While we wait for ranked choice voting


It’s like deja vu all over again. 

Just like in 2010, three main contenders vie for Maine’s governor’s seat. Just like in 2010, it is looking unlikely at present that the majority of Maine voters will support our next governor. The cost of this outcome will again be a certain degree of delegitimation of our electoral outcome.

The League of Women Voters has been trying hard to get Maine to adopt ranked choice voting – also known as instant runoff voting – following Portland’s successful use of this system for their 2012 mayoral election. In ranked choice voting, people rank the candidates for individual seats in the order in which they prefer them. If you had a most-preferred candidate, but in addition there were one (or more) candidates whom you would be fine with electing, ranked choice voting allows you to communicate that.

The largest benefit is that your vote continues to count even if your top choice lacks sufficient support to win. In fields of more than two candidates, this means that the winning candidate will have gotten support from a majority of the total electorate, at least at some level on the voters’ rankings. Unfortunately it’s a very different approach to ballot-marking–  and ballot-counting — so I think there’s going to be a period of education and effort before they see success.

So while I agree with the Press Herald that ranked choice is better, the 2014 elections are upon us so it’s important to see what we have in the tool box already.

We’ve seen a couple of ways that people use procedures with broad current availability to vote strategically. Just as ranked voting allows people to throw support behind their second-favorite candidate rather than lose their opportunity to affect the outcome, other methods of strategic voting allow people to weight the probability of their preferred candidate’s success in casting their vote.

The two existing methods that people use to vote strategically are open primaries and frequent opinion polling.

Open primaries are in widespread use across the US, with 11 states using them for all elections and an additional 24 states having open rules for some primaries. Open primaries have also been the recent beneficiary of some good press. In its recent report, the Bipartisan Policy Center proposed the use of open primaries as a tool for reducing gridlock in federal politics. The Republican primary for Mississippi’s  2014 US Senate election, meanwhile, made for a pretty supportive backdrop to this report’s opening day. In elections where the district or jurisdiction is overwhelmingly captured by a single party, members of the minority party are all but guaranteed to be unable to affect the outcome of the election. This lack of support for the inevitable victor means that representatives are less likely to see those voters as people they need to represent accurately, leading to long-standing problems in democratic representation.

In Mississippi, the fact that the Republican primary run-off used the open primary rules meant that all voters, not just registered Republicans, were allowed to vote. As a result, Senator Cochran was able to reach beyond the small hardcore set of partisan primary voters in his run-off campaign and appeal to a much broader range of voters who would have an interest in supporting the more centrist candidate.

The effect of the open primary in this case was to effectively re-enfranchise all of the voters who would not have otherwise had a meaningful impact on the electoral outcome. Cochran’s perception of his constituency will almost certainly be affected by the results of his run-off election and his gratitude to those who supported him will probably now affect his lawmaking. Race is a particularly important part of this story since, well, Mississippi, and also because of the intensity of racial partisan polarization across the South. The open primary managed to bridge this substantial gap. As a result, people who would not have had a champion in Congress are now more likely to have one.

So how did Democratic voters know that it was important for them to come out for this election, which meant doing something unusual and voting in an opposing party’s primary? Polls revealed that the outcome in this election would be extremely close. The primary election itself even more convincingly showed how close the margin was for Cochran, providing the critical information necessary for strategic voting.

In general, while we don’t get two elections like this in a row, we now do have a similar ability to understand probable outcomes through frequent public opinion polling. Polling aggregators like HuffPost Pollster show how many polls are being taken in a multitude of races across the country, providing voters a pretty good idea of how things are trending for their preferred candidate.

Polling was very important to the story of Maine’s  2010 gubernatorial race. Real Clear Politics aggregated 16 polls taken in Maine between June 2010 and the November election. The final set of these polls can be seen in the image below:


There was no massive scandal, or glorious new program introduced in the final weeks of October. Instead, a number of Democrats realized that Mitchell was not going to be able to win over additional voters, and support for Cutler surged 25 percentage points: from a low of around 11% throughout early October to a final vote share of 36% of the electorate.

