Cartoon Violence

There are all sorts of studies that claim that cartoon violence, particularly of the video-game variety, encourages children to be violent, but this morning I was treated to a cute little analysis of violence that most likely isn’t actually engendering any violence. It does bring up questions of exactly what is being represented, though. Does violence in New Yorker cartoon articles correlate with rates of violence in the real world?

There are myriad questions, of course, that one could ask that might strengthen or weaken the relationship. Whether the total number of cartoons (violent or not) is constant over decades, turnover in the cartoonists, who the cartoonists are, etc.

I’ve never really known any cartoonists, so I can’t say much about their average temperaments, or sources of inspiration, or how much they read the news, or how much their cartoons reflect other trends in society. It’s reasonable to assume that, however inaccurately, they have some idea of what’s going on, even if they don’t metaphorically have their finger on the pulse of the nation. But more than rates of actual violence or murder in real life, I wonder if the increases can be associated with differing levels of depression or other mood disorders. A quick google search did not reveal an easy way to get depression statistics in the same format as the New Yorker cartoon violence data (and even if it did, it’s unlikely that there are enough data points to get a statistically significant answer). I’m sure a health economist friend (or even my mom) could help me out with this, were I to pursue it.

Then, I thought, maybe confidence in government? This WSJ graph has historical presidential approval ratings. The discontinuities would make it difficult to analyze, but  could be aggregated over each decade. There might be a story, or even better, might be a story about stability. Perhaps more volatility in presidential approval ratings over time means more violence. Or some combination of level and volatility?

Regardless of the outcome of such a search, this is clearly not a case of causation. Even asking whether cartoon violence is predictive or reflective of actual trends in depression or presidential approval ratings would take much finer data and many more assumptions. But I think it’s fun to try to link trends in media to trends in other facets of life. I used to tell a friend, who complained often about seemingly obvious journalism–“People use technology to do stuff”-type articles, for instance–that they’re necessary for the historical record. They’re also for nerdy economists to read and try to find patterns over time.

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Counting, miscounting and counting again

The Census Bureau reduced the number of same-sex couples it counted in the 2010 decennial census. Originally, when numbers were released in August of last year, more than 900,000 couples were counted, but now there are only 646,000, which is a pretty big drop.

The Census Bureau claims that the distribution of same-sex couples has remained unchanged. It seems rather unlikely that the distribution remained unchanged. For this to be true, I think a few things would have had to happen. Since the problems in identifying couples had to do with identifying the sex of respondents,a uniform process of identifying sex would have to have been done over all recorded Census questionnaires. This part, particularly if computerized, is not that hard (in STATA-speak–replace gender=1 if firstname==”Patricia”, replace gender==0 if firstname==”Michael”, etc). But it also is necessary to have taken proportional numbers from each state or region, which seems like it would be difficult to maintain over such a large area as the US. For instance, if 5% of the same-sex couple households reported in August were in Colorado, then exactly 5% of that extra 30% would have to be misclassified Coloradans. And the same for every state. It just seems like regional differences in naming and willingness to self-report same-sex household status would be different enough over states and urban/rural to skew it somehow.

I know that the Census Bureau imputes a lot of values and also works very hard to be accurate in the face of a lot of problematic data, but for almost 30% of the sample to disappear and still have the same geographic distribution seems unlikely.

But maybe I’m not giving us or the Census Bureau enough credit.

Good for mothers or for others?

The NYTimes Economix blog published a post today on how measures of well-being for women throughout the world fail to take into account mothers. Ability to access higher education, higher echelons of management, salary parity, etc, are all measures of how well women are doing in relation to men, but doesn’t say much about how able women are to care for their children. We know that women who have children take more time off of work, are more vulnerable to poverty and unemployment and likely suffer decreased salaries over time as a result of their decisions to raise children. A ever more limited focus on social safety nets like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) makes them even more vulnerable.

Less than a week ago, the Times also published a piece lamenting the status of single people in the US. In particular, single people are not entitled to things like family leave and pay higher rates of insuranc.

