24 October 2009

Superfreak reviewed part 1

I finished my copy. For the record, should I ever be involved enough in society to have some FTC restriction, it was a purchased copy for my own amusement and not a review submission. I don't think very many people care about my opinions. It's not established that they should or that I have much luck at moving theirs by my force of expression anyway.

As with the first book, it was a broad cross section of topics. And a wide variety of rather, I suppose I shall describe them as socially pungent, opinions and/or conclusions. The last book included a rather non-political survey of the economics of drug dealers (or lack there of) and the conclusion that abortion bans have had substantial impacts on crime rates over a generational cycle, far more so than many popularized theories.

This one has a rather interesting (though probably less controversial) claim that TV has had another impact on crime rates. No, not the "watching violent TV produces violent criminals", but rather just watching TV. The impact starts from people born back in the supposedly pure 50s and 60s with shows like Leave it to Beaver and the annoying Andy Griffith theme whistle rather than the "A-Team" and a plethora of modern crime dramas of my own formative years. They did not really elaborate on the particulars of why that might be (there isn't a clear sociological explanation for why this would occur on average, though the "TV as parent" theory is as good as any other). But then again, TV does have some additional side effects all the way over in India. It lowers the birth rate, along with the dowry effects, increases the demands of Indian brides for working plumbing, lowers domestic abuse, and so on. Why? Cosmopolitanism seems to be one explanation. I suppose that couples staring at the screen rather than fighting over their own domestic troubles or busily producing more children in the absence of more mindless entertainment are as good an explanation as any other here too.

Then again there's the problem of Indian condoms failing more often. The cause here is not surprising, and it's related to a similar problem they report on later with children's car seats relative to regular old seat belts in terms of safety effects. As in:they're not sized correctly so they don't work as effectively as they should.

Of the more controversial reports, they started off with a chapter on prostitution (along with other economic effects related to women). After reading that link, one might assume that the conclusion reached was that women should all be headed out to buy some high heels and miniskirts. But they prefaced the entire chapter by examining an wide raft of data points on pay and other economic disparities and how they have effected women over the history of economies everywhere. The conclusion reached out of all that is largely that of sensible people everywhere: that women individually suffer some economic discrimination in the marketplace for everything from personal employment choices (such as fields or occupations with less direct economic incentives than those of men), to maternity and child-raising choices (for which women should suffer, but in my view they suffer unfairly because men do not make the same choices or have the same immediate biological costs) to menstrual cycles to outright sexism (for which nobody suffers legitimately and should be penalized where it exists). Except for one historical industry: prostitution. Which has been dominated by women for the simple fact that men have apparently always been willing to pay for sex and, at a high enough premium for the costs of accepting the offers, some women have been willing to trade sex for money.

The authors, being from Chicago, have a wealthy history of brothels and bordellos in the late 19th to early 20th century on which to compare the trade to its current market. But to contradict the previous arguments, they preface the subject by stating that a current street prostitute may well have the worst job in the nation (though the previous book's examination of a street crack dealer is probably worse in my view with higher risks of death and jail time). Even with an average rate of about $27 an hour, the job brings with it considerable costs of legal penalties (prostitutes are far more likely than their customers to be harassed and detained because of our idiotic legal codes), disease, abuse, even, as the recent stories would highlight, death. The job they were describing instead as a desirable economic position was that of a high-priced escort. With economic prospects enhanced by the internet to cut out the middleman services provided by a brothel or a pimp (some of which are legitimately dangerous and/or predatory themselves), this economic position is now properly comparable to those of the infamous Everleigh club in 19th/20th century Chicago (the owners of which were women themselves, as was customary at the time, and who had doctors and tutors on staff to invest in their "butterfly girls"). This would be the brief job description: Make 6 figures a year for very little work (10-15 hours a week), a great deal of autonomy, and with an apparently inelastic demand curve meaning you can charge more and do even less work if you want. Men will continue to pay more for high-end prostitutes compared to the low end of the spectrum where they can often just find another prostitute to do the same functions at their demand point; it's sort of a buyers market at that end which the legal codes do nothing to constrain.

