Tag Archives: Obama

Obama economic adviser on marriage and the gender gap

Two parts of this interview with Obama economic adviser Betsey Stevensen stood out to me. I’m just surprised to hear such straightforward social science from someone in such a powerful position.

Betsey

This, on marriage and poverty:

What’s your reaction when you hear conservatives talk about marriage as a poverty reduction tool?

My research found that actually, if you want to increase marriage, you need to increase the minimum wage and strengthen the middle class so that people can enjoy the fruits of marriage from those more comfortable positions. I do think that conservatives don’t understand that the dynamics of marriage have changed in such a way that income supports marriage, rather than the marriage supporting having a higher income or supporting getting people out of poverty. There’s also the fact that they seem to really believe that if you push young people to marriage you can alleviate poverty, but then you see enormously high divorce rates, which actually makes things even worse because divorce is very expensive. The big differences in divorce come from, if you’re a 20-year-old high school dropout, you have [approximately] a 60% chance of divorcing within 10 years of marriage, but if you’re a 35-year-old with a college degree, you have [approximately] a 5% chance of divorcing. If what you think is that marriage is important for having a strong middle class, what you do is actually encourage people to wait before settling down.

The conservative view is, we should smush you together, then you’ll have more money, then there’ll be less tension. But actually, when you get two people making $7.25, there’s a lot of tension because you’re both still struggling. That tension leads to family conflict.

And this, on the gender wage gap:

Every time the president comes out and says, women should have equal pay for equal work, you have folks, including economists, come out and say, that’s a misleading number, that’s not for the same job, that’s year-round full-time wages, and a big part of it is women’s choices. What’s your response to that, and what’s a good way to understand these numbers?

When people come out and say that’s not a fair number, well, what really is a fair number? You brought up “women’s choices.” Well, some women’s choices come about because they’re being discriminated against. Some of women’s choices come because they experience sexism. Some of women’s choices come because they are disproportionately balancing the needs of work and family. Which of these choices should we consider legitimate choices, and which of them should we consider things that we have a societal obligation to try to mitigate, to alleviate some of these constraints so that they can make different choices? A lot of people will say things like, let’s control for occupational choices. But the research is showing us that women are choosing occupations which penalize them the least for taking time out of work.

If there was less discrimination, if there was more flexibility in work, you wouldn’t see women necessarily choosing the same occupations. So why should I take the wage gap holding occupation constant? If we change society, we reduce discrimination, we’re not going to hold occupational choice constant – women are going to choose different occupations.

I agree that the 77 cents on the dollar is not all due to discrimination. No one is trying to say that it is. But you have to point to some number in order for people to understand the facts. And what it represents is the fact that women on average are put in situations every day that for a variety of reasons mean they earn less. Much of what we need to do to close that gap is to change the constraints that women face. And there are things we haven’t tried.

I wouldn’t expect Obama to say things like this, but I’m impressed that someone in his near proximity would.

For more, follow the tags for marriage promotion and the gender inequality.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Politics

Be a man, a Morehouse Man — and treat your boyfriend right

I’m sure other people will have more insightful things to say about Obama’s speech to Morehouse College’s graduation today [official transcript here, one copy of the video here]. But let me just point out the juxtaposition of what seemed like serious heteronormativity with whatever the opposite of heteronormativity is.

obama_morehouse

He opened with jokes about the rain, including this:

I see some moms and grandmas here, aunts, in their Sunday best — although they are upset about their hair getting messed up.

And he gave several references to what it is to “be a man” — such as, “a family man, and a working man, and a Morehouse Man,” and, referencing previous Morehouse graduates…

…what it means to be a man — to serve your city like Maynard Jackson; to shape the culture like Spike Lee; to be like Chester Davenport, one of the first people to integrate the University of Georgia Law School.

And then there was this:

Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man. Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend or your partner [some response, and he wags his finger at them.] Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important.

That’s my transcription from the video at 22:17. For whatever reason, this passage has been transcribed incorrectly by some people. The White House website quotes it as:

Be the best husband to your wife, or you’re your boyfriend, or your partner.

While USA Today had it as:

“Be the best husband to your wife, or boyfriend to your partner.”

Anyway, he also had an interesting passage on what it means to be an outsider in America:

As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share. Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith. Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work — she knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need.

Including “gay and lesbian Americans” in that list of outsiders isn’t shocking anymore. But I was intrigued by his reference to “parenting skills.” Could it be a nod to the Regnerus affair, in which the parenting outcomes of gays and lesbians were at issue?

5 Comments

Filed under In the news

Do people working work in working families?

It’s not that “working families” don’t exist, it’s just the way most people use this term it doesn’t mean anything.

