Category Archives: Politics

Border fences make unequal neighbors

 

israelgazafence

 

There is one similarity between the Israel/Gaza crisis and the U.S. unaccompanied child immigrant crisis: National borders enforcing social inequality. When unequal populations are separated, the disparity creates social pressure at the border. The stronger the pressure, the greater the military force needed to maintain the separation.

To get a conservative estimate of the pressure at the Israel/Gaza border, I compared some numbers for Israel versus Gaza and the West Bank combined, from the World Bank (here’s a recent rundown of living conditions in Gaza specifically). I call that conservative because things are worse in Gaza than in the West Bank.

Then, just as demographic wishful thinking, I calculated what the single-state solution would look like on the day you opened the borders between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. I added country percentiles showing how each state ranks on the world scale (click to enlarge).

israelwbgaza

Israel’s per capita income is 6.2-times greater, its life expectancy is 6 years longer, its fertility rate is a quarter lower, and its age structure is reversed. Together, the Palestinian territories have a little more than half the Israeli population (living on less than 30% of the land). That means that combining them all into one country would move both populations’ averages a lot. For example, the new country would be substantially poorer (29% poorer) and younger than Israel, while increasing the national income of Palestinians by 444%. Israelis would fall from the 17th percentile worldwide in income, and the Palestinians would rise from the 69th, to meet at the 25th percentile.

Clearly, the separation keeps poor people away from rich people. Whether it increases or decreases conflict is a matter of debate.

Meanwhile

Meanwhile, the USA has its own enforced exclusion of poor people.

Photo of US/Tijuana border by Kordian from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo of US/Tijuana border by Kordian from Flickr Creative Commons.

The current crisis at the southern border of the USA mostly involves children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They don’t actually share a border with the USA, of course, but their region does, and crossing into Mexico seems pretty easy, so it’s the same idea.

To make a parallel comparison to Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, I just used Guatemala, which is larger by population than Honduras and El Salvador combined, and also closest to the USA. The economic gap between the USA and Guatemala is even larger than the Israeli/Palestinian gap. However, because the USA is 21-times larger than Guatemala by population, we could easily absorb the entire Guatemalan population without much damaging our national averages. Per capita income in the USA, for example, would fall only 4%, while rising more than 7-times for Guatemala (click to enlarge):

guatemalausa

This simplistic analysis yields a straightforward hypothesis: violence and military force at national borders rises as the income disparity across the border increases. Maybe someone has already tested that.

The demographic solution is obvious: open the borders, release the pressure, and devote resources to improving quality of life and social harmony instead of enforcing inequality. You’re welcome!

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Does gay marriage make straight men hate children?

A few comments on a recent brief against marriage equality in Utah. But first some background.

As public opinion has shifted so dramatically on same-sex marriage, there has been some consternation about the ill treatment of those left behind — those opposed to marriage equality — as if they were nothing but common racists, whose hateful motivations may be divined from their policy conclusions rather than from knowing the love in their hearts.

Barry Deutsch has written a great response to this, pointing out that the sophisticated racists during the debate over interracial marriage made the same claim that the anti-marriage equality people make today. They were not motivated by hatred, they were not racist, they merely opposed a new, untested form of marriage that happens to go against tradition and the natural order, and would probably harm children. Especially the children.

Oh, no. Gay marriage is coming. Should I catch her? Photo by Mike Baird from the Flickr Creative Commons

Oh, no. Gay marriage is coming. Do I catch her? Photo by Mike Baird from the Flickr Creative Commons

Run, hide, double down

The smart conservative money in the last year or two has moved away from all this. Among those public intellectuals who labored to block their gay and lesbian fellow citizens from crossing the threshold of matrimony (under the terms of their choosing, at least), there are three approaches.

  • The most openly forward-looking, such as David Blankenhorn, publicly reversed course and threw in the towel. Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values has shifted to the movement against gambling (joining a sadly low-rent effort that unites Blankenhorn with the likes of Barrett Duke, a veteran of the crusade against the “homosexual special rights agenda“).
  • The more duplicitous, such as Brad Wilcox, simply avoid discussing the issue in public. Hard to believe these folks have no opinions on the subject, considering Wilcox’s efforts to generate research in opposition to marriage equality. But his new Institute for Family Studies (IFS) seems not to have mentioned this issue — even though its nominal president, Richard Brake, was (and is at press-time still listed as) National Education Director for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which has as its mission preventing the spread of a “relativism that rejects an objective moral order.” (The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which paid for some of the Regnerus study to prevent marriage equality, also funds ISI.)
  • Finally, a contingent of obdurate cranks continues to resist the new moral order, marriage equality included. I wrote about two of them, Mark Regnerus and Douglas Allen, who testified in Michigan’s recent losing battle. But this group also includes Alan Hawkins and Jason Carroll, two professors of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

Hawkins and Carroll

I hadn’t read, until recently, the amicus brief filed by Hawkins and Carroll in Utah’s attempt to stop (or re-stop) marriage equality, which is available here. Before I describe it, though, a quick word about these two. Hawkins has showed up here for his shoddy research in defense of (straight) marriage promotion. He and Carroll have both done paid work for the federal marriage promotion campaign. And they are both part of the Wilcox brand, Hawkins as a contributor to the IFS blog and Carroll as a co-author of his Knot Yet report.