That kind of enormous change in the revealed preferences of the electorate demonstrates the substantial power of polling to allow an electorate to collectively estimate probabilities for their preferred candidates. While it’s not ranked choice voting, it is the same essence of strategic choice at work.

With increased access to polling data and analysis of polling data, voters are able to learn more about the preferences of the other members of their district. If a candidate is close to winning, they know that it’s worth backing that candidate. If a candidate trails persistently, that is also informative. In the case of Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial election, voters who preferred a candidate other than Paul LePage were able to make a collective last minute determination that Libby Mitchell could not gain sufficiently on LePage to win.

While we are seeing a version of this story playing itself out again in Maine, the trendlines are different from where they were at this point 2010. Nonetheless, the real difference is our improved ability to learn what the electorate prefers, through even more frequent polling, and through the established recognition that complicated elections require thoughtful strategic voting.

An imperfect solution next to ranked choice voting for sure, but something that we have the power to use right now.

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Improving Democratic Side-Payments

With apologies to the 7% of you out there who are still satisfied with how our Congress is working, I have to say that I have no expectations that our country’s most consequential legislative body is going to produce anything of value anytime soon. I count myself as part of the majority of Americans whose highest expectation for Congress is that it manage to avoid passing bad laws. Luckily, they seem to be following that advice on their own. Unluckily, the consequence of this is a failure to deal with a number of issues that matter a great deal to the country at large.

To address this – even if it comes at the cost of having more Congressional law made – I would like to take this opportunity to consider the excellent observation made by several political scientists and journalists that some of the blame for this inaction is due to the ban on earmarks. The decline of the use in earmarks, resulting from a series of agreements created in 2007 and 2011, corresponds to a decline in the number of laws passed, and maybe indirectly to the further decline in Congressional popularity.

Earmarks — or pork, if you are especially opposed to the practice, and want to create a good visual — served as the grease that allowed for legislators to achieve non-ideological compromises. This lack of ability to compromise is something that some drown-it-in-the-bathtub-types favor, because they would prefer that the federal government avoid doing much at all. By reducing the ways to get to agreement, the earmark ban helps achieve that purpose. It doesn’t actually reduce spending. It does increase executive power to make decisions formerly made by Congress. It does reduce transparency by taking these conversations out of the bill text and putting them into inaccessible bureaucratic records. But if one’s primary goal is to hobble Congressional agreement, well then mission achieved, I guess.

By trading their vote on a bill, legislators achieving earmarks brought material benefits to their districts. In itself, is this really such a bad thing? These are people who were elected by the specific people of a specific district. Maybe some of those people care a little less strongly about certain large ideological battles than they do about having jobs, or a nice bridge or something. Does anyone ever ask them that? They really should.

Outside of the “pork” context, this type of arrangement is sometimes viewed favorably. In game theory, the concept that someone might be open to additional material trades in exchange for cooperation is known as a “side payment.” Side payments can indeed be associated with illegal transactions like under-the-table payoffs and bribery. However, side payments can also be seen as a legitimate part of the negotiator’s toolbox, such as in cases like the negotiation of international conflict. While the side payment necessarily does not directly relate to the main issue being negotiated, it recognizes that people might have different degrees of commitment to that issue – or might have a different need that’s not currently being met, but which could be resolved in the context of the existing negotiation.

Thinking about our concern about earmarks issue in greater depth, the biggest ethical issue they raise does not lie in specifically targeting benefits to a particular district. Specific districts get targeted benefits all the time, for a variety of reasons. If a member represents a constituency that doesn’t care strongly about a particular issue up for vote, but does care strongly about getting funding a local project, seeking an earmark in exchange for a vote might actually be the more accurate representation of that constituency’s preferences.

