Asking questions about women in the academy

Doing the economist’s job well, Nobel Laureate Paul Romer once quipped, “means disagreeing openly when someone makes an assertion that seems wrong.”

Following this inspirational guideline of mine in the constrained, hostile, and fairly anti-intellectual environment that is Twitter sometimes goes astray. That the modern intellectual left is vicious we all know, even if it’s only through observing them from afar. Accidentally engaging with them over the last twenty-four hours provided some hands-on experience for which I’m not sure I’m grateful. Admittedly, most interactions on twitter loses all nuance and (un)intentionally inflammatory tweets spin off even more anger from the opposite tribe. However, this episode was still pretty interesting.

It started with Noah Smith’s shout-out for economic history. Instead of taking the win for our often neglected and ignored field, some twitterstorians objected to the small number of women scholars highlighted in Noah’s piece. Fair enough, Noah did neglect a number of top economic historians (many of them women) which any brief and incomprehensive overview of a field would do.

His omission raised a question I’ve been hooked on for a while: why are the authors of the most important publications in my subfields (financial history, banking history, central banking) almost exclusively male?

Maybe, I offered tongue-in-cheek in the exaggerated language of Twitter, because the contribution of women aren’t good enough…?

Being the twenty-first century – and Twitter – this obviously meant “women are inferior – he’s a heretic! GET HIM!”. And so it began: diversity is important in its own right; there are scholarly entry gates guarded by men; your judgment of what’s important is subjective, duped, and oppressive; what I happen to care about “is socially conditioned” and so cannot be trusted; indeed, there is no objectivity and all scholarly contribution are equally valuable.

Now, most of this is just standard postmodern relativism stuff that I couldn’t care less about (though, I am curious as to how it is that the acolytes of this religion came to their supreme knowledge of the world, given that all information and judgments are socially conditioned – the attentive reader recognises the revival of Historical Materialism here). But the “unequal” outcome is worthy of attention, and principally the issue of where to place the blame and to suggest remedies that might prove effective.

On a first-pass analysis we would ask about the sample. Is it really a reflection of gender oppression and sexist bias when the (top) outcome in a field does not conform to 50:50 gender ratios? Of course not. There are countless, perfectly reasonable explanations, from hangover from decades past (when that indeed was the case), the Greater Male Variability hypothesis, or that women – for whatever reason – have been disproportionately interested in some fields rather than others, leaving those others to be annoyingly male.

  • If we believe that revolutionising and top academic contributions have a long production line – meaning that today’s composition of academics is determined by the composition of bright students, say, 30-40 years ago – we should not be surprised that the top-5% (or 10% or whatever) of current academic output is predominantly male. Indeed, there have been many more of them, for longer periods of time: chances are they would have managed to produce the best work.
  • If we believe the Greater Male Variability hypothesis we can model even a perfectly unbiased and equal opportunity setting between men and women and still end up with the top contribution belonging to men. If higher-value research requires smarter people working harder, and both of those characteristics are distributed unequally between the sexes (as the Greater Male Variability hypothesis suggests), then it follows naturally that most top contributions would be men.
  • In an extension of the insight above, it may be the case that women – for entirely non-malevolent reasons – have interests that diverge from men’s (establishing precise reasons would be a task for psychology and evolutionary biology, for which I’m highly unqualified). Indeed, this is the entire foundation on which the value of diversity is argued: women (or other identity groups) have different enriching experiences, approach problems differently and can thus uncover research nobody thought to look at. If this is true, then why would we expect that superpower to be applied equally across all fields simultaneously? No, indeed, we’d expect to see some fields or some regions or some parts of society dominated by women before others, leaving other fields to be overwhelmingly male. Indeed, any society that values individual choice will unavoidably see differences in participation rates, academic outcomes and performance for precisely such individual-choice reasons.

Note that none of this excludes the possibility of spiteful sexist oppression, but it means judging academic participation on the basis of surveys responses or that only 2 out of 11 economic historians cited in an op-ed were women, may be premature judgments indeed.

Where are our manners?

