Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Suddenly, an earsplitting roar of thunder rends the air.

A learning vignette.

Back in the late 1960s, when I was about seven or eight, my father had business in Norway and took us along with him. I think it must have been early spring as there was still deep drifts of snow when we were up in the mountains. We visited Stavanger, Oslo and other places, saw the Viking ships and the Kon-Tiki, were exposed to a cuisine more dominated by fish and cheese than we were accustomed to.

I recall with some clarity, being shown around Oslo harbor. I don't know who the Norwegian friend of my father's was, but he was recounting Norway's experience during World War II as a proud, independent nation far outgunned by the invading Germans. He drew our attention to a stone fort on a small island in the harbor and related the following story as best I recollect.
The Germans invaded several places along Norway's long coast, not just here in Oslo, but this was the main invasion point. Their fleet was led by a battleship and dozens of other ships. We didn't have a chance. Our air force was out of commission and there were hardly any Norwegian troops. We did have that old fort in the harbor from the turn of century (circa 1900). The guns were ancient and the fort was more for show than a real military installation. The artillery had been plugged with cement long ago.

The night before the German fleet arrived, a small group of Norwegian patriots rowed out to the fort. They unplugged the cannon and searched around and found some old shells. They knew they would likely only be able to get off one shot, that their aim was likely to be poor, and the shells likely to be duds. But they were patriots and even if there was not much they could do, they wanted to do the little they could.

The morning of the invasion, as the German fleet sailed in, the Norwegian patriots sighted the cannon on the German battleship. Fully expecting to die for their efforts, they fired the cannon. Imagine their astonishment! Not only did the shell hit the battleship, not only was the shell not a dud, but the shell hit the German magazine. The explosion was massive, the battleship capsized and sank within a few minutes, taking more than a thousand German occupation troops and much of the leadership to the bottom of the harbor.
That's the story I remember from nearly fifty years ago, on a cool but sunny spring day in Oslo Fjord. I was struck by it then and it has remained with me since. The tragedy of Norway, the patriotism, the miracle. It was a variant of the King Bruce and the Spider story - keep trying and no matter how long the odds, you may still succeed.

I have read much World War II history over the years, lived in Sweden for a number of years and know much of their history. I have seen reference to the sinking of the German flagship at the beginning of the invasion of Norway. For all that, I never got around, till recently, to reading a detailed account of WWII in Scandinavia. I am currently reading Battles for Scandinavia by John R. Elting.

So how does that long ago story stack up with the facts? Here is Elting's account.
Admiral Kummetz, leading the Naval units bound for Oslo, was still eyeing the Oscarsborg Fortress in Oslo Fjord at 4:21 on the morning of April 9 when suddenly a lone searchlight blazed out from the mainland on the opposite shore, bathing the flagship in ghostly white. At point-blank range the huge guns of the fortress opened up; 700-pound shells crashed into the Blücher's port side and then into the Lützow just behind her. Simultaneously came another blast from the mainland battery at Drobak, damaging both ships on their starboard sides. The Blücher's steering gear and aircraft hangar were wrecked by the first shots, and she blundered forward erratically while flames fed by aviation fuel raged aft. They burned away the fog, revealing a torpedo battery built into Oscarsborg Fortress. It had been there for fifty years without showing up on the German charts.

In discounting Oscarsborg as a threat, Admiral Kummetz had not reckoned with the character of Colonel Birger Eriksen, its commander. Eriksen gave his gunners one simple order: Fire. Two of the ancient torpedoes ran straight to their mark and exploded on contact, reducing the brand-new Blücher to a floating inferno.

Captain Kurt Zoepffel, who was conning the Blücher at that moment, recorded: "Suddenly, an earsplitting roar of thunder rends the air. The glare of guns pierces the darkness. I can see three flashes simultaneously. We are under fire from two sides; the guns seem only 500 yards away. Soon bright flames are leaping from the ship." In a moment the Blücher's store of bombs and ammunition began to explode, the engines stopped and the ship heeled over. When at last the order was given to abandon, wounded and dead men were already rolling into the water, and many of the landing troops were trapped below deck. Admiral Kummetz and some 1,300 survivors were rescued by the Norwegians, taken ashore and imprisoned. But more than 1,000 Germans died in the explosions and the flaming oil. For days after the incident, their blackened bodies could be seen floating in the fjord.