The big ethical issue comes when earmarks are used to provide private benefits to the member of Congress.  Because earmarks are negotiated by individual members, they create a risk of corruption. Earmarks could be used to benefit representatives’ friends, family or campaign donors. Earmarks are also used as a way to secure votes for re-election, since they represent a material benefit that incumbents can claim as a direct outcome of their work. Congress passed transparency measures that clearly associate individual members with their earmark requests, and this helps to address the first issue, but it doesn’t do much for the second.

An additional issue that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere concerns the issue of whether the sought earmark does represent a good political bargain from the perspective of the representative’s constituency. Would a majority of the representative’s constituency prefer the new local bridge or to contribute to the new piece of legislation? The way that earmark requests developed doesn’t allow a representative to discover this information.

Both of these problems — unfair electoral benefits to incumbents and how to determine whether a constituency would prefer money or ideological victory — could be dealt with through a frank effort to integrate side-payments into political life. If we accepted that political outcomes are sometimes national, ideological victories and sometimes just a pile of money for a bridge, then we’d have a clearer set of conversations to have in our districts.

If we wanted to improve and democratize side-payments, as well as make them less of a personal benefit to sitting representatives, we’d develop a regular practice of polling constituencies with questions about their preferences.

90% of Americans have cell phones. Survey research is by this point a regular and highly routinized practice. More surely than at any time during the past, you can call people and just ask them to press 1 if they’d prefer to vote against healthcare reform, but press 2 if they’d rather obtain $800,000 in federal research funds.

Meanwhile, the idea that representatives should not collect opinions, and should instead substitute their own judgment, is a concept of democratic governance that becomes less supportable the cheaper and easier it becomes to collect public opinion.

Indeed, you may ask, why stop with the question of side-payments? Why not poll each district’s constituency for every vote?

I personally think that’s a very exciting possibility. Even if representatives refused to do this themselves, they couldn’t easily ignore well-designed and frequent surveys of their district. Democratic accountability through the hammer of frequent, granular constituent feedback.

Better living through survey research!

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Dismantling public higher education, Maine style

The mass layoffs currently coming to pass at the University of Southern Maine are the final moment of metal collision in the slow-motion train wreck we’ve been watching over the last couple of years. The USM faculty have been nauseously swaying out in the wind over the last handful of years. After finally gaining a contract, it appears that any security offered by this contract is fairly illusory.

Some of the professors USM plans to terminate are tenured. Tenure represents the golden ring of academia: the promised state of professional security which leads all younger academics to put in effort and hours far beyond what would otherwise be rational for their pay levels. As the American Association of University Professors put it,

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.

Unfortunately for tenured USM faculty on the chopping block, the guarantee of tenure technically protects only individuals from being removed from existing positions; it does not protect people in positions which are altogether eliminated. 

Nonetheless, we absolutely see a violation of the principles that tenure is intended to protect in the execution of the faculty-layoff plan. The layoffs disproportionately impact women: nine of the eleven faculty laid off are women, in an institution where women make up less than 50% of the faculty.  The disproportionate disregard of women’s tenure makes it pretty questionable whether women considering working at this institution could truly consider themselves free to teach or research in the way they’d see most fit.

Similarly, this action makes it difficult for potential professors to view USM as a reliable academic employer in the future. To the extent that a capable individual with a substantial training investment already loses money when she chooses a job in academia over industry, it’s important for academic institutions to do what they can to demonstrate “a sufficient degree of economic security” in order to make that difference worth it. USM is presently cutting two economists, who generally do quite well in the open market. What rational economist would come to work for USM in the future?

The whole situation is just awful. The state into which USM has been permitted to fall is a terrible tragedy. The university and state should be making much better use of the campus they have situated in the most populous, vibrant, and livable city in Maine. Why are they looking to further weaken this institution?

The state of Maine has certainly led the way to this outcome, reducing 20% of its funding to the university system between 2002 and 2010 and further reducing since then. As a result of having less and less to work with, the cutting of positions was more or less inevitable.

However, here we are. The present cry of protesters, seeking to save the professors, has been to ask the university to “chop from the top.” What does that mean, exactly? How much would that save, relative to other measures?

