Saturday, November 29, 2008

Repression causes oppression

I just finished Rachel Simmons's book Odd Girl Out* about the "hidden culture" of aggression between girls: the silent treatment, the taunts that are presented as jokes, the underhand barbs that girls use to undermine each others' self-esteem. Simmons uses information from interviews and secondary sources to describe the phenomenon of female bullying that occurs among pre-college age girls. Simmons describes how contrary to conventional wisdom about how bullying occurs as acts of obvious violence/malice against social outcasts, what often occurs is more subtle bullying through subtle remarks and social exclusion. Girls who are "all that," who are aggressive, competitive, or "too" anything (popular, pretty, smart, confident, aggressive, non-conformist), are often the targets of this aggression: other girls use bullying tactics to subtly undermine confidence because this is the only mechanism girls have for competition and confrontation. One result of this bullying is that many women grow up not trusting other women. Arguably more important is the consequence that many women who once were aggressive and/or confident suffer from lowered self-esteem and develop a self-effacing, non-threatening persona that can be harmful to their later career success**.

Simmons argues that this bullying occurs because of the pressure on girls to be "nice," "perfect:" since society expects girls to be well socialized and not taught to deal with feelings of competitiveness and jealousy, these feelings surface in ways that are subtle, manipulative, and difficult for teachers/parents to address. Simmons supports this point by describing the phenomenon that more marginalized girls, such as black, lower-income girls, are not brought up to be perfect, have no issues with being aggressive and confrontational and tend not to have this "culture of hidden aggression." The culture of hidden aggression affects not just girls, but women: there is a Calfornia-based professional training program that actually teaches high-powered women to cry and act less dominant in public so that they will have a more pleasing public image. Simmons makes a good case for why changing societal expectations for women (not to be perfect; not to be always nice), teaching girls that confrontation and aggression are normal, and allowing girls to be aggressive and competitive would benefit everyone.

While I wish this book had more hard factual evidence (its anecdote to survey result numbers ratio is very low; some parts of the book seemed too personal to be convincing to the nonbeliever), the bullying it described is exactly the kind of bullying I both experienced and took part in. This book supports my previous post about how gender-balanced environments can make it more difficult for individual women to succeed because they are simultaneously judged by how aggressive and self-promoting and by how non-threatening and self-effacing they are.

* New York Times bestseller some time ago and the first book to explore the subject of female bullying.
** As a result of peer ridicule of my tendencies to prefer reading to small talk, to be eager to answer question in class, and to generally care about the material in school, I went through a long period of decreased social confidence and became much less aggressive and non-threatening. This was followed by a long period of decreased intellectual confidence because my non-threatening behavior didn't really help me have an formidable intellectual presence.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Higher taxes, please!

In his blog, conservative Harvard economics professor (and Principles of Economics textbook author) N. Greg Mankiw writes that Obama's tax plan is bad because it will cause him to work less*. Mankiw writes:

If you are one of those people out there trying to induce me to do some work for you, there is a good chance I will turn you down. And the likelihood will go up after President Obama puts his tax plan in place. I expect to spend more time playing with my kids. They will be poorer when they grow up, but perhaps they will have a few more happy memories.

I, too, have had the experience of anger and frustration when I receive a paycheck that is 2/3 what it is supposed to be. If we step back and look at the bigger picture, however, we may see that higher taxes may be what we need to revive leisure. In current American society, people work far too much: none of my college friends have 9-to-5 jobs and I don't even think twice about the 80-hour workweeks ahead in my academic career because my other options look about the same, timewise. I argue that we should have higher taxes because they create incentives for people to work less. Higher taxes are good because 1) working too much is an externality and 2) it can be internalized with income taxes.

First I would like to establish that overtime work in a society where there are always positive returns to work is an externality**. Besides the obvious immediate effects that one person's working too much has on friends and family, who must absorb the burden, the fact that there are people who work 100-hour weeks has a negative impact on coworkers and society as a whole. As people began working 60, then 80, then 100-hour weeks, society came to grow accustomed to longer workweeks. Because people benefited (accrued more wealth, became more distinguished in their field) from working more, working unnatural numbers of hours came to be seen as something good to do. As a result, in the last half-century American culture evolved from one where the upper class prided themselves on not working to one where "conspicuous work" replaced conspicuous consumption as an indicator of wealth and status.

