Hunger seasons

This week’s events have reminded me why I don’t want to go back to school. As I struggle through writing an application essay and wonder whether I’m really too old for this, my thoughts turn to grandiose schemes of changing the world.

Last week, a colleague and I were discussing the seasonality of hunger in some farming communities, particularly in East Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. I was so pleased with myself, thinking about a “Hunger Season,” and my journalist brain got a little revved about how I could write a book about it, only to find this one: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

My take so far, it’s a little grandiose and self-pat-on-the-back-y, but it’s well written and very well researched. It paints a fascinating and illuminating portrait of subsistence farmers in Kenya, going hungry, seasonally, for just the reasons my colleague and I had been discussing earlier. It’s definitely worth a read.

I hope to finish it this week, if my own grandiose essay writing doesn’t get in the way.

What I’m reading

I’m headed to Maine this afternoon for a quick talk at Bates College and a wedding in Kennebunkport. I’ve never been to Maine, so I’m excited for the beach and seafood, among other things. I’m also excited to read some books that have been on my list for awhile and another that just came out. This is what I’m taking with me:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman

This Is How You Lose Herby Junot Diaz

It should be a good weekend!

In which I review Matt Yglesias’ The Rent is Too Damn High

I caved last week and downloaded a Kindle App for my iPhone. It kind of killed me. I really love books–the bound, paper kind. I’ve been fighting the Kindle/iPad/tablet/Nook/e-reader thing for years now, and imagined I could still hold out for several more years. At least one publisher probably figured out that the best way to get me (and other holdouts like me) to convert was to offer certain desirable pieces solely on e-readers. I may be one of the few they got with this book, but surely there are others coming this way.

Matt Yglesias was a fellow at Think Progress and now writes a blog about economics for Slate. He’s thoughtful, smart, and perhaps even more important, concise. I’d followed him on twitter and through his various blog posts for awhile. When he released this e-book–too long for a magazine piece (still my favorite form of journalism) and too short to really be a book, book–called The Rent is Too Damn High, I felt like I had to read it.

I read the book (ebook, Kindle, whatever it is) in about an hour an a half when I arrived at a friend’s condo on Friday evening. I spent the entire next day talking about it and subsequently lent it to my ski buddy, who also devoured it in an evening. The skiing was terrible, might as well talk about economics, right?

Matt’s argument is fairly simple and straightforward. He argues that much of our housing and societal woes could be addressed–partly, certainly not entirely–by relaxing restrictions on building height and density and reducing implicit and explicit subsidies for single-family homes in the far-flung suburbs.

It’s a very convincing argument. Letting more people live in desirable places means more efficient transportation and other public services, reducing long average commute times, increasing the number of people walking and taking public transportation, increasing availability and variety of service providers, and more. Most importantly, perhaps, increasing density would reduce upward pressure on housing prices, which pushes people out of their homes, reduces variety and profitability of businesses, and likely contributed in some ways to the housing bubble.

At the center of the story is a profound disconnect in the way we think about houses. Hoping that a house will appreciate in value and constitute a sound investment is rather silly. Houses are made of wood and concrete and stone and steel, physical materials that will only degrade with time. The land a house sits on is an investment, and can appreciate based on the values of proximate amenities. But when housing prices increase rapidly, as they did prior to crashing a few years ago, they lose predictive power of the true value of the land and incorporate speculation. That’s how we get a bubble.

What I love about Matt Yglesias is that he is skilled at taking rather complicated topics in economics and making them perfectly accessible. He has a deep understanding of economic theory and relates those ideas in a clear, concise, and readable way. This book is no exception. It’s easy to read and clearly well thought-out.

My only real complaint is that I wanted more. Though there were places I wasn’t sure where he was going, it quickly came back to the point. The repeated discussion of elevators as technology was a bit amusing, but nothing more than a slight distraction. What I would have liked is to have seen additional discussion on the policy problems that additional density would create. No policy, regardless of how enticing it sounds, can change a rather significant trend in demographics without significant adjustment. This doesn’t mean that the costs aren’t worth it, but they are worth enumerating and discussing.

Water, for instance. While it’s cheaper per capita to get water to people who live in denser areas, it also means that pipes need to be replaced more often, and at least one person writing a book tells me NYC’s sewer system is in dire need of repairs. Direct re-use plants, increased sanitation, etc, are all things that belong in this discussion. Higher density housing also necessitates a stronger commitment to building more schools and park and hospitals. The ease of spreading diseases, access to sunlight, etc, etc.

There’s more, surely. In sum, though, read it. It’s quick, straightforward, and you might just learn something.

Women in publishing

These charts on female writers, book reviewers, and editorial staff have been floating around the internet for a few days now. The quick take-away is that women are far underrepresented in the major publications that promote and review literary works, non-fiction, and poetry. Mother Jones was quick to point out that the gender make-up of their staff and contributors is much more equal.

The comments are also worth reading. As of my last reading, there was really only one comment that seems to be trolling and the rest are genuinely reflective and thoughtful. One theme that is continually repeated is that in order to judge these numbers, we must look at the number of submissions. If women are not submitting at the same levels of men, then clearly their books will be reviewed less frequently. And while this doesn’t touch why there are more men on editorial staffs, it does start to get at some of these differences.

The author of the blog post goes into this in more detail on another page, and so some of what I’ll say here may seem to be merely echoing, but going back to submissions is not sufficient to determine the source of the imbalance. Once we have submission numbers, the question becomes, why do submission numbers look like this? My guess is that yes, female submission numbers are lower. But merely knowing that this kind of imbalance in submission exists does not preclude discrimination. If women writers know about the imbalance in the final product, it might scare some of them away from submitting in the first place. In this case, we might see that the quality of women’s submissions would be much greater than that of men, on average. Quality, I’d argue, should be more important than quantity in determining the outcome of publication or not.

Reading it also reminded me of @katinalynn‘s rant on long fiction the other day. In reference to recent long books by Bolano, Franzen, and Murakami, she notes “All three of these books received great acclaim before they ever hit bookshelves, in no small part due to each author’s past success.” Success in publishing (and in most fields, actually) is incredibly dependent on what you can show that you’ve already done. This New Yorker story on the plagiarism of Q.R. Markham quotes literary types as being more accepting of his work, or in awe of it, because he had published a poem in an Best American Anthology Poetry. One good publication and you’re much more likely to get the next.

This is partly a signalling issue. If someone gives us a signal that they are good, and someone else has no signal, we assign lower levels of risk to the one with the signal. Someone else has essentially done the work of evaluating this person for us, so we do less to actually evaluate them on merit. Whether we intend to or not. Thus, success becomes entrenched and one good turn leads to another.

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.