As a publicly funded institution the University of Maine is required to publish all of their salaries, so you can, in fact, evaluate this yourself. Public institutions are unique in this country in being required to provide their salary information – even where the state only pays for about 30% of the bottom line, as is the case for UMaine. (Even where non-profit and for-profit organizations receive tax breaks or enormous public contracts, those organizations don’t face this sort of transparency requirement, although they are also partially paying their people with public money. It is honestly quite unfair.)

After converting the pdf to Excel to work with the numbers, I looked at groups of workers by “bargaining unit” in order to think of people meaningfully by groups. Here’s the list of bargaining units identified in the document, which includes non-represented groups:

  • AFUM – Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine
  • UMPSA – Universities of Maine Professional Staff Association
  • COLT – Assoc. Clerical, Office, Laboratory and Technical Staff of the Universities of ME
  • Service and Maintenance – Teamsters Union Local #340, Service and Maintenance
  • Police – Teamsters Union Local #340, Police Unit
  • PATFA – The Maine Part Time Faculty Association
  • Non-Represented Salaried
  • Non-Represented Faculty
  • Law Faculty – Non-Represented
  • Non-Represented Hourly

How does the entire University of Maine workforce break down along these categories? Here are two pie charts to explore that: the first describes the proportion of the 4,794 listed employees in each of the official bargaining-or-non-represented groups; the second provides categories that simplify several of the bargaining groups.

total employees

You will probably be unsurprised to learn that although more than half of the employees employed by the University of Maine are union-represented staff, that group is not the best remunerated. Here are the average salaries by bargaining group:

salaries by bargaining unit

These salary averages, put together with the total number of employees in each category, gives us a sense of the relative weight of each group of employee on the balance sheet.  The top four categories are three faculty categories – law faculty, non-represented faculty, and union faculty – plus “non-represented salaried,” a category made up primarily of administrators and management.  The remaining seven categories, although collectively constituting the largest number of employees, have substantially lower average salaries.

The pie charts below describe the relative proportion of each group of employees in making up the university’s total salary expenditure. Again, the first pie chart uses the given bargaining or non-represented groups and the second contains my simplification of these groups into more conventional categories.


As a final cut at this, I looked at the proportion of each of these categories in the list of 270 University of Maine employees making $100,000 or more.


Although “non-represented salaried” workers make up about 10% of the total employees, they make up 16% of the university’s total salary cost and about one-third of the 270 University of Maine employees making $100,000 or more.

What should USM do? I think the state is the one that should be paying more, since it is clearly their reduction in funding that has made the biggest change in university revenues.

However, I’d also be looking to administrators who seem not to be able to do their jobs in securing that funding to be offering funding up from their own departments, rather than hollowing out the value of their very product. Instead, this move they’ve taken has destroyed the attractiveness of being employed by – or enrolled at- USM for the foreseeable future.

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Ukraine is in chaos, and the United States is paying attention.

NYT on 3-2-14

Ukraine has become increasingly interesting to Western audiences as initial protests against the president’s abandonment of a trade pact grew into mass violence.

You know what else happened today? You won’t find it on the front page, but if you click on “World” and scroll down…

and further down…

and further down…

on the fourth screen down, after nine additional stories about Ukraine, you will see this story:

4 screens down

and maybe you will think, Nigeria? Weren’t there some things happening there?

There has been a lot happening in Nigeria, and there has been for some time. The New York Times – and I’m using the New York Times as a proxy here for politically-savvy and engaged US audiences – knows that there are a welter of issues going on in Nigeria. However, it’s not so much a question of “what is the US going to do about it?” and “how will we stop this thing from happening?” as a “well, what a tragedy.” After the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the New York Times ran a story entitled, “In Nigeria, Oil Spills Are A Longtime Scourge.”  It revealed the scalding news that the Niger delta has experienced the equivalent of an Exxon Valdeez-sized oil spill every year for the last 50 years – and then framed it as “a cautionary tale” for the US.