Again, they preface this by stating there are most definitely specific job requirements, as with any high paying job, that not all women should or would be comfortable with (the basic having unorthodox sex, at least sometimes, with strangers being one major factor, along with having to maintain a "marketable" image or simply having a desirable enough sexual physical characteristic in the first place). In both cases, their primary question is to ignore the legal factors. High end prostitution is largely ignored without serious "moral" police demands as of the Prohibition Era of the early 20th century. Street prostitution is not, but as they detail, is more than likely to be a source of free sex for patrolling officers as it is a source of arrests (this also has happened in Europe with legally regulated brothels). Also to ignore the presumed answer of "why are women prostituting their bodies?" and, to my mind, the more important question, though they briefly touched on this as well, "why are men still paying to get women to do so?". Instead their mission is to examine the underlying incentives. If we assume that women become prostitutes out of hardship, destitution, or, as was commonly assumed at the turn of the last century, slavery, then we have an answer for a percentage of women in this industry. That answer is, unfortunately for people legally or morally opposed to prostitution, totally insufficient for most of the rest of the women involved. That is, in the case of "hardship" or destitution examples, their options for other sources of employment are hardly better. If we were designing a system to get women out of prostitution the answer would be to give them better primary education or better social infrastructures and not to go around policing their work. Because once you cross out of the street prostitution market, there's very little coercion and harm involved. Almost all of it is a voluntary response to incentives. Probably totally appropriate responses. Their case study escort even turns down a hypothetical obscene amount of money to have condom-less sex one time (she insists on condoms, as well she should), because she understands that this isn't likely to be a good customer from the incentive structure she lives within. Ie, he's too crazy to be safe. Her story doesn't strike me as a totally illogical representation of how women can respond to economic incentives and do so with a modicum of safety/responsibility and personal autonomy. It's just not likely to be typical (as the authors then ask).

So the reason fewer women are involved is probably several fold:
1) Most women, especially women in the middle and upper class of status, education, and neighbourhood employment options, will have better opportunities for satisfying their demands/needs for employment and income. Opportunities which they are more comfortable satisfying through personal preference. Also which have lower market risks to themselves than selling their company and sex while setting up a profitable business to do so.
2) The demand curve for high-priced women in that business is inelastic in part because it is illegal (in most states). If it were legal, there would be more competitive forces and a more dynamic marketplace. The escort they use for the story admits, as a druglord would if you could find one who admits their trade, that legalization is the last thing they would want because of the introduction of a more or less sensible market curve rather than two clearly distinct markets (one high and one low). There would be some sort of middle class options in between the Wal-Mart's and the Tiffany's and less means to use price discrimination (as evidenced by the story from German brothels). This is not to the advantage of the high-end independent escort service.
3) There just aren't that many women who would want to do this anyway, partly because of a stigma, partly because even with high incomes there are trade-offs that many women would not be able to accept were their work to be a public issue (as it would if they were to be arrested for doing it). Such as damage to social relationships, in particular romantic partnerships.

Because this all comes at the end of the chapter, and is tossed off in a rather cavalier way "why aren't more women doing this", it's basically just a rather undiplomatic way of asking a legitimate, and possibly important, question. To be fair however to the various criticisms, the authors don't focus on the developments, such as they are so far, that have allowed women to sell something other than their bodies at an economically advantageous rate (in particular reason #1 I listed up there). They instead asked a far more limited question, directed and leading toward asking why women in the middle part of that market in effect sell sex for "free" and then rather than actually looking at why (there are incentives, economic and sociological that benefit women in that scenario, possibly even mutually beneficial incentives), they simply mention that there is a why out there and toss aside its implications.

Tucked into that chapter is a more pressing issue still, the effect that women's expanded choices have had on primary education. I'm not sure that my high school experience is a representative sample since it was a fairly decent public school with fairly decent teachers and I was in mostly college track coursework anyway. Since those classes are the eggs in the basket as far as most schools are concerned one would expect them to have the better teachers. What interests me on reflection is the age disparity. The men teaching those classes seemed a lot younger on average than women. As an explanation, women used to dominate teaching ranks because it was one of the few places educated women could get flexible and respectable employment outside of the home for decades. One result of this was that the improved quality of teachers in our educated system was for decades in effective subsidized by standardized sexism. We now have to work out how the hell to get enough qualified candidates back into classrooms to replace the women that now become lawyers, bankers, and doctors rather than teachers (and to a lesser extent nurses, a profession which is at least partially responsive to market conditions and seems to be slowly fixing its own problems without nudges from public policy). This, in my opinion, is a good problem to have (in part because it appears women are, on average, better doctors than men). But it's still a problem to have a brain drain ongoing in the education field because it provides such a large public good relative to these other fields. Banking bailouts and protectionist measures to the contrary, simple and substantial investment in properly educating people would fix a lot of our social and economic woes a lot more productively than throwing money at failing banks and companies. I've long expressed a variety of solutions for how to resolve these problems, and the superfreaks don't get their hands dirty with them in this book (I suspect a few paragraphs on the various incentives involved in public education, much less private and charter education versus public would easily expand to an entire book with little difficulty). But it suffices to say that we do need to fix the incentive structure as to how and why people become and stay teachers to replace the gaps left that our previously sexist system was unintentionally providing us. I don't particularly care which sex the teachers are to do it and neither should they.

(I broke this up into two parts after I realized I'm intoning for ages about things that nobody will care about anyway)
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