Just behind the Blücher, Captain August Thiele of the cruiser Lützow, having no idea that the museum-like fortress and its torpedoes could have been the source of the Blücher's explosive demise, concluded that the flagship had hit a minefield. For the safety of his and the remaining ships, Thiele ordered all engines reversed. Under his command, the Lützow and the remaining consorts retired 12 miles south to an alternate landing site at Sonsbukten, on the eastern shore of the fjord. The bid to take Oslo from the sea was lost.
My unknown father's friend's story, or my recollection of it, holds up pretty well all these years later. The Norwegian defense involved more men than I was aware and the fort, while old, had more armament than just a few plugged cannon. The Norwegian attack was more than a single lucky shot. The Blücher was a heavy cruiser, not a battleship.

But other than those details, the substance of the story remains the same. Patriots against long odds. Armaments that are ancient but effective. A forlorn hope attack. Unexpected success. Heavy German losses.

I don't think the differences between my father's friend's account and the historian's account are all that material. And the differences may not be because of my father's friend's recounting. I may not have understood it completely at the time, I may have consolidated the account into a more manageable form for a seven-eight year old's memory, details may have slipped my mind over the decades.

There's no great insight here, just my surprise that a long ago story should hold up so well. It seems to me an endorsement of that Garrison Keillor quote "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted." Particularly, when it comes to storytelling. So whoever you were, Norwegian friend of my father's, Thank you.

If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally

Richard P. Feynman in What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character
The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

They don’t know enough to have an intelligent opinion, as demonstrated by the opinions they do have.

From Instapundit, AS THE ACADEMY CONTINUES TO EAT ITSELF. Reynolds is commenting on this article, Students: Transgender Woman Can’t Be Diversity Officer Because She’s a White Man Now by Katherine Timpf.

Reynolds comments:
Tip: When students go on about social justice, the proper response is to tell them you don’t care what they think, because they don’t know enough to have an intelligent opinion yet. If universities were run on this principle, the 3% of students responsible for 98% of the idiocy would no longer have their destructive impact. Also, it’s true: They don’t know enough to have an intelligent opinion, as demonstrated by the opinions they do have.
In this instance, I think the critical Wellesley student's position is actually quite logical. Distasteful perhaps, but not illogical.
“I thought he’d do a perfectly fine job, but it just felt inappropriate to have a white man there,” the student behind the so-called “Campaign to Abstain” said.

“It’s not just about that position either,” the student added. “Having men in elected leadership positions undermines the idea of this being a place where women are the leaders.”
It has long been my view that Social Justice Warriors were simply assertive barbarians. They do not actually want tolerance, they want to force everyone to share their particular brand of intolerance.

More critically, tolerance requires a recognition of the fact that different people have different goals, prioritize those goals differently, and pursue those goals by various means. Social Justice Warriors want everyone to have the same goals, with the same priorities and wish to pursue them in the same fashion. Most crucially, the SJW wants to be the person setting the goals, priorities and actions.

Monday, October 20, 2014

That's odd

With the latest report that there is actually an Ebola Czar (Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response) who is just not present, it struck me that there seem to be a lot of female sacrificial lambs of late. As best I can tell, women make up perhaps 30% of the senior cabinet members and other senior positions in the administration. But they seem to make up a striking percentage of resignations owing to incompetence, malfeasance or other circumstances.
Lois Lerner thrown under the bus and pleading the fifth regarding illegal IRS targeting of citizen based on their political beliefs is one who still remains in the spotlight.

Then there is Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary of Health and Human Services who "resigned" after the Obamacare debacle, including but not limited to the failed website rollout.

Then there is Nancy-Ann De­Parle, White House deputy chief of staff for policy, who led the initial work on the Obamacare website disaster. She was later replaced by Jeanne Lambrew who in turn was replaced.