In the last few years, Nigeria turned to even greater tragedy, in terms of the sheer volume of violence and displacement. Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful,” has committed some of the most horrifying attacks of the new century with a special focus on killing people in places of worship and in schools.  Their efforts have been targeted at killing people who support democracy and want to learn English.

Why is violence in Ukraine dominating the news, and Nigeria not? It’s not the level of violence. I looked at the number of stories written in the New York Times about Ukraine and Nigeria over the past year, and I plotted them against the number of political deaths per month that I found listed in various timelines of the crises.

NYT: Ukraine and Nigeria

The purple line is stories about Nigeria. It does not vary at all with the number of deaths over the past year there. (In September, Nigeria experienced nine serious casualty-causing events leading to 491 deaths; there were two NYT stories about them.) My death toll for Nigeria here comes from a few minutes of looking around on the internet. I found direct description of 966 deaths; the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that 1,224 people have been killed in Boko Haram-related attacks since last May.

The green line is stories about Ukraine. It varies strongly with the protest events, begun at the end of 2013, and even more strongly with the violence in February. Deaths were primarily reported in February 2014. The Ukrainian Health Ministry has the highest confirmed number with 94 deaths since the beginning of the protests.

Stories about Ukraine also became increasingly likely to merit page A.1 placement beginning with the protests. Up until November 2013 both stories mentioning Ukraine and stories mentioning Nigeria were about equally likely to make the front page, with an average of about one every twenty stories doing so. In March so far, a quarter of the stories mentioning Ukraine are on the front page of the published version of the New York Times. As you can see, they are even more highlighted on the electronic version.

This degree of attention to Ukraine suggests our urgency. We don’t think of Ukraine as a subject for sober observation, to be used as an object lesson before writing better domestic legislation. Our attention expresses identification and concern, and worry about how they’ll get out of this situation.

Nigeria’s pain is certainly multifaceted, combining environmental disaster, resource plundering, the nefariousness of international corporations and the problem of a legacy of executive corruption with, now, a terrifyingly capable terror organization that targets sleeping schoolchildren. However, it would seem to the casual observer that it would be a lot more applicable to think about how to deal with Boko Haram than Vladimir Putin. Russia is a familiar adversary, but one from the past – not the future. Boko Haram, meanwhile, appears to be working with other brutally effective terrorist organizations, with which it seems only to be getting better coordinated and more effective.

Beyond the logic of realpolitik and concern over tomorrow’s security threats, we need to recognize that we spread our attention across the world unequally.

Which crises urgently demand our attention? Which ones don’t?

And why is that? 

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WhatsApp indeed.

Mark Zuckerberg recently had Facebook purchase a mobile computing software program called “WhatsApp” for $19 BILLION dollars. I feel a lot like Dr. Evil when I write that.

As all of the news coverage will tell you, this is for a free service – it makes no money directly.

This is two conundra in one. How can something be worth $19 billion dollars? And how can something that is worth so much money be available to individuals for free?

I’m going to take the second question first, because it’s simpler. There are two reasons that this mobile computer program is available for free. First, this product was never an economic good in the way that nearly 100% of the people in this country think of the goods that they produce and consume. It was not something that was grown, like a carrot, or built, like a car, and brought by its producer to a marketplace to be exchanged for money with someone who wanted the object. Here, the good that was produced was produced as an investment good. It, like many other tech products, was funded by speculators. (We generally call them venture capitalists, to be polite.) In the case of WhatsApp, the company was given $8 million by some wealthy people in 2011 and then they didn’t have to worry about money again for the next few years. In other words, the good was free to people because the actual good itself was not directly the holder of exchange-value.

Second, while $8 million is certainly quite a bit of money to have to spend over three years, it also reveals how fundamentally cheap it is to produce this good (the one that is worth $19 BILLION dollars. Sorry, mind still blown.) How do you make software? You have programmers make it. Good, capable programmers who type diligently into their laptops for many months, trying to make their code as good as possible so that the software always works regardless of what phone it’s being used on. You have a few designers make it look as cool and appealing as possible. You have a couple of project managers who make sure all of the bugs are being worked out in the most efficient possible way. You have someone who answers the phones and responds to angry emails and tweets encouraging things at potential users.

