to some extent Italy. The only one of the four that appears in the scattergram plotting church attendance and welfare spending is Spain, which is considerably more religious than the regression line predicts.

In addition, even when one controls for old age pensions, not all governments spend welfare the same way. The USA prefers targeted tax breaks, making its welfare system appear stingier than it actually is. In addition, some benefits can be distributed either as welfare or as spending on health care and education, which the study doesn’t account for. A good example in the US would be free lunches in schools, a welfare service that adds to the education budget.

Second, the omission of education spending is crucial. A church often thrives by having its own set of parochial schools. The standard British joke about catechism is that religious education only secularizes people, though the more common sensical effect is the opposite, namely that greater availability of parochial schools will make the population more religious. Education spending is correlated to welfare spending via the mediating variable of economic liberalism or socialism. As such, Gill and Lundsgaarde commit a grave sin of omission by overlooking it.

Likewise, a more direct political mediating variable could account for much of the correlation. In a followup paper, Gill notes that the correlation between welfare and religosity holds within US states, too. But within the US, both welfare and secularism fall under the rubric of liberal politics, contrasted with the welfare-busting and religiosity of conservative politics.

This in fact holds true in Europe and Latin America, which comprise all countries in the study but two, the US and Australia. Throughout Europe and Latin America, even more so than in the US, there is a strong tradition of anti-clerical liberalism. It’s likely that all Gill’s motivating example of Uruguay shows is that Uruguay has a long history of domination by the left-liberal Colorado Party.

Third, the main measure used for religiosity, reported church attendance, is deeply flawed. The USA’s real church attendance rate is half its reported rate. The church attendance variable tracks not how many people attend church, but how many would like pollsters to believe that they attend church. This variable has some value, but is overall less important than data based on actual church attendance.

The other figure used, the percentage of people who declare themselves nonreligious, is flawed as well. There are two dimensions to religious affiliation – one’s choice of religion, which tracks culture, and one’s position along the religious-secular spectrum. More plural areas, especially those with strong connections between religion and culture, will have a lower percentage of people calling themselves nonreligious than less plural areas.

Fourth, many of the assertions in the study admit too many inexplicable case study exceptions. Ireland and the Philippines’ unusually high levels of religiosity are attributable to the role the Catholic Church played in pro-independence and anti-Marcos politics respectively; I presume Poland could be similarly explained away, were it in the study. But other exceptions require seriously modifying the theory.

For example, the study would predict an increase in American church attendance rates after the welfare reforms of the 1990s. The American study only finds a slightly less significant correlation between welfare and religion in 1995; meanwhile, there was a measurable increase in church attendance in the two months following the 9/11 attacks.

For another example, the case study of Britain goes in almost the opposite direction as the one the study predicts. Britain hasn’t had a serious welfare system since Thatcher’s economic reforms. And yet, in the 1990s, religious belief crashed, and while children of secular parents always grew up to be secular, children of religious parents had only a 50% chance of growing up to be religious. Levels of belief crashed even among Muslims, who Britain forces a religious identity on in many respects.

And fifth, there are alternative explanations that the study should look at but doesn’t. First, it’s legitimate to ask why support for welfare correlates so nicely with secularism in Western politics. It could be an ideological accident that modern liberalism is secular and pro-welfare and modern conservatism is religious and anti-welfare; after all, in turn-of-the-18th-century Britain, it was the Tories who were more supportive of extensive Poor Laws and the Whigs who favored a libertarian economic policy.

Or, equally well, it could be the realpolitik version of what the study is trying to say: welfare is a substitute for religion. As such, religious organizations are likely to ally themselves with political groups that oppose welfare. It holds to some extent for modern conservatives, though by no means for all. In 1900, the US populists were both pro-religion and pro-welfare, and would only embrace prosperity theology in the 1960s and 70s.

A good way of gauging such political explanations is seeing if the same trends hold for non-Western countries. Muslim organizations provide the same welfare Christian ones do; in fact, one of the main power sources of Islamist movements is their strong performance in disaster relief. Of course, Islamism has an entirely different dynamic to it – its main promise isn’t charity but change – but it’s useful to examine this dynamic and see how it can apply to the West. How relevant is the promise to change the morally uncertain status quo to the rise of American Dominionism?

I should stress that except perhaps for the problematic definitions of the variables, this study is not shoddy. A data set comparing religiosity and welfare is always useful. The study’s downfall is in using the data to confirm a theory that has no other evidence to it. Although the study seems to satisfy the falsification criterion in that Gill intended for it to highlight the failure of the theory, in fact it does not falsify the statement “welfare does not cause a decline in religiosity.” All it does is superficially confirm the statement that welfare does in fact cause religiosity to fall.

Of the many different angles the study could take, the one about a direct effect of welfare on religiosity is one of the most obvious two, which is probably why Gill went with it. The other, that religious groups lobby against welfare, is more empirically plausible than the converse direction of causation, but does not fit well into Gill’s theory. But more indirect links, for example with education or political liberalism as a mediating variable, look far more fruitful. The study’s ultimate downfall is not so much that it is wrong as that it is woefully incomplete, concentrating on perhaps the least enlightening theory available.

Economic Inequality in the US Versus in Sweden

February 25, 2007

An article in Canada’s leading conservative rag about the purported failure of the Swedish model led me, once again, to comparing data from Sweden to data from the US. First, just to get this out of the way, Sweden has a higher workforce participation rate than the US.

More importantly, the staggering income inequality in the US compared with Sweden’s relative equality means that the American poor are far, far worse off than the Swedish poor, and have been so for decades. The USA’s GDP per capita is just more than a third higher than this of Sweden, $43,500 versus $31,600. But in the US, the bottom quintile’s share of aggregate income was 3.6% in 1999 and is trending down, compared with 3.9% for the Swedish bottom decile in 2004 and an additional 6% for the second decile.

In other words, assuming that aggregate income has the same share of GDP in the US and Sweden, an assumption that probably works in the USA’s favor, the Swedish bottom quintile has twice as much income as the American one. And that doesn’t count the fact the Swedish poor get free health care.

What’s more, the US has always been like that, despite populist claims that it was better in the 1960s and 70s. The share of the American bottom quintile peaked at 4.4% in the mid-70s; the share of the Swedish bottom quintile bottomed at 9.4% in 2000, a year of high capital gains.