So, who should we actually be worried about? Most likely the answer is that who worries us changes depending on what outcome we want to achieve. Both groups, mothers and single people, have a lot to contribute to society. Single people are more likely to be engaged in their communities, to volunteer and maintain social connections, contributing to a sense of community, perhaps, and mothers, well, they contribute their children. From an equity standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense to deny single people the benefits afforded to married people. And if we’re interested in overall climate for women, ignoring singleness in an analysis of economic well-being is (perhaps not quite) as deleterious as ignoring the plight of mothers. But perhaps that’s impetus for more clarity in our work and precision in our assessments. Measures of subjective analysis should identify the population that benefits, and if we’re going to include things like maternity leave, we should shoot for gender and marital status equality in those measures. Can father’s take time off after the addition of a child to the family (by birth or by adoption); can single people take time off to care for ailing siblings? I’m not necessarily advocating for equality within these sorts of things, just that if we’re going to ask the question of one group, we should ask it for all groups.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell No More

Though we’ve known it’s been coming for awhile, the definitive repeal of DADT, the military policy prohibiting gays from serving openly, is really gone. In the words of our illustrious president, “Today, every American can be proud that we have taken another great step toward keeping our military the finest in the world and toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals.” My Colorado Senator, Mark Udall, also published a very fine editorial to commemorate the day, quoting Senator Barry Goldwater–“You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight”–and expanded on that view himself: “What counts is a fellow service member’s courage, loyalty, integrity, and commitment to the mission.” Here’s to the courage of all those who fought (and continue to fight).

Democracy Day

Today, apparently, it is International Democracy Day. A colleague had a trip to DC planned with some students to commemorate the day with a convocation of parliamentary leaders from various newly formed democracies and a few US congresspeople. He invited me to tag along and as I was up for any trip at that point, I agreed. I have to say that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into, and an hour into this, I’m still not sure. Speaker Boehner made an appearance first thing this morning and then likely sped off to a million other things he has to do today.

I am unsure whether it is indicative of American politics or an issue of language or the long fights many of these leaders have endured, but I am most stuck by the disparity in charisma. The Americans are brief, tanned, and speak loudly and to the audience. Most of the foreigners lack that ease and connection.

It’s a novel experience, at any rate.

Lies, damn lies and gendered statistics

A Gallup poll released today claims that both men and women prefer male bosses. Or at least that’s what the headline says. The actual story, in my opinion, is that about half of the population doesn’t care. Or they know enough to say that they don’t care, even if they do (ah, these social norms following me everywhere). According to the poll, a little more than half of those polled had a preference, and a little less than half did not. Of that half that had a preference, yes, more preferred a male boss, but that doesn’t mean that Americans prefer male bosses, as the first line of the story claims. It means that if they’re willing to state a preference, they prefer male bosses.

So, here’s a little story rewrite for you. “About half of Americans have no preference concerning the gender of their boss. Of those that do have a preference, 40% prefer female bosses. This is a huge gain over the first such poll that was taken in 1953 when only 5% of Americans stated a preference for female bosses. In the intervening six decades, preference for female bosses has increased more than four-fold.”

Yes, I’m being both terse and a little bit snarky, etc, etc, etc.

Sperm donation and millions of kids

An article in the NYT yesterday about sperm donors fathering hundreds of children left me with a lot of questions. The first of course being where’s Jack Shafer when you need him? The article is, unsurprisingly, bereft of information. Despite its length, it fails to report average numbers of children fathered or any indication of how widespread the phenomenon is or even what a sperm donor earns for his ‘donation.’

Regardless, I think it brings up some really fun questions about demand for children and demand for certain traits in our children as well as throwing the marriage market for a little loop (Clearly, I’m teaching demand this week in principles). In general, literature about the marriage market indicates that humans engage in both positive assortative mating and negative assortative mating, depending on which traits we examine. For instance, we positively assortatively mate (or choose partners that are similar to us) when we look at traits like education, intelligence, attractiveness, income and wealth. It seems that we have the best chance attracting and keeping a mate who is similar to us, at least when it comes to those qualities. This wasn’t always true, at least on factors like education, and things like in-home and out-of-home work skills. In fact, there is an entire book written about negative assortative matching on certain qualities and how that contributes to our understanding of marriage and gains from specialization. Even where we do see negative assortative matching (where people choose dissimilar mates), there is often an underlying similarity that is driving the match. For instance, a debate into which I unwillingly stumbled the other night revealed that marriages between people raised in Jewish and Catholic traditions were more successful than marriages between those raised in Catholic and Protestant traditions. The argument is that the group rituals associated with Jewish and Catholic faiths are more similar in terms of fostering interdependence than rituals among different sects of Christianity, imbuing people with differing levels of individualism and thus compatibility.

But I digress. When parents, for whatever reason, choose to have a child with the help of a donor, either egg or sperm, that process of pairing biological parents through matching on similar qualities no longer occurs. Instead, we have a situation where we commodify those traits we were formerly matching on. Without the matching mechanism (regardless of how strongly you think it predicts mating patterns), the best prediction of who gets the most attractive, educated, intelligent person to provide the other half of a child’s genes is now not the most attractive, educated or intelligent person, but rather just the one willing to pay the most money.