These people are doing fine work. However, what they’re doing is creating an idea – a complicated idea, but also just an idea, in the sense that a newspaper article is an idea. It is possible for intellectual property like this to be distributed for free because the cost of distributing any one unit of it doesn’t add meaningful additional costs to the production process. For goods made out of actual physical materials – something which actually costs a producer something for each unit made – you can’t make it free because you would sink deeper into the red with each unit you gave away. It’s clearly a lot simpler to produce a free OpenOffice than a free OpenMilk.

The physical intangibility of intellectual property begins to get at the first question as well, the problem of how this particular good could be worth $19 billion. To begin to answer the first question, if you had to make something out of actual physical materials, you could never produce $19 billion of value out of $8 million of expenditure. While it’s possible that good-quality labor and savvy entrepreneurship could double or quadruple value  – heck, maybe multiply the value of those physical inputs tenfold – they simply cannot multiply it 2375 times.

The only things that can do that are things which have become entirely unmoored from their original relationship to the value of someone’s work as added to physical materials. Something can increase in value that dramatically only if it’s not really connected to the value of the work itself, but to its value as a chip in an extremely high-priced poker match.

For most of us, money is real in the sense that we produce a certain amount of it with an hour of our work. The value of that hour of work becomes fought over, ferociously and in public, when we struggle over raising the minimum wage or arguing that unions are forcing employers to pay too much for their employees.

Money is also real when we spend down the savings we’ve created from our earnings. The hue and cry about the inability to cover sick people who can’t afford health insurance draws on this imagery that our fingernails are scraping the bottom of our pocket. The money that we put in was simply the source of our collective hourly labor, the only money there is, they argue – and now it’s nearly gone.

To check the business pages, this evidently isn’t a concern for certain kinds of transactions. This money is closer in form to chips changing hands in a poker game. A very, very high-stakes poker game, played in mysterious fancy buildings all over the world. It’s so unreal, it’s hard to connect it to our real money in our real economy. But when you become inured to the scale of these events occurring in these mysterious, fantastical places in our broader economy, you forget to connect the dots.


$19 billion = the value of one free mobile phone app.

$3.4 billion = the annual cost of running all of the state-level public programs in Maine. All of the schools, all of the social services, all of the roads, prisons, courtrooms, elections; regulating all of the private activity in a way that makes sure we have clean air and clean water, for 1,329,000 people.

Heck, for good measure:


$19 billion = the value of one free mobile phone app.

$13.95 billion = the annual cost of running all of the state-level public programs to support all 3,276,000 people in northern New England.

What is the solution to this? Should we allow states to become venture capitalists, so we too can make ridiculous piles of money out of somebody else’s poker game?

Or can we, at bare minimum, recognize that there are connections between the money we work for and the money that other people are able to use for speculating on free mobile apps?

It’s really the same money. For people who don’t make their money through producing a good or a service, this money has been sheltered both legally and quasi-legally through favorable tax law. For people who make their money through a salary or hourly wage, well, you just haven’t been playing with high-enough stakes to win those concessions. Run that equation through a few hundred million times and you get the current wealth distribution.

WhatsApp with that? Seriously.

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Boys and Girls

Some of today’s thoughts about gender roles.

Male pelvis, female pelvis. Image credit: Smithsonian Institute

1. I woke up this morning with an idea for a mobile app. In my mind it was called “Dadabout” or “Dad About Town” and it would resolve the problem that there is no good male-focused counterpart to the local mom’s group. 

Lest you doubt that this is actually the case (and you probably don’t), I just scanned the Meetup pages for relevant numbers, and while Meetup thinks there are around 40,000 “Dads Meetups” members in the world, the largest groups in this list are actually groups focused on single parents. The whole of NYC produces the largest dads’ group to be aimed specifically at men, with 930 members. On the distaff side in NYC, meanwhile, there are over 3,000 members in the “First Time Upper West Side Moms” group alone. Based on personal qualitative research I can also tell you that dads are similarly underrepresented in library storytimes, tumbling workshops, and karate dojo waiting rooms. 