One negative result of having a culture of overwork where returns to work are not capped is that it creates a winner-take-all society: that is, it is much better at the top rather than near the top. Because people have come to find it acceptible to work all the time, and because working more gets more returns, people have work more even when they are better off than most other people already. The people at the top already have what they need to "climb higher" (a base amount of capital, a good network of contacts, an established reputation, etc.), working harder will take them further than working harder would take someone not at the top. This brings society to an equilibrium where there is a concentration of wealth and talent at the very top rather than having wealth/talent distributed among a larger percentage of people, institutions, etc. This is as true for talent as it is for wealth: for instance, most of the top American computer science research comes from a handful of institutions. The implications here are, then, that if someone wants to "go places" as a computer science researcher, they must join in the culture of conspicuous work and devote 80 hours of their week to their work. Thus low taxes have helped create a society that has a concentration of many of the desirable things in life at the top.

Not only does this culture of work make it much better to be at the top, but it makes it much harder to stay at the top. Since it is acceptible and even considered admirable to work as much as possible, and since it is so much better to be at the top, there are many more people working very hard to be at the top than there people at the top. There is much less stability at the top than there has been historically, and since (again) it is much better to be at the top, there are many people working very hard to either get to the top or stay at the top. (There is an interesting article about Silicon Valley millionaires who work 80-100 hours a week in order to maintain their lifestyles.) This perpetuates the culture of overwork and keeps us in the bad equilibrium.

The second part of my argument is that since monetary incentives helped to create this culture of overwork, we could internalize this externality with income taxes. The culture of 100-hour workweeks initially came about because of investment banking culture, which developed because of monetary incentives. First of all, investment banking is completely driven by monetary incentives because the skills required are equivalent to the skills required for many other things: the one difference is money. Also, in other fields, people did not work as hard before this intense i-banking culture developed. For instance, academics did not seem to work as hard. For instance, James Watson's account of the discovery of the double helix talks about how he would play some sort of racquet sport with Francis Crick in the afternoons. While it could be that the faster pace of life has caused people to work more because it is now possible to make people work all the time, that can't be the whole story. When people going into academia have an alternative choice that involves working much more, it is inevitable they do not feel as bad putting in 10 more hours a week than they would have otherwise.

The externalities caused by working too much outweigh the gains: despite working more than Europeans, Americans are shorter than Europeans and not necessary producing more. A more aggressive tax structure would remove many of the incentives to work more and create a society where people lead more balanced lives. We may be poorer, but we can spend more time playing--and hey, this might make us more productive.

* According to Mankiw, he faces a 62% marginal tax rate with McCain and 93% under Obama.
** An externality is an action that has a negative side effect for which the market does not does not account. To argue that overtime work is an externality, I would need to convince you that it has negative impact on the people who are not doing the work.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama nation!

Someone put together this page of Obama headlines.

Glasses for poor eyesight; sociometers for poor social sense

I recently finished Honest Signals, a book about social signals between humans across cultures and how it is the best predictor of outcomes of social situations from sales pitches to dating. Written by MIT Media Lab professor Sandy Pentland, this book discusses experiments that quantify what psychologists have thought for a while about the role of things like influence (how much effect one person has on another person's speech patterns and behavior) and mimicry (mirroring another person's behavior) in determining social outcomes. The authors have developed a sociometer, a device that measures things like change in vocal pitch, amount of gesturing, etc. This book provides "quantitative" evidence behind what many other psychology/business books say about the role of subjective judgment in important personal transactions. Pentland reports that data from the sociometer to predict which sales pitch will get chosen, which two people will exchange numbers during speed dating, etc. Pentland claims that the content of a presentation or proposal has to do with objective content, and sometimes it is the amount energy and confidence that a startup has (and not the content) that will determine whether it will succeed. It may be for this reason that a venture capitalist will almost always schedule a face-to-face meeting before agreeing to fund someone. Pentland also makes the interesting suggestion that these social, non-objective interactions are more productive than interactions that have tried to remove influence from social signalling. He gives the example that United Nations proceedings, which have speeches go through a translator, tend to be not as influenced by social signalling but are also infamously unproductive. Pentland suggests that the sociometer could be adapted to be used as an aid for people during negotiations, presentations, and other such things to enhance social sense.

Since I have been indoctrinated with this stuff already, what Pentland says it not particularly controversial or novel, but I found it to be quite interesting. I do, however, which the book discussed more methodology--it seemed to go from "we could used the sociometer to make predictions" to "this was our r-squared coefficient." I would have liked for there to be more discussion of the qualities that the sociometer measured, the theory behind why things work this way, etc.

* The most notable one I know is Influence (Robert Cialdini), which provides interesting insight into subtle psychological manipulation tactics that play on people's instincts.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Stretch dynamically

This New York Times article describes new research showing that not only does static stretching not help warm you up, but it actually weakens your muscles:

"Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements."