Chapter 2

I’m going a little out of order here because I’m trying to deal with something random on my first chapter that arose this week.

The second chapter of my dissertation has to do with expectations, incidentally the unifying theme of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics.

Believe me, I’m not there.

In this chapter, (chapter2_health) I show that a mother’s expectations of financial support from her child’s father influence how she invests in her child’s health. In the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing survey, women are asked a the birth of their child whether the father promised financial support. Around the child’s first birthday, they are asked when the child last went to the doctor and for long they breastfed. Interestingly, the promise of financial support is a significant predictor of whether the last doctor’s visit was in the last three months, but the effect is much more pronounced for black women. For white women, the promise of financial support is a significant predictor of how long a woman breastfed.

When I started this paper, I imagined I would be addressing a simple problem of financial (doctor’s visits) versus non-financial (breastfeeding) investments. The promise of support would make you feel richer and thus more likely to invest where you might feel constrained financially.

It turns out, however, that the effect is much more complicated that. The differences by race, which are largely differences of SES and class given the sampling strategy, indicate that a promise of support likely means very different things to people in different circumstances. The lack of distinction in terms of affecting financial versus non-financial investments also indicates that the question likely has a psychological or cultural angle that is not captured by the question itself.

In short, be careful with questions about expectations.


To market, to market

I often have to convince people that I what I do is actually economics. While most economists take it at face value, I find that many non-economists, i.e. most people in the world, find it odd that I would consider my process of analyzing investments in children and marriage markets and relationship quality economics. The reason, though not always expressly put, is that most people think economics is about money. An economist, they think, should talk about GDP or the stock market or inflation or the debt crisis.

Lots of economists do, and I do, too. Despite being a microeconomist, I have enough knowledge and background and read the news enough to talk at least somewhat intelligently about macroeconomic issues. Although, once a student asked me in an intermediate macro class to explain credit default swaps. I declined to answer due to time constraints, but really, there are better people who can answer that question than me. Just like there are better people than me to answer questions about why the stock market tanked again today.

But I’m getting off topic. I started reading the NYT this morning after a weekend in the mountains and stumbled upon the Magazine’s Modern Love column, about blogging exes, and another that seemed to call out for my own blog post, before I had even read it. I hadn’t gotten two paragraphs through it before this line appeared: “In short, there really is a marriage market in countries around the world, and economic principles apply to it.” The author, Robert H Frank, had spent the preceding paragraphs discussing dowries, implying that you actually need money to have a market.

Though Frank goes on to discuss how principles of supply and demand have shifted cultural expectations and allows for the existence of a market where money doesn’t change hands, the initial statement does something of a disservice to the field. Markets exist without money. Marriage markets certainly exist, both with and without money. His sentence could have been easily modified to say something about markets how they are popularly understood, or something. It’s semantics, I know, but semantics are important when you’re faced with reinforcing stereotypes. And for the people who don’t make it past that third graf, they perhaps stay with that idea that markets need money to function.

Regardless of the initial misstep, the rest of the piece suggests something rather extraordinary, but also astoundingly simple. While much of the cultural phenomena of later marriage, sex outside of marriage, women going back to work and getting more schooling have, at least in economics papers, been attributed to the introduction of reliable birth control and time-saving devices like the in-home washing machine, Frank suggests that, at least in the US, an oversupply of women in the baby boom generation “bent cultural norm towards men’s preferences.” That is to say that as men were scarce, society played to their more open sexual attitudes, leading to, in particular, more sex outside of marriage and perhaps the decline of marriage as an institution. It’s the war’s fault, essentially, that we’re promiscuous and we cheat and we divorce our spouses at a high rate.

He goes on to use the US, post-war example as a parallel to the much-hyped sex ratio imbalance in China right now. He cites a paper where the authors show that families with sons are spending more on conspicuous consumption goods, particularly housing, in order to display their wealth and better attract a wife for their son. The sudden oversupply of men in China (and other countries in Asia) means that men are changing their spending habits to appear more stable, more able to provide for a wife and children long-term.

The comparison doesn’t seem quite right to me, though. In particular, there is a tremendous waste of resources associated with building bigger homes (or homes that just look like they’re bigger) for the purpose of attracting a mate. For families who are building with money that is marginal, that might otherwise be saved for retirement, or a child’s education (the son they’re trying to marry off or a future generation), spending on house improvements, though necessary according to the authors, is not necessarily the best use of money, nor is it sufficient to find a wife. One could argue that delaying marriage is a waste of resources in terms of producing quantity of children as women spend their most fruitful childbearing years on other things, but I think we can agree that more education for women is not necessarily a bad thing. Even if you want to go that route and get into money spent on IVF for older women, etc, it’s not as overtly wasteful as building sham third stories.