Then there is the recent resignation of Secret Service Director, Julia Pierson, taking the fall for the breach of White House security which allowed an unbalanced intruder to race around in the residence until eventually tackled by an off duty Secret Service agent.

Hilary Clinton has resigned as Secretary of State following multiple failures (Arab Spring, Green Revolution, Libyan war, Iraq, rise of ISIS, loss of Yemen, China territorial expansion efforts, Russian invasion of Ukraine, etc.) including the loss of four Americans to terrorist attack in Benghazi.
Those names were just top of mind. Just statistical chance? What about other bungles. I went googling.

I had forgotten about the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson for a strikingly wasteful Las Vegas extravaganza "training" session held for some of her employees.

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, resigned, not because of any particular scandal, but certainly under a shadow.

Shirley Sherrod was thrown under the bus for some ill-considered morality tales to an NAACP conference.

There are some top males who have been forced out owing to dubious practices including Eric Shinseki who resigned as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs owing to the waiting list scandal; Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA for domestic spying, David Petraeus, Director of the CIA for an affair, General Stanley A. McChrystal for overly frank comments about the Commander in Chief.

It would take more time and effort than I am willing to invest to come up with both an exhaustive list of resignations under scandal conditions and to properly define categories for comparisons. I know there has been some sort of simmering scandal around EPA Gina McCarthy and secret email accounts or something like that.

Still, for only a 30% representation in the Administration leadership, there seems to be an overrepresentation in scandals. Are they just easy political sacrifices to make? More principled in accepting responsibility? Promoted beyond the Peter Principle and therefore more subject to missteps?

Someone, somewhere, sometime might dig in to it a bit, but it seems striking to me.

The claim that the current German dislike of inflation dates back to unique memories of Weimar hyperinflation is dubious

From Germany fact of the day by Tyler Cowen. Cowen points out that Germany has for long periods of time experienced inflation rates above 2% and in some years 6 and 7%.
The claim that the current German dislike of inflation dates back to unique memories of Weimar hyperinflation is dubious. Rightly or wrongly, today’s Germans associate high rates of inflation with wealth transfers away from Germany and toward other nations. More broadly, Germany is a more flexible country than outsiders often think, not always to the better of course.
There is an interesting discussion in the comments section about the historical events and current behaviors and decisions.
Ray Lopez October 18, 2014 at 3:46 am
TC’s claim about history is interesting. How much institutional memory does a country have? Perhaps even if present people don’t remember stuff that happened in the past, can a society function the way it does, due to history that nobody can remember? Sounds metaphysical, but here’s a real-life example. Some sociologists from France or Belgium went to the Congo a while ago, interviewed people, and found nearly none of them remember King Leopold of Belgium and the colonization of the Congo for rubber, at the end of the 19th century, as outlined in the best-seller “King Leopold’s Ghost (1998)” by Adam Hochschild . So a major traumatizing experience in a nation’s history is almost completely forgotten by the people there (most of them ignorant to be sure). Thus how big an impact can this searing event have had on modern inhabitants? Very little some might say, but, like slavery in the USA, perhaps not.

[snip]

Mark Thorson October 18, 2014 at 1:33 pm
I remember hearing one proposed explanation for Kondratieff waves was memory. People who lived through high inflation or a severe recession would be especially guarded about repeating the experience, as would their children. But their grandchildren will have forgotten all about it and repeat the mistakes of their grandparents, leading to a cycle about two generations long.

Wikipedia doesn’t mention this hypothesis in their description. They do say the existence of Kondratieff waves is not accepted by mainstream economists.
As someone points out, it is likely that it is not the memories per se but rather the way those experiences get incorporated into the institutions of the nation and culture.

I think that discussion is quite an interesting one. But I think Cowen's original point is even more interesting.

All my life and in all my studies in economics over the years, there has always been a latent and unquestioned assumption that Germans were 1) highly averse to inflation, 2) Germans prioritized inflation fighting above many other goals in comparison to other countries, and 3) that the source of aversion was the experience of inflation in the Weimar Republic.