Search Google images for “working families,” and you’ll find images like this:

4f4a9a28-ff28-4bc7-88e5-f0df4522b2dbAnd that’s pretty much the way the term is used: every family is a working family.

To hear the White House talk, you have to wonder whether there are people who aren’t in families. I’ve complained about this before, Obama’s tendency to say things like, “This reform is good for families; it’s good for businesses; it’s good for the entire economy.” As if “families” covers all people.

Specifically, if you Google search the White House website‘s press office directory, which is where the speeches live, like this, you get 457 results, such as this transcript of remarks by Michelle Obama at a “Corporate Voices for Working Families” event. The equivalent search for “working people” yields a paltry 108 hits (many of them Obama speeches at campaign events, which include false-positives, like him making the ridiculous claim that Americans are the “hardest working people on Earth.”) If you search the entire Googleverse for “working families” you get about 318 million hits, versus just just 7 million for “working people” (less than the 10 million that turns up for “Kardashians,” whatever that means.)

You would never know that 33 million Americans live alone – comprising 27% of all households. And 50 million people, or one out of every 6 people, lives in what the Census Bureau defines as a “non-family household,” or a household in which the householder has no relatives (some of those people may be cohabitors, however). The rise of this phenomenon was ably described by Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

This is partly a complaint about cheap rhetoric, but it’s also about the assumption that families are primary social units when it comes to things like policy and economics, and about the false universality of “middle class” (which is made up of “working families”) in reference to anyone (in a family with anyone) with a job.

Here’s one visualization, from a Google ngrams search of millions of books. The blue line is use of the phrase “working people” as a fraction of references to “people,” while the red line is use of the phrase “working families” as a fraction of references to “families.” It shows, I think, that “working” is coming to define families, not people.

CaptureThis isn’t all bad. Families matter, and part of the attention to “working families” (or Families That Work) is driven by important problems of work-family conflict, unequal care work burdens, and so on. But ultimately these are problems because they affect people (some of whom are in families). When we treat families as the primary unit of analysis, we mask the divisions within families – the conflicts of interest and exploitation, the violence and abuse, and the ephemeral nature of many family relationships and commitments – and we contribute to the marginalization of people who aren’t in, or don’t have, families.  And those members of the No Family community need our attention, too.

4 Comments

Filed under Me @ work, Politics

Not your feminist grandmother’s patriarchy

Originally published at The Atlantic under the title, “America is still a patriarchy.”

cohen_patriarchy_post.jpg

Male dominance may be weakening, but it’s not gone.
In this election, women were the majority of voters, and the majority of them voted for Obama. The weaker sex clearly was men, contributing less than half the vote, the majority of whom preferred the loser. This is not new. As with Obama, men and whites also failed to unseat Bill Clinton in his reelection after voting for him the first time.

This story tests my ability to think systematically about power and inequality. How is it possible to understand an unprecedented transformation in women’s relative status while also acknowledging men’s continued dominance? Must we just list data points, always just including an “on the other hand” caveat to our real narrative?

I have been described as part of a “feminist academic establishment” that insists on taking the glass-half-empty view—as someone who likes to engage in “data wars” over the details of gender inequality. But what I actually try to do is keep the change in perspective.

In our academic research on gender inequality, my colleagues and I study variation and change. That means figuring out why women’s employment increased so rapidly, why some labor markets have smaller gender gaps, why some workplaces are less segregated, why couples in some countries share housework more, why women in some ethnic groups have higher employment rates, and so on.

The patterns of variation and change help us understand how gender inequality works. Systemic inequality doesn’t just happen. People (in the aggregate) get up in the morning and do it every day. To understand how it works, we need to see how it varies (for example, some people resist equality and some people dedicate their lives to it). Someone who studies inequality but doesn’t care about change and variation is not a social scientist.

Patriarchy

“It’s easy to find references to patriarchs, patriarchy or patriarchal attitudes in reporting on other countries,” writes Nancy Folbre:

Yet these terms seem largely absent from discussions of current economic and political debates in the United States. Perhaps they are no longer applicable. Or perhaps we mistakenly assume their irrelevance.

In fact—my interpretation of the facts—the United States, like every society in the world, remains a patriarchy: they are ruled by men. That is not just because every country (except Rwanda) has a majority-male national parliament, and it is despite the handful of countries with women heads of state. It is a systemic characteristic that combines dynamics at the level of the family, the economy, the culture and the political arena.

Top political and economic leaders are the low-hanging fruit of patriarchy statistics. But they probably are in the end the most important—the telling pattern is that the higher you look, the maler it gets. If a society really had a stable, female-dominated power structure for an extended period of time even I would eventually question whether it was really still a patriarchy.