But more importantly, in societies where decisions about marriage are often still made by a family elder (a patriarch?), the shift might not really be towards women’s preferences–the preferences of the scarce resource, as it may be–but preferences of women’s fathers, or both parents. In fact, it’s pretty thinly justified by evolutionary biology and even downright sexist to suggest that women are just in it for bigger houses. Then the comparison breaks down entirely. Supply and demand may be giving more influence to one group, but it’s not the underrepresented group, it’s the group that controls the scarce resource.

The idea that an oversupply of men would shift a world to be more accepting and respectful of women and girls and their wishes and desires is wonderful. The pull of a simple economic explanation (particularly one that is backed by another science, biology in this case) is strong, but likely missing much of the story. Evolutionary biology likely does play a role in cultural norms, but the preponderance of gender-based violence, bride-buying, trafficking of women, son preference, bride burning, etc should make us wary of explanations that rely on assumptions that women are suddenly powerful and influential due to being scarce without exploring their cultural roles in shaping their own lives.

A lawyer, an economist and a social psychologist walk into a bar…

Over the last few months, I’ve been hard at work on an amazing project with two even more amazing coauthors. Through my undergrad, I’ve come into contact with so many fantastically smart people and as we all grow professionally, we’re starting to collaborate and work together on various academic projects. It just so happens that this most recent collaboration was proposed to me by a lawyer, to write a handbook chapter on gender-based violence, or GBV, from a social psychology perspective, with the other coauthor being a social psychologist. It starts to sound like a joke, but I promise it’s not.

I delved into this world of social psychology with some trepidation. My advisors expressed their qualms about the project, and not just because it would take time away from finishing my dissertation (it has, but it’s all going to get done). Academics in general, and economists in particular, are wary of crossing disciplinary lines, and there are good reasons for that hesitation. We’ve all been “raised” in very different academic environments, with not only different advisors, but different canonical texts, different standards for what constitutes research, for what constitutes a conclusion, different styles of writing, of citation, etc. In this light, our differences can seem overwhelming, to the point of excluding all possibility of collaboration. When it comes down to it, though, we’re all interested in asking interesting questions and finding answers to them. It’s that curiosity, that drive to solve problems, that I think unites us as academics. Certainly, we all took these (at least theoretical) pay cuts for a reason other than “summers off”.

In the research I did for this paper, and am still doing as organizations get back to me, and more sources and programs come to light, has opened up a whole new world in terms of how we present information. While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we ask questions, and particularly survey questions, I’ve spent less time in thinking about how we present information to change behavior. It’s easy to agree that gender-based violence is an undesirable outcome, but with the wealth of experience that tells us how easily we can alienate those we try to teach, how teaching can backfire in the face of culture and how unique individual situations are, it’s harder to say that we know how to combat it.

Programs that follow the dicta of social norms marketing fall squarely in this idea of how do we present information to change behavior. It’s a term that at first confused me, the economist, but quickly took hold. We talk about social norms all the time from what constitutes appropriate dinner talk to the acceptability of practices like FGM or honor killings in certain communities. As regards gender-based violence social norms, is gender-based violence acceptable? Or, rather, are there certain situations under which beating your wife is acceptable? We find that the answers to these questions are rather different, and how we pose them to survey respondents greatly affects the data to come out of such surveys.

The marketing part is the presentation of information. Through pamphlets or television shows or radio programs, advertisements, participatory workshops or events, social norms marketers try to present information about social norms, or rather present information about desirable social norms, using methods that are familiar, or not. Some of the most successful social norms marketing programs for gender-based violence rely on what are essentially soap operas and likable characters to portray desirable behavior.

Perhaps it’s my relatively naivete in the subject, but it really warms my heart to see new campaigns like this coming out. While in all reality, they really haven’t been sufficiently evaluated, the glimmers of promise in their success at creating desirable social norms around violence (it’s not okay to hit your wife, ever; rape is not something real men do, etc) bode well.

My coauthor recently sent me these videos from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, featuring a famous Congolese rapper in various roles portraying strong, loving, respectful real men. Real men who make their wives dinner when they’re late coming home from work instead of beating them and real men who treat women as equals instead of demanding sexual favors in return for employment. The videos don’t have subtitles and I don’t speak much French, but they’re cool nonetheless. I don’t see them winning an Oscar by any means, but hopefully they’ll change someone’s mind.

Ploughs vs. sticks

There is small strain of the economics literature that deals with religion and culture and tries to take these things at face value. While much of economics (and economists) take culture out of the picture when creating models, there are whole conferences devoted to how culture influences our decision-making.