At BYU, Hawkins has expressed concern about how modernity might affect the ability of Family Life graduates to get jobs:

“A very real risk is that there will possibly be formal litmus tests in graduate programs out there,” Hawkins said. “We’re already seeing informal ones in some graduate programs. It’s not just saying, ‘I’m willing to work with same-sex couples and families.’ It’s more than work, it’s that students’ beliefs and attitudes will have to align with the new, contemporary definition of marriage.”

In other words, in the new relativist moral order, it may be difficult to get a job or spot in graduate school in say, family therapy, if you believe your legally married gay or lesbian clients don’t have a right to get married on their way to spirit prison, or worse. To some of us, I suspect this is pretty close to the definition of progress.

Anyway, in the Utah case, the state recently dumped Regnerus’s argument that same-sex marriage directly harms children, in favor of the argument that same-sex marriage hurts straight marriage. (I played around with this empirically a little when Utah first appealed the federal court’s decision to overturn their marriage ban.) Hawkins and Carroll attempt to make this case theoretically.

They pretty much sum it up in the table contents, which directs the reader to page 18 if they want to read this:

Traditional, gendered marriage is the most important way heterosexual men create their masculine identities. Marriage forms and channels that masculinity into the service of their children and society. Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples would eliminate gender as a crucial element of marriage and thus undermine marriage’s power to shape and guide masculinity for those beneficial ends.

The details involve a lot of untestable assertions about how (straight) marriage shapes men’s masculinity, followed by what read as not only untestable but frankly paranoid assertions about how this would all change if marriage were to lose its gendered character. Because, all the bad things that are already happening to marriage will only be amplified by letting more gay people get married:

Many of the historical supports that have traditionally preserved men’s involvement in their children’s lives have been eroding for contemporary families. Historically high rates of non-marital cohabitation, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and marital divorce have dramatically altered the landscape of fathering, leaving unprecedented numbers of children growing up with uncertain or nonexistent relationships with their fathers. …any signal that men’s contributions are not central to children’s well-being threatens to further decrease the likelihood that they will channel their masculine identities into responsible fathering. We believe the official de-gendering of marriage sends just such a signal.

Yes, the very existence of gay marriage will encourage the evolutionary tendency of (straight) men to neglect their children. They go on to concede that such an indirect effect would be hard to detect. But that doesn’t make it any less important:

To be sure, these risks associated with same-sex marriage may be difficult to disentangle from negative effects from other strong social changes. After all, we believe a de-gendered understanding of marriage is an additional force in a larger trend that is uncoupling sexuality, marriage, and parenthood and making men’s connections to children weaker. Thus, it may be difficult to separate statistically the potential effects of de-gendering marriage from the effects stemming from powerful forces to which it is related, such as the sexual revolution, the divorce revolution, and the single-parenting revolution. That these effects are intertwined with the effects of other powerful forces, however, does not diminish their importance or the harms they can impose on marriage.

Of course, the same could be said of all the negative effects of the sexual revolution, divorce revolution, and single-parenting revolution — which are just a little too difficult to detect, what with all the increase in women’s status and independence, decrease in crime and family violence, increased educational attainment (for men and women), rising life expectancy and plummeting teen birth rates that have accompanied these catastrophic family changes.

If anyone really believes this stuff, it is still hard to believe that they believe the courts will go for it in the post-Windsor era.

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Since time immemorial, Regnerus on marriage edition

Objection: Speaking outside his expertise.

Since time immemorial, those in the throes of uncritical thought (and often facing last-minute term-paper deadlines) have illustrated their lack of appreciation for social and historical context by using the phrase “since time immemorial” to describe things that have actually changed a lot.

This phrase usually proves itself wrong, as “immemorial” literally means “not remembered” (the OED says, “ancient beyond memory or record”), which raises the question: How do you know? Of course, some things really have existed since time immemorial, but this is not a useful concept for describing elements of human society. If it’s part of society, it has a history: it has changed, and that change is probably important or you wouldn’t be talking about it in the first paragraph of your term paper.