In my own area of research things are messier, because families and workplaces differ so much and power is usually jointly held. But I’m confident in describing American families as mostly patriarchal.

cohen_marriedname.jpg

Maybe the most basic indicator is the apparently quaint custom of wives assuming their husbands’ names. This hasn’t generated much feminist controversy lately. But to an anthropologist from another planet, this patrilineality would be a major signal that American families are male-dominated.

Among U.S.-born married women, only 6 percent had a surname that differed from their husband’s in 2004 (it was not until the 1970s that married women could even function legally using their “maiden” names). Among the youngest women the rate is higher, so there is a clear pattern of change—but no end to the tradition in sight.

Of course, the proportion of people getting married has fallen, and the number of children born to non-married parents has risen. Single parenthood—and the fact that this usually means single motherhood—reflects both women’s growing independence and the burdens of care that fall on them (another piece of the patriarchal puzzle). This is one of many very important changes. But they don’t add up to a non-patriarchal society.

Differences that matter

The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich—in a 1976 essay she might or might not like to be reminded of—urged feminists to acknowledge distinctions that matter rather than tar everything with the simplistic brush of “patriarchy.” Using China as an example, she wrote:

There is a difference between a society in which sexism is expressed in the form of female infanticide and a society in which sexism takes the form of unequal representation on the Central Committee. And the difference is worth dying for.

China presents an extreme case, with an extremely harsh patriarchy that was fundamentally transformed—into a different sort of patriarchy. By the late 1970s female infanticide (as well asfootbinding) had indeed been all but eradicated, which represented a tremendous improvement for women, saving millions of lives. Since the advent of the one-child policy in the 1980s, however, female infanticide has given way to sex-selective abortion (and female representation on the ruling committees has dropped), representing an important transformation. Calling China a “patriarchy” is true, but by itself doesn’t much help explain the pattern of and prospects for change.

Like Ehrenreich, I think we need to look at the variations to understand the systemic features of our society. Men losing out to women in national elections is an important one. Given the choice between two male-dominated parties with platforms that don’t differ fundamentally on the biggest economic issues despite wide differences in social policy, women voters (along with blacks, Latinos and the poor) bested men and got their way. I wouldn’t minimize that (more than I just did), or ignore the scale and direction of change. The American patriarchy has weakened.

I expect some readers will go right to their favorite statistics or personal experiences in order to challenge my description of our society as patriarchal. In that tit-for-tat, men leading the vast majority of the most powerful institutions, and that American families usually follow the male line, become just another couple of data points. But they shouldn’t be, because some facts are more important than others.

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Obama Top Chef Romney Founding Fathers

cohen_obamachef2_post.jpg

If you don’t collect data on individual web users, and don’t have a big-data budget, you can still learn a lot about how people voted in this presidential election from some creative probing of the Google Correlate database. The power of the tool is in uploading your own data (such as vote tallies) to see what searches mirror your target pattern.

For example, the map on the left is what I uploaded: the ratio of Obama votes to Romney votes in each state, as of Thursday morning. The map on the right, from Google, is the relative frequency of searches for “top chef.” The two patterns have a correlation of .88 on a scale of 0 to 1.

cohen_topchef.pngMaybe it’s a complete coincidence that Michelle Obama appeared on a Top Chef program earlier this year. But out of the 100 Google searches that most closely match that vote pattern, eight are aboutTop Chef. Others on the list include “spliff” (never heard of it), “mos def” and various reggae artists, as well as “itchiness.”

On the other hand, searches for “founding fathers quotes” follow the Romney/Obama ratio just as closely:

cohen_foundingfathers.pngMost of the searches on the top-100 Romney-state list (all correlated about the same .84) are about simple, non-obscene pleasures, such as “clean jokes,” “clean funny jokes,” “funny commercials”; and home-schooling materials, like “flag clipart,” “in god we still trust,” and “printable scrapbook.” After the kids are in bed, though, someone is Googling “hot cheerleader,” before quickly toggling back over to “sean hannity” when he hears mom coming up the stairs.

3 Comments

Filed under Politics

Demography and destiny for voters

Posted on TheAtlantic.com as Why Demographics Can’t Fully Predict How People Vote

Two-thirds of single women voted for Obama, according to the exit polls taken on the day of the election. On the other hand, the majority—53 percent—of married women went for Romney. With marriage on the decline, figured one pundit,

If [Republicans] are unable to attract the support of more unmarried female voters in future elections, they could face years in the political wilderness.

And Fox News reported:

Marital status was a more significant factor than gender this year. Women, a traditional Democratic voting group, backed Obama by 11 points—about the same as by 13 points in 2008. Even so, married women backed Romney by 7 points (an improvement from McCain’s +3 showing). Men backed Romney (52-45 percent), and married men backed him by an even wider margin (60-38 percent).