Cowen's original point is excellent. This is all great theory and perfectly logical. The only problem is that it doesn't accord with the empirical evidence. If Germans are highly averse to inflation, then you would expect their inflation rates to be very low.

I think we more often than we want to acknowledge, accept logical explanations of history without actually checking the key data that would affirm or refute.

I can think of at least one other example. There is a popular effort in some circles to assert that slavery is the progenitor of negative measured outcomes of African Americans today. It is certainly a logical argument and is attractively simple. The only problem with it, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out, is that it does not appear to accord with the evidence. Sowell has argued, and mustered the data to support his argument, that the trends on many critical socioeconomic variables, African-Americans were on an upward trend through the 1960s: family formation, education attainment, labor force participation rates, income, etc. On a few measures they had already achieved parity with the majority population or were exceeding. Sowell argues that these upward trends are inconsistent with a causal linkage between pre-1860s slavery and post-1960s socioeconomic declines.

Both the Sowell argument and the observation about German inflation rates are a call to always double check assumed facts. Just because the story is logical and reasonable doesn't mean that it is true.

Shocked at a brand of waywardness

Ann Althouse has an interesting post, Whatever happened to Primo Communist Flitworth. She is relaying information from a book she is reading and is drawing attention to a humorous name. These quotes refer to utopian communes enthusiastically pursued back at the beginning of the 19th century.

I focus on her two quotes from the book The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester. Speaking of the failure an utopian socialist commune, New Harmony, founded by Robert Owen:
As is so often the way with utopias, factions developed — no fewer than ten had formed within just two years of Owen’s arrival, and all began bickering, squabbling, and arguing for various rewritings of the commune rules, each splinter group jostling for ideological supremacy. In the end, a demoralized and disillusioned Owen, shocked at a brand of waywardness he had never experienced back home among the Scots, returned to Britain. His confidence was sorely shaken: his ideas for the universal betterment of the working classes began slowly to evaporate, and he became steadily ever more marginalized and ridiculed a figure.
The founder, Robert Owen, returned to the UK and attempted another commune.
Robert Owen’s final grand gesture was the creation of an immense and ruinously expensive cooperative community in Hampshire called Queenswood, in which seven hundred people lived, their inner quadrangle illuminated by “koniophostic light,” with conveyor belts bringing food from central kitchens to their dining halls. Couples moved in. A first baby born at Queenswood was formally named Primo Communist Flitworth. But the community never really prospered and closed after only a short while.
Althouse's quotes are a reminder of just how often the desire to pursue the perfectibility of people in a commune setting fails, and of how often they fail for very similar reasons. The totalitarian hope for interchangeable and passively cooperative people is always subverted by messy individuality that obstreperously insists on its own agency.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Incivility and misplaced confidence

In the connected world there has been a long running but fitful discussion about civility. Yes, it's nice, but is it necessary? Is there value to incivility? I am eager to see a higher degree of civil discourse but have to acknowledge that there are a lot of nuances. Noah Smith has an essay which I think is insightful, Don't Be Rude, You Loser . He makes a number of good points but it is this one that caught my eye.
That’s well and good. But there’s an important question that I think Bruenig fails to consider: What if your own viewpoint is wrong?

Sometimes, one of the parties in a debate is simply dishonest and unethical, and doesn’t really care if he or she is right or wrong. But more often, both sides deeply believe in the positions they take. The person in the wrong might be your opponent -- or it might be you. Or, more realistically, it might be both. Putting red-haired people in concentration camps is obviously horrible, but most of our arguments are over things like Obamacare, or antipoverty programs, or financial regulation-- issues on which reasonable people can and do disagree.