For example, human sexual reproduction has existed since time immemorial, but who cares? On the other hand, things like “parenting” and “sibling rivalry” may have existed since time immemorial, but what matters now is the how they are conceived and acted upon socially.

Photo by Letta Page, from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Letta Page, from Flickr Creative Commons

Term papers immemorial

If you shop for term papers — which you should never do — you will find “since time immemorial” used a lot, because it’s the kind of weak shortcut to profundity that some students use to puff up their papers at the last minute. Here are some examples from term paper websites (no links provided, sorry!):

  • Music is ubiquitous and has existed since time immemorial.
  • Since time immemorial, the question, “What is a leader, or what makes a leader?” has been asked.
  • Since time immemorial, the people have been able to believe what they wanted especially when it came to religious beliefs
  • Pluralism is a crucial characteristic of the Chinese religion since time immemorial.
  • Since time immemorial, Saudi Arabia has been an essential stake of the Arab world
  • Since time immemorial land belonged to the wealthy magnates who used it in the agricultural purposes and hired peasants to cultivate and work there.

You get the idea: Obviously, none of these things has existed since time immemorial. So if you use one of these papers, save yourself the instructor’s eye roll and delete that phrase.

How much does Regnerus charge for a term paper?

And so it is with “marriage.” Testifying at trial in the Michigan case over the Constitutionality of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Mark Regnerus joined the dying argument that such marriage (let’s call it homogamy) is bad for kids. Because the evidence does not exist, he and others have fallen back on the idea that change might be bad, so the state should not allow new kinds of marriage.

In his testimony as an expert witness (well reported by Steve Friess at Al Jazeera America), Regnerus faced ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper, who extracted the concession that he doesn’t know whether gay marriage is really bad because there isn’t enough science on the question yet.

“So,” Cooper asked, according to Friess, “if a nationally representative, large-scale longitudinal study is never done because it’s too expensive, is it your opinion that same-sex people should never be allowed to marry?” Regnerus had no answer to that, but he went on to argue (whine, really), both that we need more research, and that marriage equality should wait for it.

It is intellectually frustrating to see social science close off the debate on this by claiming it’s settled when we haven’t even collected the ideal kind of data yet. … Let’s get out there and get some more before we make wide-scale changes in an institution that has served us since time immemorial.

I don’t know if you’re allowed to object to an expert making things up, but it seems to me that, by the definition above, a sociologist can’t testify about what has existed since before we knew what existed. Anyway, in addition to this just being a ridiculous statement (who is “us,” anyway?) — which by itself would cost you half a grade in a lot of sociology courses — it’s especially embarrassing coming after the eloquent testimony of an actual expert on marriage history, Nancy Cott (author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation).

Anyway, it’s hard to believe this argument will get past any reasonable judge. And it seems even less likely to impress Supreme Court swing-voter Anthony Kennedy, who wrote in his decision in DOMA last year that marriage denial “humiliates tens of thousands of children” for no compelling reason.

Slipped memory update, March 22: When I wrote this post I forgot that the House Republicans, in their failed defense of DOMA, had also used used “time immemorial” about marriage, which I discussed here:

The link between procreation and marriage itself reflects a unique social difficulty with opposite-sex couples that is not present with same-sex couples — namely, the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies. Government from time immemorial has had an interest in having such unintended and unplanned offspring raised in a stable structure that improves their chances of success in life and avoids having them become a burden on society.

I still can’t get over what a ridiculous case for banning same-sex marriage that is.

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That marriage-reduces-poverty-82-percent statistic

With PolitiFact addendum at the end.

If you’ve heard about Marco Rubio saying we need more marriage to reduce poverty, you might wonder where his factoid came from.

Rubio said:

The greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.

Rubio, Rector

Rubio, Rector

That insight came from this piece by a Heritage Foundation guy, Robert Rector, who is the cartoon-villain embodiment of partisan hackery (see this previous post for some details). Rector wrote:

According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with children was 6.8 percent. Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.

That’s it! (37.1 – 6.8) / 37.1 = .82, so marriage reduces poverty 82%. You don’t get to be the “intellectual godfather of welfare reform” without knowing a thing or two about statistics.

By the same logic, he should have said, “The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year” — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.

Discussing why this is or isn’t wrong could be a nice methods class exercise.

PolitiFact addendum

PolitiFact evaluated the Rubio statement, and aside from a few insignificant quibbles determined it was true, so they gave it a rating of “Mostly True.” They wrote, in explanation:

We should note that some critics have taken issue with the implications of the statistic Rubio cited. Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, wrote on his blog, “By the same logic, (Rubio) should have said, ‘The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year’ — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.”