“Manners Makyth Man.” William of Wykeham said that back in a distant past when the letter “y” was at peak popularity. I thought of that quote today as I read about the shrill outrage over Karen Pence’s unremarkable job at a Christian school. There’s a great speech expounding on William of Wykeham’s quote, delivered about a century ago by Lord John Fletcher Moulton in London. He entitled his speech, “Law and Manners,” and its message could really use another go around.

Lord Moulton’s speech begins by dividing human action into three domains: the domain of positive law, the domain of absolute choice, and the domain of what he calls “manners.” This last domain is his essential topic, which he defines as “obedience to the unenforceable.”

Manners, by which he means something akin to duty or morality but encompassing more than both, are sandwiched between the worlds of positive law and absolute choice. This realm of manners is where we may act as we choose but we nonetheless face constraints that are outside the force of law. His basic premise is that the larger the middle domain, the healthier the society. He says, “The true test is the extent to which individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.” Encroachment from the realms of positive law and absolute choice pose a danger.

Lord Moulton does not suggest that the two outer domains are bad. They are vital. But if either expands too far into the middle, trouble awaits. If positive law expands too far, it stifles the freedom necessary for a flourishing society. On the other hand, if people feel completely unrestrained in their exercise of freedom, civil society begins to sag, and the danger that positive law will sweep in to pick up a perceived slack increases. As one religious leader put it, “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.”

Given these threats to the middle domain, Lord Moulton feared that “the worst tyranny will be found in democracies.” Minority interests will get chewed up by the voracious appetite of a positive law driven by a majority.  The representatives of the majority “think that the power and the will to legislate amount to a justification for that legislation. Such a principle would be death to liberty. No part of our life would be secure from interference from without. If I were asked to define tyranny, I would say it was yielding to the lust of governing.”

The maintenance of the middle domain depends on growth of a robust civil society sheltered from majority dominance. Religion, culture, tradition, diasporas—communities independent of the state must exist with some genuine autonomy for the middle domain to survive and thrive.

And this brings me back to Karen Pence working at a Christian school that (trigger outrage) requires students and teachers to abide by traditional Christian values. Whether or not those values are correct or not is not at all the point. Those eager to slap down a law at the first hint of a disagreement need to understand that tolerance for even genuinely illiberal viewpoints is essential to the success of liberal democracy. Organizations must have some power to define themselves apart from the prerogatives of the state to establish a framework for obedience to the unenforceable. As the Supreme Court put it, people must have space to organize communities separate from state interference that can serve as competing purveyors of norms. Such groups provide an essential “counterweight . . . to the State’s impulse to hegemony.” Thus, organizations that can establish their own norms apart form majority interference prevent the encroachment of positive law into the middle domain.

I worry that we are seeing simultaneous encroachment from both the realms of positive law and absolute choice. People outraged at Karen Pence’s new job feel convinced that the positive law should thrust its tentacles into group dynamics, thereby swallowing civil society into an all-pervading state orthodoxy. On the other hand, a sneering sense of moral relativity that frowns upon any attempt to speak up for solid norms encroaches from the other end—the perversion of tolerance that believes in no genuine moral structure outside what the law “makyth.” The letter “Y” may be a consonant and a vowel, but that doesn’t mean we can live without unenforced rules. Lord Moulton warned us about this. It’s time we mind our manners.

Jair Bolsonaro suffers a knife attack.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s presidential candidate and leader in opinion polls, suffers a knife attack. According to close sources, his condition is grave. The aggressor is a militant of the Workers Party of Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro’s supporters resisted the temptation to lynch and directed the attacker to the police. Dilma Rousseff stated that Bolsonaro was the victim of his own hate speech. It is the left blaming the victim and justifying the aggressor. This is the “peace and love” left.

Around the Web

  1. As Bad As ObamaCare Is, Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act Was Worse
  2. From our own Dr Shikida in the Cato Journal: “Why Some States Fail: The Role of Culture” [pdf]
  3. Stop Blaming Professors: Study finds students themselves, not professors, lead some to become more radical in college
  4. The World Cup and “soccer” in general: Nationalism versus internationalism
  5. The agony of a Left-wing gun lover
  6. History happens all the time

More on Chick-fil-A

Here’s a commentator in the New York Times who echoes my views on the Chick-fil-A matter, and in a more gracious manner:

… a society that truly believes in individual freedom will respect Mr. Cathy’s right to his views. Those who disagree with him are free to boycott Chick-fil-A in protest. But if our elected officials run Chick-fil-A out of town, they are effectively voting for all of us, regardless of our respective beliefs, and eliminating our individual freedoms.

