Friday, September 8, 2017

Suggested reading: Misogynist economists edition

Ingrained sexism in higher education, attacks on what is already a flawed voting system, and our willing participation in our own surveillance: yes, it's another cheery edition of Suggested Reading!

Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

1. Misogynist economists

Alice Wu's senior thesis at UC Berkeley examined the language of posts on Economic Job Market Rumors, a forum "established to share information about job applications and results in each year's hiring cycle." Although the forum is anonymous, from internal evidence the majority of users are economics graduate students and recent Ph.Ds.

In this forum Wu found incontrovertible evidence of gender stereotyping. After analyzing the language of more than a million posts, she found 3600 words that had "meaningful predictive power" to determine whether the subject of a post was male or female. The top five words that predicted whether a post was about a woman were "hotter," "hot," "attractive," "pregnant," and "gorgeous." The top five words that predicted whether a post was about a man (that is, negatively predictive of it being about a woman) were "homosexual," "homo," "philosopher," "keen," and "motivated." (That "homosexual" and "homo" were the most predictive words for posts about men—"lesbian" was #8 for posts about women—says something as well about academic homophobia.)

In case you think this is "just" about language, the American Economic Association's Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession has shown that women are underrepresented in academic economics programs at all levels, from first-year economics Ph.D. students (only one-third are women) to full professors (only 13% are women). As Justin Wolfers writes in the New York Times, this is "Evidence of a Toxic Environment for Women in Economics." And it's not just economics: although for the past two decades a majority of bachelor's degrees have been earned by women, they are underrepresented in many other academic and professional programs, including law, business, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math-related) fields.

Update 11 January 2018: At the American Economic Association Annual Meeting in early January papers were presented on the systematic discrimination faced by women in the economics profession. Papers by women are written more clearly and spend six months longer being peer-reviewed than those of men; women co-authoring papers with men receive less credit for their work; and in economics textbooks only 8% of the references to economists are to women. See "Wielding Data, Women Force a Reckoning Over Bias in the Economics Field" by Jim Tankersley and Noam Scheiber in the New York Times.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. In June 2017 he suggested that "patriotically minded" private Russian hackers may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. (Reuters)

2. The hacking of our electoral system, part 1: Russia

Speaking of the New York Times, it recently published a report suggesting that, as the headline had it, the Russian election hacking effort was wider than previously known. The danger is apparently less that vote counts were changed—although without paper trails in many states that may never be determined—but that voter registration rolls can be altered to make it appear that voters aren't registered or have already voted. You would think that hacking of our voting system by a foreign power would result in well-funded and well-coordinated investigation at all levels, but "local, state and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers."

19th-century caricature of the "Gerry-Mander," a Massachusetts voting district drawn to favor candidates of the Democratic-Republican Party of Gov. Eldbridge Gerry (

3. The hacking of our electoral system, part 2: The Republican Party

As the Republican Party has long known, keeping people from voting at all is easier than changing their votes afterwards. It has relentlessly engaged in efforts to suppress the votes of people likely to vote against Republicans. As Rebecca Solnit writes of the Republican Party in Harper's Magazine, "rather than attempting to win the votes of people of color, they attempt to prevent people of color from voting."
I imagined that it was suicide for the G.O.P. to ignore the concerns of people of color, to craft a platform based on white grievance. Surely, I thought, John McCain and Mitt Romney lost their elections in part because a party run for and by white people had no future. But there was a fundamental flaw in my thinking: demographics matter only in a democracy, in a system in which every citizen has equal power and equal access to representation. That equality is threatened today [has it ever existed?], thanks to the Republican Party’s long campaign against those who are likely to vote against them. Today’s Republicans are democracy’s enemy, and it is theirs.
And alongside outright voter suppression comes voter dilution through gerrymandering. Emily Bazelon's recent article in the New York Times details the results of gerrymandering in Wisconsin: while the Republican share of the popular vote in Wisconsin State Assembly elections between 2008 and 2016 has increased from 43% to 53%, their proportion of State Assembly seats has gone from 47% to 65%. The Supreme Court will soon decide Gill v. Whitford, a case brought against Wisconsin's hyper-partisan redistricting, but in the past has declined to intervene in redistricting cases.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Platon/

4. Facebook is watching you

Who are Facebook's customers? If you answered "its users," you hold a common misconception. Facebook's customers are advertisers; as the headline of John Lanchester's London Review of Books article has it, "You are the product." The more data Facebook can gather about your activities, preferences, income, friends, "friends," etc., the more valuable you are to the company.

And where does Facebook get all that information? You give them most of it. As Lanchester writes,
. . .anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. Jonathan Taplin points out that this is 'almost 15 million years of free labor per year.' That was back when it had a mere 1.23 billion users.
So if advertisers are Facebook's customers and we are its product, what is its business?
. . .even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.
If you think that this doesn't have consequences beyond the ads you see, think again. To give just one example, the personal data that advertisers have access to results in personalized prices. When Spanish researchers created 'budget conscious' and 'affluent' online personas, they found that the affluent persona saw much higher prices (sometimes four times higher) than the budget conscious persona for the same goods and services. This is not just about being a smart consumer: even when the only difference between personas was location, quoted prices differed by as much as 166 percent.
It's sort of funny, and also sort of grotesque, that an unprecedentedly huge apparatus of consumer surveillance is fine, apparently, but an unprecedentedly huge apparatus of consumer surveillance which results in some people paying higher prices may well be illegal.
And how "unprecedentedly huge" is Facebook? Here's a list of the internet sites with the greatest number of monthly logged-in users: Facebook (now more than 2 billion), YouTube (1.5 billion), WhatsApp (1.2 billion), Messenger (1.2 billion), WeChat (890 million), and Instagram (700 million). YouTube is owned by Alphabet (Google), and WeChat by China's Tencent. Facebook owns the rest.

If you're under any illusion that Facebook exists (in the words of its mission statement) "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together," Lanchester's article is essential reading.

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