Meanwhile, the liberal group Think Progress pointed to a blog post from a few days earlier by the Council on Contemporary Families, a group of academics that study family policy, that said a “nationally representative study of more than 7,000 women found that approximately 64 percent of the single mothers who married were divorced by the time they reached age 35-44. More importantly, single mothers who marry and later divorce are worse off economically than single mothers who never marry.”

These may be valid points. However, in his comments, Rubio did not suggest that government pursue any specific government policies to directly promote marriage. He also said that being a two-parent family “decreases the probability of child poverty,” which sounds to us like a mathematical analysis of the existing data, rather than a suggestion that changing policies to encourage marriage will actually reduce poverty that already exists.

For this reason, we are analyzing the mathematics that underlie his comment question, not the conclusions that can, or can’t, be drawn from the statistic.

It’s not about policy or math, though: the error is about causality. If we made a law that only rich people could get married, the Census data would give you a similar result. And by this reasoning PolitiFact would say it’s OK to claim marriage “decreases the probability of child poverty,” because the math is right. That’s not right.

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Blame the poor, “We tried generosity and it just doesn’t work” edition

With all the money we have given them, why are the poor still poor?

One of the meanest right-wing statistical memes about poverty has been popping up a lot this fall. I saw it most recently in this commentary by Christine Kim, who wrote:

Since the mid-1960s, government has spent more than $19.8 trillion (in 2011 dollars) in total on means-tested welfare programs. With 80 such federal programs, targeted government spending for low-income families – including on health, education, housing, and income supports – totaled nearly $930 billion in fiscal 2011 alone. If converted to cash, this sum would be four times what is needed to lift every poor family out of poverty. About half of this annual means-tested spending goes to families with children. If divided among the 14 million poorest families with children, each family would receive about $33,000. Why, then, have poverty rates remained so high for so long? Clearly, the solution to alleviating poverty is not more of the same.

Brookings’ Ron Haskins used the same numbers, rearranged slightly, to write this in November:

We already spend more than enough money on means-tested programs for poor and low-income people to bring them all out of poverty. There were about 46.5 million people in poverty in 2012, a year in which spending on means-tested programs was around $1 trillion. If that money were divided up among the poor, we could spend about $22,000 per person. For a single mother and two children, that would be over $65,000. The poverty level in 2013 for a mother and two children is less than $20,000. So this strategy would work, but giving so much money to young, able-bodied adults would not be tolerated by the public.

This way of manipulating welfare state spending seems to have originated from Robert Rector at Heritage, who offered it in Congressional testimony in 2012.

This meme is — and I am choosing my words carefully — stupid and evil.

It’s stupid because it ignores how poverty is calculated and how “means-tested” money is spent. If you took away Medicaid and housing support alone, the poverty line for a single mother with two children would have to be a lot higher. For example, according to Rector’s original figures (shared here), half of that means-tested money is spent on medical care, mostly Medicaid. So, Haskins, if you took away Medicaid (and Obamacare subsidies), how much would a single mother with two children need to survive? Health insurance alone would cost her more than $10,000.

So is $33,000 per family such a ridiculously generous amount to live on that it would easily lift people out of poverty? Not without the benefits poor people get. Or if they get sick. In round numbers 10 years old, 5% of the population spends half the money on medical care. Using the distribution reported in that paper, $10,000 per family on medical care is not much, if it’s distributed more or less like this:

spendingperfamily

Further, all those non-poor families living on $33,000 in employment income are getting benefits, too, like tax-subsidized employer-provided healthcare, mortgage interest deductions, unemployment insurance, and retirement savings. If you took all that away and gave these non-poor families $33,000 to live on, they wouldn’t be non-poor for long. So the argument is stupid.

It’s also evil, because it says, “We’ve thrown so much money at poor people and it just doesn’t work, so it’s time for them to step up and contribute a little themselves.” The main thing Kim wants them to do is get married. She even says, “If single mothers simply were to wed the father of their child, their likelihood of living in poverty would fall by two-thirds,” and adds that, “contrary to myth the fathers are quite ‘marriageable.'”

The calculations for this are not shown, which is probably just as well. But the idea that the “benefits” of marriage — that is, the observed association between marriage and non-poverty — would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their partners is bonkers. There is a marriage queue (imperfect of course) that arranges people from most to least likely to marry, and on average the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front, more likely to marry and produce the observed “benefits” of marriage. “Marriageable” isn’t a dichotomous condition, but it’s obvious that at any one time the currently non-married are not the same as the currently married.