So without groups, how do dads find other dads to chat with while their kids run around? I think there’s a space here for a good tech-enabled solution. While in-person playground friendship development is pretty easy for women, men are more apt to be on the receiving end of a hairy eyeball than a conversational overture. But what if fathers had a geo-location based social network that allowed them to see other fathers in the vicinity of a playground, and could indicate that they were planning to be there? Fathers could co-locate and chat instead of standing mutely around at scattered playgrounds. It would solve the gender-related small-numbers problem without requiring a single dad to pick up a phone.

Then, thinking about this idea a little bit more I started considering the stereotypes of men at playgrounds. Then I started thinking that a service like this might need to publicly advertise that it verifies and screens users in order to pass muster. And then I started thinking about how something that allowed men to know where another person’s children would be might itself be seen as a threat. And then I thought, there’s no exit from this problem, is there? By including a system to prove users were “good” fathers, the service would implicitly criminalize involved fatherhood, with the specific exception of fathers who’d been individually cleared.

And then I got tired, and decided that we only have a few more years of playground monitoring; we’ll just stick it out.

2. Today’s Washington Post came with a section cover-story on being “genderqueer at the gym.” The author is someone who was born female and now identifies as someone in a gray area between male and female. The story concerns the mixed feelings the author has about the public gym. On the one hand, the gym is a great place to get big and impress other people. The author describes enjoying the performance of masculinity through assertive weightlifting, conscious of being territorial over space and not having to say “please” or “thank you” like a woman would. On the other hand, the gym is an oppressive space because the author is still compelled to use the woman’s changing room, against preference. 

I would not presume to tell the author that they appear simply to be male-identified and that they should go for it and just call himself male. However, it was really disappointing to hear someone consider themselves to be genderqueer and still express such an incredibly reductive perspective on what it is to be female. Women are “elliptical addicts” who exist behind a “pink veil.” Female qualities are submission, smallness, cooking, and dancing. Even bio-men whom the author describes are identified as genderqueer because they wear “fabulous pink dresses.”

I know I shouldn’t read too much into what one person who is obviously on hir own journey has to say, but these are descriptions of the performance of a stereotype of femininity. To the extent that the author rejects them for hirself, zhe shares the experience of myself and many of my female friends: the desire to frame ourselves as self-determining and autonomous social beings. The problem of being trapped in reductive stereotypes of femininity is a problem that’s obviously shared beyond the genderqueer community.

Just like it is still challenging to publicly and socially perform involved fatherhood, it is still challenging to publicly and socially perform self-determination as a woman. As we collectively “genderqueer” society by removing limits on what sex will determine our opportunities to be, we’ll have to make genuine new combinations of traits and embrace all of them. 

3. I haven’t seen Frozen yet and I don’t have a strong interest in doing so, but I understand that the movie is seen as one of the “better” Disney movies for girls. I saw Dana Stevens’ article today on Slate about how she wished that the big, liberating musical number for one of the female protagonists didn’t involve the character getting made over into a more-seductive version of herself.

There was the predictable anti-feminist blather in the comments thread; Slate doesn’t seem to do much comment-moderation for anti-feminist vitriol. However, there was also a less mean-spirited argument that this character’s visual sexualization was a representation of her maturation, and that sexuality is an aspect of female power. This argument is consonant with “sex-positive feminism,” a perspective that identifies a woman’s decision to perform traditional sexiness as an empowered choice if she personally chooses it.

Disney is often criticized for its depictions of girls and women – both for the sexualization and the diminution/disappearing of female bodies. However, Disney depictions of girls and women are so challenging not merely because they tell stories we don’t like but because they are child-oriented distillations of broad social beliefs. As a member of a society that has produced Miley Cyrus, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that youthful sexuality appears to be a potent and important form of power.