The writer is Steve Salbu, dean of the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  And he happens to be a gay man.  Here is the link.  Not sure if it’s gated.

Chicken Fascism

If anyone hadn’t yet gotten the message, the flap over Chick-fil-A ought to make it crystal clear that contemporary “progressives” are fascists, plain and simple.

The issue, of course, is the CEO’s statement in opposition to gay marriage, which has prompted a backlash across the country.  San Francisco’s mayor tweeted “Very disappointed #ChickFilA doesn’t share San Francisco’s values & strong commitment to equality for everyone” followed by “Closest #ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away & I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer.”

Wow. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to substitute “Closest Jews are 40 miles away and I strongly recommend they not try to come any closer.”  Mayor Lee would have fit right into 1930’s Nazi Germany.

The proper response to those who take offense at the CEO’s statement is a boycott, which just might work if Chick-fil-A were to set up shop in San Francisco.  It’s a totally different story when a mayor, backed by the armed might of the police, issues veiled threats against people who hold unpopular views.  This is a huge demonstration of our descent into fascism, right in front of our eyes.

By the way, do I recall correctly that the majority of California voters in 2008 approved Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage?


Journey Into Leftistan

When I think of leftists, college professors protected from reality by the ivory tower come to my mind. But we are all limited by our own experience if we are not careful. Facebook is a wonderful means to take journeys through parts unfamiliar. That’s if you have the time, of course. I spend a good deal of last week taking a trip into the land of the special kind of American leftists who are obsessed with Zionism, Israel and its misdeeds, real or imagined. It was a worthwhile experience.

I could reproduce the whole exchange but then, I would be fairly obligated to comment and it would take me more time than I am probably willing to devote to this ethnographic study. So, here are the points of this week-long exchange that are the most salient for me.

The multilog took place on the Facebook of a Tennessee sometimes-politician and sometimes-radio show host. His name is John Wolfe. You can easily find  him on Facebook. Mr Wolfe obviously subscribes, in general, to commonly accepted standards of rationality; he is generally courteous, and he does not make direct anti-Semitic statements although some of his Facebook followers do.

His narrative of Israeli-Palestinian relationships is not frankly at an angle from what I know or think I know. Rather, his narrative is well off to one side. Yet, it falls within the parameters of how one might interpret known facts if one were strongly motivated. Here is an example: Continue reading

Assorted Links on Mormon Baptisms for the Dead

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, says “so what?

Ari Cohen, a Political Scientist professor at the Univ. of Nebraska, says “how offensive!

Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher says “so what?

I’ve already gone over this myself, and I am sure that many, many other people have as well, but I just don’t see what is so offensive about baptizing dead people via proxy.  Yes, it is a bit condescending, but we are talking about religion here, right?

This seems to me to be a clear case of Leftist intolerance to other religions.  How many Leftists do you see decrying the Obama administration for forcing religious institutions to provide contraceptive care against their wishes?

The Left can often be good at protecting the freedom of religion, but Mormon proxy baptisms and forced payments for contraceptive care are examples where the Left errs.  And badly, too.

Baptisms for the Dead: So What?

Earlier today over at, a spontaneous debate on the curious Mormon practice of baptizing the dead happened. I actually have a lot of Mormon relatives and both of my parents aaannnd all of my siblings are Mormon too, so I always take an interest when Mormonism pops up in the news. For the record, I am not a Mormon, and even if I tried to convert, I don’t think they would let me!

Anyway, I found the way in which this debate unfolded especially heartening, because instead of bagging on Mormonism, or treating it with disrespect, the contributors actually tried to make an effort to understand why Mormons baptize the dead, and then debate why or why not this practice could be perceived to be offensive to people of other creeds. Here are some of the highlights: Continue reading