If you’re uncivil in this sort of situation -- if you call your opponent an idiot, or a liar, or a nastier name simply because you think his or her argument is bad -- you’re basically being overconfident. You’re assuming that there’s essentially no chance that you’re in the wrong, so it’s in the public interest for you to rail against your opponent and score points with the crowd. If you do this, there’s no chance that you yourself will learn anything from the encounter. People usually argue to win, but many times it’s possible to argue to learn.
I think this a usefully true observation. It also raises the idea that uncivil discussion reflects low self-awareness of the contingency of all knowledge and facts and low self-awareness married to overconfidence are probably good indicators that there is likely low value in the possible debate. The more dogmatic, the less valuable.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

An incentive is not an objective fact but a subjective interpretation

From Jean Tirole and Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation by Alex Tabarrok
Although not central to his work, one of my favorite papers of today’s Nobel prize winner, Jean Tirole, is Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation (written with Roland Benabou). In this paper, Tirole and Benabou try to resolve the economist’s intuition that incentives motivate with the idea from psychology that incentive schemes can sometimes demotivate. The psychologists argue that extrinsic motivation can reduce intrinsic motivation (but they are not at all clear on why this should be the case). Tirole and Benabou try to produce a similar finding by arguing that in addition to providing motivation an incentive scheme gives the agent, the one being incentivized, some information and the information may undermine the motivation.

For example, if I tell my son. “If you get an A in math, I will give you $1000.” What does my son conclude?
My father must think math is very important for my future to offer me $1000. My father is smart. I will work hard.
This is the message that I hope to send. But my son knows that I know something about math and also that I know something about him and he may use this knowledge to make a very different inference.
If my father thinks I need $1000 to get an A, math must be very hard or I must lack talent. I will work for an A this year but next year I should probably not sign up for advanced math classes.
Or perhaps he infers
If my father is offering me $1000 to do the right thing , he must not trust my judgment.
Or perhaps
My father is trying to use his money to control me. I rebel!
Thus reward has two effects a pure incentive effect (holding information constant) and an inference effect. Notice that the inference effect depends on the context. Thus, without knowing the context–how the father gets along with the son and their history of interaction–we can’t know what the effect of the “incentive” will be. Thus I have argued that “an incentive is not an objective fact but a subjective interpretation.”
An interesting discussion and insight and one that spills over into other arenas. It is one thing to know that humans inevitably respond to incentives, it is quite another to understand what constitutes an incentive. As I have mentioned elsewhere, diversity has the benefit of increasing systemic variation which tactically decreases efficiency but strategically potentially improves adaptability and effectiveness. It is not that there is a tradeoff between pure homogeneity and complete diversity; it is that there is a constantly shifting midpoint that is both hard to quantify and determine and is subject to rapid change given the exogenous circumstances and environment.

I think Tirole's exploration of incentives is one of the sources of productivity for relatively homogenous human systems (cultures) - you have a higher probability of understanding the nature of the workforce and therefore the nature of the incentives to which they respond. Sometimes it is increased compensation or bonuses but sometimes it is time off or private recognition or public recognition or nicer environment or status or increased job security or what not. You have both a higher probability of the incentive structure being effective and a greater probability of it encompassing the majority of employees.

It is a habit of the totalitarian mind, and its greatest weakness, that it regards all people as indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable. That cast of mind is why so many centralized plans go awry. No one person or group of people enjoys omniscience and therefore all centralized plans, particularly with heterogeneous populations and volatile environments, are subject to failure arising from incomprehension of the population's actual goals and aspirations (the preconditions for adequate incentives).

Friday, October 17, 2014

The insuperable limits to his knowledge

From The Pretence of Knowledge by Friedrich August von Hayek, his Nobel prize speech.
If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, "dizzy with success", to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society - a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

It is not a gender issue, it is a family structure issue

From Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter from a couple of years ago. An interesting complement to Claudia Goldin's A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter from earlier this year.

Both are essentially arguing that the gender wage gap is a myth conjured for political expediency. Slaughter acknowledges an extremely supportive husband, a great boss, no discrimination and yet she can't compete with others owing to the fact that she has a family who she values and wishes to spend time with.
Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.
Read through Slaughter's essay. It is well worth the read in the sense that it allows you to understand how and why bright people can strongly hold ideas that seem patently absurd on the face of it. We all carry assumptions that blind us to the full picture and all of us are inclined to wish the world to bend in our direction. That force is strong in this article.