And so, even if the proliferation of kids from a single donor is rare, it really should come as no surprise. There are likely premiums paid to sperm donors for such traits, if not, those guys really need to get their act together. If I were going to pick someone to biologically father my children, irrespective of and also ignorant of his character, attitude and ability to provide for those children, I’m sure that I’d choose the 6’2″, athletic, handsome, 150 IQ physicist over the 5’6″, dumpy, overweight, tv watching, 90IQ burger flipper. It could be that the latter would be a much better father and provider, but merely as a gene donor, I’ll take the former. And probably so would most women, and probably they would also be willing to pay more for it. I have no idea whether physicist with 150 IQs donate sperm, but even so, it’s likely that there are donors that are more in demand than others.

I realize that all of this may seem very obvious, but I’m not sure that anyone has actually looked closely at it. Of course, it may be that no one has looked at it because it’s a pretty small issue (hence my wish for Jack Shafer to call it out), or because it’s rather difficult to measure. The article itself mentions that even many sperm banks do not know how many children are actually born as a result of their work, so accurate, aggregate numbers might be hard to come by.

In college, a friend who was struggling financially looked into selling her eggs. She decided not to do it–having one’s eggs harvested is extremely hard on the body–but not before finding out that her potential offspring were quite valuable. Young, athletic, blond and wicked smart, the agency was sure they could all do quite well with her eggs. I think the only thing she could have done to increase the price of her eggs was be Jewish (apparently there are relatively very few Jewish egg donors, thus driving up their value).

Ultimately, the high demand for sperm from certain types of people is likely more easily met than demand for eggs from certain types of people; that’s why we’re talking about men fathering hundreds of children, not women. And we don’t exactly know what the consequences are of having so many children from one parent are, but this brings up a collective action problem as well. Likely, it would be better for everyone–the child himself, society as a whole, the potential half-siblings, etc–if you didn’t choose that best-qualified sperm donor. Variation in the gene pool is important for evolution, not to mention the risks (as mentioned in the article, though they are likely small) for unintentional mating between half-siblings. But it’s really best for you individually to choose that best sperm donor, especially if you don’t know that his sperm is also going to spawn 200 other children, in which case, this is really a problem of imperfect information.

I think I did too much economics this week.

Trafficking and how to fight it

One of the last things I did in Colorado before moving East was hike Longs Peak (no apostrophe, weird, I know). Longs is one the famous 14ers in Colorado, or a mountain whose summit lies higher than 14,000 feet above sea level. On my way down, I met up with a group who was climbing to raise awareness for an anti-trafficking organization, which warms my heart a little bit.

Whether to include trafficking, and particularly sex trafficking in a review I was working on was a particularly difficult decision. Trafficking is a problem that I feel is pretty understudied. It affects many diverse groups of people, so you don’t see women’s groups jumping on the larger problem–though plenty of them work on sex trafficking–and I don’t think there is much of a consensus on how to combat it. While a good thorough search yields numerous programs, advertising campaigns, raids, plays and more that aim to create awareness of trafficking, there’s not much analysis of their success. And truthfully, it would be very difficult to measure success. If we think domestic violence is an underreported problem that is difficult to measure, human trafficking is all the more so. For that reason, and likely others, economists have a hard time modeling it and so steer clear of it. Maybe I just have a blind spot. If economists haven’t tried to study it, I think it’s understudied.

So, we have no idea whether these work, but the NYT unveiled a collection of global anti-trafficking campaigns that is just really cool. In development work, people talk a lot about including local people in development plans, but it rarely happens as perhaps it should. For programs like these, that attempt to increase awareness or affect social norms, local direction is equally important, and sadly, often equally ignored.

Though I can’t speak to their veracity, the campaigns herein seem to reflect the cultures and unique problems that the countries face around trafficking. I like the Jamaican one, for instance, that equates trafficking to slavery–a historical and close-to-home reference–but encourages the reader to think about the problem in a more nuanced way.

It’s a shame, of course, that there’s no good way to measure the effectiveness of these programs. Or rather, now that they are in place, we cannot easily tell whether their dissemination had any effect on attitudes. The lack of good counterfactuals, the problem of measuring secondary effects versus primary effects, externalities, etc, all make for a nightmare of an econometrics problem. There might be room for good qualitative analysis, but again with the underreporting, etc.

Regardless, the visuals are pretty cool. I highly recommend you check them out.