But these conclusions are overdrawn, because “unmarried women” are a data category more than a lived social group. Most people who aren’t married will get married. And people who are likely not to get married—such as poor people with fewer marriage prospects—tend to have traditional viewsabout marriage anyway. So what distinguishes unmarried women? Birth control is a common explanation. But almost everyone thinks birth control is okay these days, and although single women might be more worried about access, that’s because they’re less likely to have health insurance. In short, even if some women do have a strong identity as members of the single-women category, most unmarried women are just passing through.

What is grouping good for?

From the large sample interviewed by the major media’s exit polling consortium, we can see that simple demography can make some very strong predictions. At the extreme, with just two data points—race and gender—we can guess how a person voted 96 percent of the time, if she’s a black woman.

cohen_obamaromney.png

Source: From exit poll breakdowns based on polling by Edison Research.

But that doesn’t tell us why people voted the way they did. On average, for example, black women also have lower incomes, are younger, and have completed less education than whites—and they have worse healthcare.

cohen_healthcare.png

Source: National Health Interview Survey.

So did black women vote for Obama because they are proud of him as a black man and identify with his personal experience, or because his policies are more beneficial for them as workers, concerned family members, or medical patients?

And the closer a group gets to the 50/50 middle of the odds breakdown, the harder it is to guess what’s going on from the demographics. When the plane I was on Tuesday night landed, I turned on my iPhone to see who had won Ohio. Waiting for the page to load, I looked around and saw a guy a few rows back, smiling and giving me a thumbs up. He must have noticed I’m a white man, almost two-thirds of whom went for Romney. But did he think I was Jewish, or gay? Maybe it was my rumpled casual-business wear, shaggy hair, and dead-giveaway academic backpack. Or my facial expression.

In real life, even with people we don’t know personally, the cues we get from interactions and behavior explain more than simple demographics, although they all go into the quick mix of judgments we are forced to form on short notice throughout the day. In statistical terms, the basic demographic variables leave a lot of variance unexplained.

These demographic categories are useful for prediction at the group level, as punditry has proved. Show me a room full of randomly-chosen Mormons and I can guess that 78 percent of them voted for Romney. But give me 30 seconds with one of them personally and I might figure out whether she is the one who didn’t.

This paradox is why the “big data” people were so central to the campaigns. If you can get someone to give you a few key bits of information—even just a zip code—and then track them as they wander around the web after leaving your site, your models can be much more powerful than the demographics alone. It’s the equivalent of sizing up someone by their shoes, haircut, and the flight they’re on, rather than just sex and race.

Leave a comment

Filed under Me @ work, Politics

Have Obama haters lost traction?

Maybe it’s because Donald Trump isn’t really a true hero to anti-socialist, anti-Muslim, racist Americans.

For whatever reason, there has been a real slump in the number of people typing “obama gun” (will he take our guns away?), “obama muslim” (the idea used to run at about 20%), “obama socialist” (the republic “hangs in the balance“), and “obama citizen” (thank you, Snopes) into the Google search box since the 2008 election.

Here’s the Google trend (and the search link):

We don’t know how much these fears, versus other concerns, will affect votes against him this year, although there have been some good efforts to track the effects of anti-Black racism on his vote tally.

Naturally, not everyone who Googles these things believes the underlying stories or myths. But it seems likely they either believe them, are considering them, heard someone repeat them, or are arguing with someone who believes them, etc. So I’m guessing – just guessing – that these trends track those beliefs.

But maybe four years of Obama as an actual president has softened up the hard-line hatred in some quarters. What do you think?

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Jobs and repeals

Couldn’t resist this:

Sources: Current Employment Statistics (seasonally adjusted); Washington Post 2 Chambers blog.

Note: The blog is nonpartisan.

2 Comments

Filed under In the news

Health inequality recap

On SCOTUS’s ACA D-Day, here is a quick recap of some health inequality posts.

Percentage of Adults Aged 18-64 Who Did Not Get Needed Prescription Drugs Because of Cost, by Poverty Status: National Health Interview Survey, 1999-2010

From 1,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer over 11 years in Washington, D.C.: The number of days between the discovery of an anomaly and the diagnosis, by race/ethnicity and insurance status.

 

Children with asthma are almost twice as likely as all children to be below the poverty line, and less than half as likely to live at 4-times the poverty line or higher.

 

All groups of countries are showing improvement in maternal mortality rates except the U.S.

The U.S. lags seriously behind almost all European countries on infant mortality (most of which is caused by preterm births, the result of women’s poor health).

Estimated Percentage of Persons Who Delayed Seeking or Did Not Receive Medical Care During the Preceding Year Because of Cost, by Respondent-Assessed Health Status

OK, that’s enough! You can see all the health care related posts here.

3 Comments

Filed under In the news