She nods her head to the fact that she is one of the 1% and that her problems are not shared by everyone else.
I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.
Right there at the beginning you can detect a dense weave of embedded assumptions that help Slaughter shield herself from the reality she is fighting. "We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable." Off course you have choices. They may not be ones you like but they are choices none the less. Tens of millions live the reality of a single income family. Dual incomes are not indispensable, they are a choice.

By blithely passing it off as a necessity, Slaughter draws a veil over her own decisions. She chooses to be in a dual income family because it has very material benefits, such as, rather obviously, twice the income. But a dual income family has some downsides as well. Like any special pleader, she wants you to ignore the benefits she derives from a dual income family and focus instead on the downsides. Then she wants everyone else to mitigate the downsides arising from her decisions but is, presumably, unwilling to give up the benefits.

Then there is "We are the women . . . who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks." On what basis should she, and her 1% ilk, or anyone, be equally represented in the leadership ranks? What is the special entitlement? If, as I will argue, the pinnacle performers in all fields are predominantly characterized by voluminous effort in terms of hours worked, flexibility in terms of putting in peak efforts on short notice, and significant reliability then it rather precludes her predicate assumption that "we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do."

She then proceeds to suggest changes to society and the economy which don't address the needs of the 99% but which will give her and her 1% a yet better deal than they already have.

Her solution? A simple assertion of ideological faith with nary a whisper of supporting evidence. And certainly no discussion of the failure of this program to achieve her desired outcomes where it has been tried in Europe and elsewhere.
The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.
So what's the problem? Women can and do compete successfully for these positions. Both Slaughter and Goldin are frustrated by the fact that in most arena's, women are stuck at 15-30% of the top positions. Senators, Representatives, Law firm partners, accounting firm partners, Governors, tenured professors, CEOs, CFOs, millionaires, engineers, scientists, etc.

So if women can and do compete successfully and if the institutions are relatively accommodating (for example universities and government), and if spouses are accommodating and supporting, and if in many instances bosses are sympathetic and accommodating, why is it that women are underrepresented at the pinnacle?

I think both Goldin and Slaughter have hit on the right root cause though perhaps have not explored it as fully as they could have. Who makes it to the top? Goldin and Slaughter are completely immersed in an ideological worldview that sees everything in terms of gender and it limits them from looking at things in an alternative way.

Formerly, feminists ascribed the low representation rates at the pinnacle of each field to overt, covert, or unconscious misogynism, individual discrimination, unsupportive husbands, institutional discrimination, etc. Both Goldin and Slaughter, while acknowledging that there remain instances, appear to have accepted that even when these issues have been overcome, there is still an under-representation. So what is the cause?

What both Goldin and Slaughter skirt is looking at things from a non-academic, non-government perspective. Taking Slaughter as an example, her entire career has been in government and academia. Both government and academia share the attribute that the past fifty years or more have been exceptionally congenial - revenues have grown at rates significantly above that of the economy. Think of it in terms of the classic S-curve. Her entire professional experience has been in two sectors that have had enjoyed a prolonged period of expansion with little competition (the middle part of the S-Curve)


For any product or service, including education, you can plot their growth from inception to saturation and it almost invariably follows an S-curve. Higher education has enjoyed fifty years of growing demand and capacity to pay. The population has been growing and Americans have become ever wealthier. The consequence is that Higher Education has not had to compete in any meaningful way for the past two generations nor have they had to manage their business with any great rigor. That is the environment that has shaped Slaughter's career experience. The same is broadly true for government services as well.

Most people not in academia live at the bottom of the curve (startups and others trying to grow) or at the top where all products and services end up - as commodities subject to brutal competition in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness. The sweet spot is in the middle where growth is rapid and margins are thick. But for most industries, the segment between the bottom of the curve and the top is usually pretty brief. Academia and Government have been the exceptions.

If you are among the few who have only experienced strong growth and thick margins, then it is natural to be either unaware or to significantly discount the realities experienced by everyone else at the top and bottom.