Much of the reason that culture is often excluded from economic models is that it is, or at least seems, endogenous. Culture determines our decisions which determines our culture, so we have a chicken-and-egg argument. You could say, then, that the point of the field of Economic History—which aims to bring economic reasoning to historical events and data–is to tease out which came first, the culture or the decision, the tradition or the allocation.

A recent paper by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn tackles this chicken-and-egg question by comparing places where the plough was readily adopted and places where more labor (digging with sticks, weeding by hand) than capital prevailed as the dominant agricultural tool. They argue that fertility, or how many children one decides to have, was influenced on a societal level by the adoption of the plough. The reasoning is rather straightforward. The plough, as a labor-saving device, reduced the need for women and children in the fields, thus creating a less egalitarian culture–where women stayed at home instead of working outside the home–and one where women had less children.

They note the fertility result as surprising; their original hypothesis had been that a plough would increase fertility as it increased the time mothers would have to bear children. I don’t find it particularly surprising, knowing it takes a lot of hands to run a farm, but I do think it’s an interesting attempt to identify the source of cultural norms.

Potlatch, Denver style

A friend put out a call on facebook today for a food swapping event in Denver. Given that food sales are highly regulated by the government (try getting a license to sell food, not fun), it’s perhaps unsurprising that people want to unload their extra canned peppers or limoncello. But from the point of view of economics, barter, or trade without money, is a rather odd process.

Though not entirely the same, the food swapping event reminded me of Potlatch, an old Native American tradition of sharing the harvest in Northwest. The tribes who did really well, catching a lot of salmon, etc, would invite all the tribes who didn’t do as well to partake in the bounty. The point was to make sure that all food was consumed, but also avoid war and provide a sort of intertemporal trade. If you did well this year, you share in the hopes that if you don’t do well next year, someone will share with you. You could also see it as a form of insurance. Economic Historians tend to view Potlatch this way, but it also highlights the fact that economics doesn’t have a good framework for incorporating the value of community or cultural norms. (Case in point, a recent working paper by economists has the word culture in quotation marks, indicating its social significance, but lack of academic standing.)

But what do you call this modern-day Potlatch? In Denver, a city of about a million people, the odds of running into one of your bartering partners again are small, but perhaps on some level it’s insurance. Otherwise, we’re forging bonds with people we might never meet again, we get homemade goodies, feel good about the earth, piss on the idea of a monied society?

Barter in general gets a lot of press in Boulder, at least the word-of-mouth kind of press. I know lots of folks who try to barter for goods and services before offering money. You like someone’s t-shirt, so you offer to trade your own for it, you need yoga therapy, so you offer to trade a photography session for it. While many people swear by it, I also know just as many people (and often the same people who tout it) who come away feeling cheated or like they’re not getting their time’s worth. It’s a noble goal, I guess, to diminish the importance of money in society and close the gap between consumer and provider. In some cases, I think it works really well, particularly when you’re trading for two similar goods. A t-shirt for a t-shirt, an hour of massage for an hour of web editing, a jar of canned tomatoes for a jar of apple butter. But it becomes a lot trickier when we try to barter for things that are very different, eggs and chickens or photography and armchairs or programming for cookies.This is where people start to get cross, where valuations diverge and a perception of someone not holding up their end of the bargain chips away at the relationship.

Perhaps, there’s value in just thinking that we can do without money, or without the money printed by our big, bad government. That represents much of the justification behind local currencies as well. Or maybe, we just want to feel like things we do are valuable, that a connection from a barter–you care about what I made enough to give me something you made–is that much stronger than a connection made by a dollar, even if that relationship is temporary. Maybe there’s a psychological high from that interaction onto which we put a high value.

Or maybe I just live in a place totally detached from reality.

Turning around the war on girls

A new book about the infamous “missing women” by Mara Hvistendahl is gathering quite a storm, at least if you look at it from the perspective the Wall St. Journal (subscription required, my apologies if you can’t read the article), twitter, and my inbox. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the book itself yet, as I haven’t read it (don’t worry, I will!), but there is a lot of fodder provided by the book review’s author, Jonathan V. Last, and the literature in economics.

The question of missing girls as a result of sex-selection is not a new topic, by any means. Amartya Sen, a revered development economist and Nobel Prize winner, sounded the alarm more than 20 years ago now with an essay in the New York Times claiming that 100 million women were missing in the world, mostly in India and China, countries known to show strong son preference. He showed this by pointing out that while in the US and Europe, we see women outnumbering men, this does not hold true in much of the world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and the ratios are becoming worse. He doesn’t get much into the evolutionary science that guides the numbers, but he reminds us that boys outnumber girls at birth, but girls babies are more likely to survive, leaving countries like the US (where son preference is present, but perhaps not enough to encourage sex-selective abortion or infanticide) with a few extra women per one hundred men. Despite the fact that girls seem to be a bit hardier than boys, many developing countries–particularly in Asia and particularly those with a history of government-backed population reduction initiatives–are experiencing an outsize number of male births and an increasingly imbalanced sex ratio in older cohorts. Instead of a few extra men for every one hundred women, we start to see 110, 115 or more men for every one hundred women.

Emily Oster made waves and a career when she (erroneously, it seems) claimed that Hepatitis B, not sex-selective abortion, infanticide, femicide, or the systematic discrimination against girl children, was the root cause for much of the case of the missing women. (Note to budding PhD economists, write your job market paper on a really controversial topic). Women who had contracted Hepatitis B, the story went, were more likely to give birth to boys, thus skewing the ratio of boys to girls. Her arguments have been shown to be rife with problems in a number of papers and the question of missing girls remains a hot topic in economics. Last year, a colleague attended a conference in which her session was only for papers on “Sex-selective abortion in India.” For reference, most sessions at large conferences bring together diverse papers for sessions on “Topics in Education” or “Monetary Policy”. Rarely do we see four papers on the same subject.

Without reading Mara’s book, what’s interesting right now is that there should be natural economic consequences, right? A skewed sex imbalance means that women are suddenly a scarce resource and we should see that scarcity leads to higher prices in the market. Unfortunately, this does not always translate into desirable outcomes when we look at the big picture, and it does not necessarily mean that women are suddenly more valued (culturally), just more valuable (financially, opportunity-cost wise). In the marriage market, we might expect to see dowry payments dropping, or even reversed, where men are paying a bride price instead. We should see increased wage rates for work that women tend to do. The lack of women available to do “women’s work”, should push other individuals–either children, men or older women–into that work. Older women working is probably not sustainable. While putting more children to work is certainly not a desirable development goal, it might end up being the eventual outcome for communities with strong social norms against men doing women’s work. To some extent, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of all these scenarios playing out in various communities.

An extreme sex imbalance also creates a serious problem with regard to who can get married and may even lead to increased violence. In the case that women now have more bargaining power in a relationship because they can earn more money, they are perhaps more likely to delay marriage. In the case where women don’t have more bargaining power and cultural norms dictate marrying them off anyway, we might see younger women getting married to older men (perhaps men who have gained enough standing to ‘earn’ one of the scarce wives), which reduces the pool of marriageable women for men of their age. Regardless of which scenario (or an alternate one) plays out, the lack of women entering the marriage market has the ability to create, in all these different ways, a group of young, directionless men who are more apt to engage in criminal, or merely unsavory, activities or take out their aggression on women.

One email I received concerning the book suggested that we should try to change cultural attitudes about the value of women in these societies. Perhaps, she suggested, we could provide cash payments to women who give birth to children or other incentives. It’s an interesting idea, but one that could easily backfire.

Before we can talk about incentivizing the birth of female children, we have to figure out whether the sex imbalance is hurting or helping women, whether it is hurting or helping societies and what exactly would happen to those girl babies if they were born. As for hurting or helping, I think the general consensus is that it’s hurting, but I don’t know that we know that much about the outcomes associated with sex imbalances, yet, and it may be different in different places. Sex imbalances are still, I believe, much more skewed in younger populations than older ones, so we’re still not seeing the full effect on the marriage and labor markets of the lack of brides and female workers. Even if they are in place, there’s certainly not a consensus on what they are.

If we’re going to pay people to have girls, that raises all sorts of policy issues. On the one hand, though perhaps unlikely, it does run the risk of tipping the imbalance in the other direction. It may be that we have to wait for cultural norms to play themselves out to see a natural increase in the value of girl babies as dowry payments decline. Alternatively , there is evidence that social norms marketing sorts of programs have indeed altered some social norms and could have an effect on the value of girls, which may be more useful than paying parents.

The saddest part of just paying parents to have the girl children is that we might see more infanticide and general neglect of girls. Much of sex-selective abortion has been shown to be a substitute for infanticide and neglect of girl babies. Though certainly not relevant in every case, this also not a situation in which we can restrict abortion in order to repopulate the world with women. Cultural norms and attitudes are what economists would call ‘sticky’ and how best to change them, if we even should change them (there’s another benevolent dictator argument to be had here), or let them run their course, is a complicated question. It’s certainly one for which we don’t have all the answers.

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