So what do we do with this? Is Disney the message, the bad model to attack? Or is it just the messenger?

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Minimum wage


My favorite thing about my new commute scenario, in addition to the gas savings, is that I have a daily hour of book reading time on the bus. I finally got around to reading The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. I ordered it a long time ago but it never got to the head of the line because course prep, grading, and project-specific reading came first. But then, the bus!

The Spirit Level is a book about how inequality negatively affects everyone within a society, particularly from the perspective of public health. Life expectancy, morbidity rates, homicide, mental health, teenage pregnancy, crime – and even softer measures like levels of social trust — all trend in worse directions in concert with national or state levels of inequality. The authors present all of these trends together and demonstrate pretty effectively that once a society gets to a certain level of economic development, getting richer doesn’t actually appear to improve these central components that really describe quality of life. Rather, economic growth that increases inequality can create a social environment that’s worse for everyone — including the well-off.

It’s a great book without necessarily always being a good book. It provides too little information about the correlations between inequality and the quality of life variables and too much evolutionary psychology at the end, even after the authors themselves point out that the specific causes of inequality are idiosyncratic and ultimately beside the point. Nonetheless, the assertion that we should think about all of our individual social issues as manifestations of the single overarching problem is very powerful, especially when explored as a series of example variables. If you were moved by Robert Reich’s Inequality for All, you will love this book – it provides a more data-focused, less narrative-driven account of the same problem. (And if you’re intrigued but lack the luxury of a half-hour bus ride to work, here’s the TED talk.)

OK, so far this post is not at all about the title line I typed in when I began to write. However, it is, in fact, a serious reason why we should all get much more interested in the minimum wage for entirely self-interested, non-altruistic reasons.

Namely, a higher minimum wage means that less of our tax dollar will be needed to support the working poor.

The recent public conversation about the minimum wage keeps getting pulled into an eddy about whether a minimum wage increase would reduce the number of people – particularly young people – hired by companies who hire a lot of minimum-wage workers. Depending on your level of interest in the specifications of economic models,  you can dig into a number of arguments that both support and oppose the hypothesis. It appears not to create massive change one way or the other.

However, what is noncontroversial at this point is that raising the minimum wage does decrease poverty. And when poverty levels are decreased, fewer people need state support.

When he was running for governor, Paul LePage described one of the employees he supervised at Marden’s as his welfare “poster child” because she rejected a $2 raise rather than lose eligibility for MaineCare to cover herself and her children. (Feel free to pause for a moment to reflect on the irony of Paul LePage being concerned about someone maintaining her MaineCare eligibility.) The reason that this was an issue at all, of course, was that this woman spent all of her time in very low-wage employment. When we fail to require a reasonable minimum wage, we get people working – and yet we still collectively need to support them in order for them to have the basics of food and health care. As many have pointed out, we collectively subsidize companies that pay low wages through offering state assistance to their employees. A low minimum wage may possibly mean more people working but in jobs where they are likely to require continuing public assistance.

And what kind of benefits do states which choose lower minimum wages get? In theory, if a low minimum wage is so effective at increasing employment we should see lower poverty rates. Yet when we look at the correspondence between state-level minimum wage levels and poverty levels, that’s not what we see.

min wage

Poverty levels from the US Census, information on state minimum wage laws from NCLS

The trend line indicates that states with lower poverty levels tend to have higher minimum wages, while the states that have no state minimum wage also tend to have higher than average levels of poverty (with the exception of New Hampshire.) In practice, all states are bound to ensure compliance with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 as a bottom bound to wages, but it’s clear that higher minimum wages are certainly not hurting anyone.

Higher minimum wages are associated both with lower levels of poverty and higher median incomes.

min wage income

Higher median incomes, meanwhile, are very strongly associated with lower poverty levels.

poverty median income

It’s decent wages that get people out of poverty, not just “having a job.” Making sure that companies provide a decent minimum wage allows us all not to be in the position of covering those gaps.

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