But back to evil. The idea that we’ve spent so much on poverty that it proves spending doesn’t solve poverty is like saying, “we’ve spent $13 trillion on the military in just the last quarter century, and we don’t have complete world domination yet, so obviously war is not the answer.”

military-spending-88-12

Oh, wait, I do agree with that.

But we don’t spend money on the military and fight wars to fix the world. We do it to fatten defense contractors, provide jobs, prop up unpopular allies, and defend the country from the occasional threat. The defense industry doesn’t have to defend the claim that the spending is a one-time thing to cure a problem.

Giving poor people money — or in-kind benefits — to help them survive is not a solution to poverty, it’s a treatment for poverty. If we had more decency we’d do more of it.

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Obstacles to healthcare aren’t cheap either

Is the Healthcare.gov debacle, with its dozens of overlapping contractors, just a metaphor for why a single-payer system makes so much more sense, or is it actually one of the reasons a single-payer system makes so much more sense?

Leaflets

Giving things to people costs money, so you would expect that indiscriminate gifting would be expensive. But that doesn’t mean highly targeting giving is more efficient, or even cheaper overall.

Throwing leaflets out of an airplane might cost you $500 for the flight and $100 for the 1,000 leaflets. If you only drop 500 leaflets, you save on printing costs. Your cost per leaflet goes up, but your total cost goes down.

That’s indiscriminate. But giving away fewer leaflets will increase your costs if you want to be selective. If you want only men over six-foot-four to get your leaflet, the cost of administering that rule might be more expensive than the airplane drop. Trying to give just 50 leaflets only to men over six-foot-four requires hiring someone to walk around qualifying people as tall men, which would be expensive.

gates

Health care

Obamacare isn’t just about giving away healthcare, but that’s part of it. And it shows that restricting who gets healthcare isn’t just a savings: Yes, you’re giving away less, but you have to pay the cost of figuring out who can’t have it, and then preventing those people from stealing it. (This is a variant of what is known as the cost-of-gates-for-rich-people dilemma).

In the case of Obamacare, the Tea Party saved us money by denying health insurance to undocumented immigrants, but cost us the money spent screening customers to make sure they’re not undocumented immigrants (and then paying for the ER visits of innocent children with asthma).

It’s not just undocumented immigrants. The nearly infinite rules for subsidies and exclusions cost money to administer. Just in case you have a hard time figuring your way through this flowchart, the government will have to pay for a system to do it for you:

aca-flowchart

A plan this complicated has a lot of these costs. To name a few: In the budgeting and planning phase we have to pay for health economists, in the administration phase we pay for database managers, and in the PR-disaster phase we pay for lawyers representing private contractors who testify before Congress.

Which is what hit me yesterday, when, at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the Obamacare roll-out, John Lau from Serco bragged about “the professionalism of our recruiting efforts and the outstanding way we have on-boarded and trained our people.” Inventing verbs is never a good way to save money. More importantly, though, neither is attempting to communicate with databases from Social Security, the Internal Revenue Service, Homeland Security and many insurance plans thousands of times per minute, just to make sure people don’t steal health insurance.

At that hearing, the House committee also heard from Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at CGI Federal; Andrew Slavitt from Optum; and Lynn Spellecy, corporate counsel for Equifax Workforce Solutions. This is what their prepared statements covered (click on the image to enlarge, so you can see the references to “health”):

PowerPoint PresentationWhen I was a kid I lived in Sweden for a while. It was the 1970s. As members of the family of a visiting scientist, each of us got a little metal tag on a chain with a number stamped on it. When I went to the doctor, I just showed them my tag. (The dentist, of course, was at school, because that’s where the children are.)

Giving away healthcare has a lot of costs, but figuring out who to deny shouldn’t be one of them.

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Homogamy tipping point update: between elections edition

After the last election I described the trend toward legal homogamy as taking a tipping point shape. Not a media-hype tipping point that’s really just a milestone or watershed (like the arbitrary 50%), but a bona fide straw-that-breaks-the camel’s-back shape – that is, an exponential trend.

The between-election update shows us continuing on that trend, with Rhode Island and now Delaware falling on the line. Here I’ve plotted the percent of the population living under a post-homogamy state regime, and the number of states (including DC):homogamy-tipping-point

Even assuming they don’t legalize it nationally, if the Supreme Court lets California’s homogamy law stand after all this graph will go through the proverbial roof.

On the other hand, of course, the future is not yet determined. We won’t know till it happens what happened. In that I must agree with the Family Research Council, Heritage Foundation and National Organization for Marriage, who write in a recent pamphlet:

Q: Isn’t same-sex marriage inevitable?
A: No.

(I disagree with the rest of the pamphlet.)

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