The other thing that academia and government share between them (and that is absent for everyone else) is that there is little measurability of, or even inclination to measure, outcomes. It is easy to measure both cost and quality of a widget. What is the cost and quality of a well rounded student or a well protected nation? What are the objective and empirical outcomes associated with two years of meetings and writing policy memos as Slaughter did for the State Department?

So what is missing from Slaughter's world view? An awareness of competition, outcomes, limits, trade-offs, risk, and uncertainty.

So what is the cause of the under representation if it is not institutional bias, unsupporting spouses, etc.?

Both Slaughter and Goldin identify the problem as maternity. Spouses who interrupt their careers in order to spend time with their children, either by leaving the workforce completely for a period or by working part-time, take a big hit in terms of their productivity. It is true whether the child-caring spouse is man or woman. While recognizing the issue, neither Goldin or Slaughter explore why productivity drops so dramatically when interrupting or working part time. They never take the perspective of the employer. It is always about the employee.

From the employer's perspective, any given employee with a defined skill set and defined level of productivity, has three attributes that contribute to making running a business easier and more profitable. The amount of time they work (Volume), their capacity to vary their hours based on need (Flexibility) and their Reliability. Your ideal employee works a lot of hours (it is cheaper and easier to manage 10 full time workers than 20 part time workers), adjusts their schedule to your business needs (working late or weekends when a project demands it) and is relentlessly reliable (always follows through).

Goldin and Slaughter don't put it in those terms but that is the problem in terms of achieving equal participation. If it is the mother (still the norm) who provides the primary care for children, then it is the mother's career which takes the hit. If it is the father who is the primary caregiver, the exact same thing happens. It is not a gender issue, it is a familial structure issue.

Single men and women earn the same income in all fields and industries. Men and women earn the same income when you take in to account the normal elements that you would expect to affect productivity: number of hours, continuity of work, flexibility (Goldin is good on this one), education attainment, etc. And what affects the number of hours you can spend on a job, the flexibility of those hours and your reliability? Family status and structure.

So what Slaughter is actually bumping into is the reality that you can't have it all - you have to make trade-off decisions which have consequences and this is equally true for men and women.

Which family structure (where there are children present) affords the greatest capacity for high volume of hours, great flexibility, and great reliability? One spouse working full-time and one working either part-time or not at all. That is the Golden Model. I can't call it the traditional model because it has usually been the aspiration, not the reality. People tend to fail to recognize that historically the majority of women have always worked. The 1950s-1960s were an aberration.

The Golden Model is distinct from the Modern Model where both spouses work and earn close to the same amount as one another. I'll ignore the Singles Model and Childless Model as I think they are straightforward.

The competition that irritates Slaughter is that between the Golden Model and the Modern Model (to which she subscribes). They both have advantages and disadvantages, some obvious and some not so apparent.

Two spouses working full time implies a household income greater than the working individual in the Golden Model. The data broadly supports that conclusion, especially in the early years of a career. The Modern Model also would seem to imply a steadier, less risky model than the Golden Model. If one working spouse loses a job, there is the other income to cover the costs.

So the Modern Model on the surface looks wealthier and less risky. What's not to like? It gets interesting when you look at the details over time.

The Golden Model pays few dividends at the beginning of a career but it appears from the data to lead to greater outcomes over the long term. Yes there is more job insecurity but there is also greater capacity to distinguish oneself. The Golden Model working spouse can put in the extra hours, can be there in a pinch, and rarely has to break commitments because they have to take a sick child to a doctor or such other domestic issues that arise. They work more voluminously, more flexibly and more reliably. After five years, they begin to pull ahead.

Interestingly, the data seems to indicate that Golden Model households, probably because of their greater sensitivity to perceived risk, seem to save more, presumably as a bridge over job interruptions. Those that seem to do best of all are those that establish the variant where the spouse who cares for the children also works part time before and after the youngest years. That seems to provide a greater financial safety net that shelters the household from great swings in asset accumulation and income.

