I’m back

I’m back! I’m fighting the worse jet lag I’ve ever experienced in my life. Yesterday I was up at 1:30am and today at 2:30. I figure, this is what @price_laborecon must feel like. Nonetheless, I’m stateside for a few days and going to crank out some original research and blog posts.

Here’s one picture for you, in my new saree. More on Kolkata and India and Bengali weddings later, I’m sure.

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Off to the land of sights and smells and senses, or a break

As you’re reading this, I’m likely on a plane, or sitting in one of many airports or train stations that is in my future over the next month and a half or so. Today, I’m headed to India to see my dear friend and colleague get married. It’s going to be a five-day, multicity affair, with an overnight train ride in the middle. En route, I’m stopping in Mumbai and Darjeeling to do some shopping (new saree!) and hiking and to see a bit more of this huge, incredible country. I was in India a few years ago and fell in love with it. It’s overwhelming, to be sure. The smells and the colors and the throngs of people are total madness, but I love it; it’s exhilarating to be somewhere out of my comfort zone. I’m not doing research this trip, though you can guarantee my eyes will be peeled for interesting things. I’m also not taking a computer, which means unless I can get wi-fi for my phone, I’m doing this trip old school. I’m going to read some books and journals, including Casualties of Credit by Wennerland and the CESifo journal issue on malnutrition, and some stuff for fun, like Just Kids and back issues of the New Yorker, but won’t be here or on twitter much. My 30th birthday present to myself is a real break from work, this means not thinking about the papers I have under review, or the one that’s due at the end of August, or the one I have to finish for the CNEH conference in Banff in October (so excited for Banff!). A break. I’m going to sit in a big, comfy chair on a tea plantation and stare at the Himalayas (or the clouds, given that it is monsoon season, but, details). If you want to read more about down time (or the lack thereof), take a few minutes for this piece in the NYT from last week on “busyness”, a phenomenon that I’ve been complaining about since my years at Duke, and suddenly everyone is talking about, or Bryce Covert’s piece in The Nation on work-family balance. If you know something I shouldn’t miss in Darjeeling, Kolkata or Ranchi, please do share. I’ll try to check email sporadically. I’ve also been designated honorary photographer and family blocker for this wedding by my advisors, fellow grad students, and professors in the Economics department at the University of Colorado, so I hope to have some crazy wedding pictures and experiences to share when I get back. Have fun! Talk to you all soon. Enjoy your July and thanks for reading. I forgot to acknowledge my blogiversary (sp?), but I’ve loved getting to know you all over the past year. Thanks for your comments and ideas and conversation and emails and shares and links. This has been an amazing learning experience for me and I’m so excited to keep it up over the next year (I promise not to torture you all too much with job market woes in the coming months. Feel free to chastise me if it gets out of hand.)

No loo, No I do

A few weeks ago, a coauthor sent me a job market paper from an environmental economics student at Yale. Though in a very different department than me, we have similar interests and she thought I would find the paper interesting. Not only did I find it interesting, I found myself wishing it had been my job market paper. Apparently, so did a lot of people. The paper has been blowing up my twitter feed and was featured on the World Bank’s Development Impact Blog.

The paper evaluates the effects of a media campaign in Haryana, India designed to encourage women to make latrine presence a requirement for marriage. The project is particularly interesting because it allows for reasonable evaluation of a campaign targeting social norms without the the randomized control component so in vogue in economics right now. In addition, it provides real evidence as to the causal effect of skewed sex ratios. While we have speculated and reported on the effects of sex ratios, many of which I’ve discussed here, there is little statistical evidence. Now, we have some. It’s pretty great.

In summary, the paper shows that men of marrying age are more likely to build latrines when they live in areas with a more skewed sex ratio. Thus, a woman’s bargaining power in demanding a good that has an outsized benefit for her (privacy, sanitation, health) increases when she becomes relatively ‘scarce’ on the marriage market. While this doesn’t discount the other, more undesirable possible effects of a skewed sex ratio (bridenapping, increased violence against women, etc), it is certainly evidence that women are leveraging their bargaining power to improve their outcomes.

In addition, the means to test a social norms marketing campaign are huge. My own work on such campaigns directed at reducing gender-based violence showed the near impossibility of successfully and credibly evaluating their impact. The use of a sex ratio as a (somewhat?) exogenous measure of potential impact is novel, exciting, and I’m sure will be in use by many papers to come. There’s the obvious question of whether it’s plausibly exogenous, but perhaps we’ll save that conversation for another day.

The paper has two parts, one presents a theoretical model to explain the mechanism and the other presents empirical evidence from the program itself to show how a skewed sex ratio has increased women’s bargaining power, at least on this one dimension in Haryana, India. I have some nitpicky comments, like the theory section needs to be more thoroughly explained, or there are square brackets where there should be curly ones, but overall, I think it’s a great paper. It’s kind of wonkish, but you can download the paper here, if you’re interested. Good luck in Chicago, Yaniv!

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.