The interesting issue is that the Modern Model actually appears to be somewhat riskier. What appears to be happening, particularly among the top 40%, is that there is a false sense of security from two incomes and that those households tend to consume close to all that they earn. Consequently, when there is a job loss, the financial consequences are more immediate and more dire. With the Golden Model, the part time spouse can up their hours in the interim to help bridge the gap and they can draw upon greater average savings. In the Modern Model there are fewer savings, greater financial obligations undertaken in a two income scenario and there is relatively little capacity for the remaining working spouse to increase their income in the short term.

Slaughter and Goldin are using the Modern Model as their established norm. Slaughter in particular is making the argument that it is inherently unfair that those who have subscribed to the Golden Model should have such greater capacity for hours, flexibility and reliability. She is basically making the case that the Golden Model has an unfair advantage over the Modern Model.

Slaughter is so intensely self-focused that she leaves out many of the compensating elements to the Modern Model. She is not just an individual, she is a member of a small business which is the Slaughter family household. She suffers from reduced opportunities compared to the spouse in the Golden Model but she benefits from two incomes versus one or a partial income.

What both Goldin and Slaughter are recommending is that the economy should be reorganized in a fashion that jobs should not require high volume or great flexibility or reliability. Goldin offers the example where this has occurred in the recent past by offering up the Pharmacy industry. Pharmacists used to usually be male and full-time. Today the industry is primarily female and either part-time or flexible time. Goldin holds this up as a model for the rest of the economy. What she ignores is that the structure of the pharmacy industry has changed, whether for good or bad depends on one's perspective.

Pharmacies used to be primarily small businesses locally owned. They were run by men who were the primary breadwinner in their family and they required huge amounts of time and flexibility as any small business does. In the past forty years, the independent pharmacy has all but disappeared, replaced by a handful of highly efficient, carefully managed national chains. Pharmacists are no longer small business people with all the prestige and challenges that come with that. They are now employees. And yes, they are employees who can work less than full time and variable hours and don't have to be as highly flexible as used to be the case. It is, from a macroeconomic perspective, a far more efficient model. But the flexibility has been purchased at the cost of ownership. A good deal for some, perhaps less so for others.

Slaughter holds out the hope that if we elect more women and more women make it to the C-suite, then they can change the structure of the economy. I view that as a nice utopian dream.

My assessment is that in a global interconnected economy where there is a seamless global supply chain, everyone is always connected, always on, and there is global competition, the premium set on volume, flexibility and reliability will become greater, not lesser. I suspect that this phenomena is partly what is behind increasing income inequality. It costs a lot to manage people who can only work short hours with limited flexibility and who aren't reliable. That cost is reflected in their reduced salaries.

I think what Goldin and Slaughter both miss is that the competition is not between genders but between familial models. As with any company that is less productive than the competition, they are seeking protection from the competition through regulation. That rarely ends well.

I think the real challenge is to provide greater clarity to all people about the costs and consequences of their decisions and equip them with the critical thinking skills to make better life decisions. In particular, we need to be clearer that income is a reflection of productivity. The core issue is, what are the values, behaviors, knowledge, skills and experiences that make an individual more or less productive in a given set of circumstances? Not to keep anyone guessing, but working fewer hours, working hours that are convenient to the employee rather than the employer, and not being reliable are not attributes that lead to higher productivity and greater leadership roles. When put in those terms, the magnitude of the issue Goldin and Slaughter are seeking to address becomes clearer.

Seeking to use the coercive power of government to favor one familial mode over another is futile, classist, and a repugnant exercise of self-interest over the common interest.

It's not that women can't have it all. It's that no one can have it all. People have to choose as individuals and as family units which model is likely to optimize all their goals and objectives: income, wealth accumulation, health, education attainment, time with family, time in the community, etc. Each model, Golden, Modern, Single, Childless has their unique set of risks and benefits. The fact that a spouse in a Modern family model cannot be as productive as a comparable person in the Golden model does not reflect on society. It reflects their own values and trade-offs and revealed preferences.