Friday, October 19, 2012

My Wife, Equality, and That Which Is Not Seen

NOTE: My wife in no way put me up to this post. Rumors that my busy travel schedule and an accidental trip down the Midtown Direct line to Mount Tabor have me in the doghouse are completely false. More seriously, these are my opinions, not hers, which should go without saying but often doesn't.

Economists, especially of the rightward-leaning variety, like to cite Frederic Bastiat's Parable of the Broken Window when they talk about the consequences of government spending, or how economic decision-making has invisible secondary effects, and lots of other things besides. (One of the nice things about parables, whether they come from Jesus or an economist, is that they can be applied pretty broadly.) This parable comes from an essay called, "That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen", and they show that a broken window, which some people might call an economic benefit because it forces the owner to spend for repairs, is actually a misallocation of resources because it diverts that spending away from a more productive channel. 

I'm now going to abuse that parable a little bit, and say that we most often observe the effect Bastiat is describing when it comes to well-meaning rules. So, here's where my wife comes in. She is "That Which Is Not Seen", the unnoticed victim of rules that are meant to protect women and in particular working mothers. In short, I believe that the rules and regulations meant to protect women in the workplace are in fact keeping her out of the workplace.

A bit of background. My wife, Kim Reed, is a very talented person who could be doing any number of things (check out her vastly more interesting blog if you want a sample) but has focused, career-wise, on product development. This is in essence the science of taking an idea from a designer or artist (or company bigshot, as the case may be) and figuring out how to get it made at commercial scale and at a cost the market will bear. She's done this for companies making curtain rods, dinnerware, watch bands and, most recently, high end jewelry. Kim felt like her job at Tiffany & Co. was a sign she had made it in New York, and that it would open up lots of options in her career. She felt that way when she got pregnant, even though she intended to return to work there after our son was born.

But she decided she wanted to take six months instead of three months, and Tiffany wasn't cool with that. They said they'd consider her for other roles when she was ready to come back, but somehow that hasn't worked out. My belief is that, in a company that is predominantly staffed by women of child-bearing age, they didn't want to set the "bad precedent" of allowing too much employee flexibility around maternity leave. And since the law says you are protected for 12 weeks, and then pretty much on your own, that makes 12 weeks the default, and woe be it if you feel like you need more time. 

Now, I don't begrudge Tiffany the right to make the best business decision for their company, and I suppose (although her reviews both there and everywhere else she's ever worked would make it seem unlikely) that they didn't consider her a particularly productive employee. But I do think that the laws that "protect" women treat them as a uniform group and define (and thus limit) what they can expect from a company. Twelve weeks is an arbitrary number, not some well-thought out limit on the needs of new mothers.

I wouldn't have thought much of what happened with Tiffany if it hadn't been for her subsequent experience in the job market. My wife has had a large number of interviews, and with a handful of companies has gone back multiple times, and left with the expectation of an offer. And a pattern has emerged. All of a sudden she stops hearing from the company, and either they completely ignore her (again, after multiple rounds of interviews taking significant chunks of her time) or give a non-answer as to why she is no longer being considered.

Here, I think, other rules that are meant to help women are actually hurting Kim. You are, as an employer, not allowed to discriminate against women with children. You aren't even allowed to ask about someone's family status or how it might effect their work. But you can't expect people not to think about it. What's more, once you hire someone, you risk an expensive and frustrating lawsuit if you let them go and there is a perception you might have done so because of their family issues. You might not be allowed to say any of this (and you're in it deep if you ever write it in an email or otherwise document it), but if you're hiring you can't help but think about it. And so I believe that a woman with a young child, who hasn't been working for a while, is now seen as a potential legal liability as much as a potential asset. And, if you decide not to take the chance, but can't articulate an approved reason to reject the person? Well, easier just to never call back and let the issue, as the said in Office Space, "work itself out naturally."

I normally try not to get into personal issues on this blog, but I think this is a great example of understanding how the mind works and how we react to incentives. The government, for understandable reasons, sets up rules that are meant to protect women in the workplace. But people don't necessarily respond to the intent of the law (which is to ensure women aren't treated worse because they have children) but rather to the effects of the law (which is to make it legally easier to deal with men or women without children). Women like Kim who have children have to behave within the strictures of the laws that have been created or else they are suspect, seen as a problem waiting to happen. 

I think that one of the greatest benefits to society in the last century has been the unlocking of women's potential to impact society for the better. We have, in essence, doubled our human capital. But a lot of what passes for "women's rights" is condescension that assumes all women want the same things or need the same protections. And I think, based on the evidence of Kim and many other women I've known, that if the genders competed on an entirely even playing field, us men are likely to get trounced.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Watching Our Nation Break in Two

NOTE: This is last in a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post,I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. The second post considered the possibility that things aren't all that bad, but political marketing is making us feel the world is falling apart. The third post looked at whether we are waiting for a crisis we know must come, but is taking its sweet time to get here. This post will consider the possibility that our society is in fact splitting in two.

In 2004, the map you see to the left became a bit of a phenomenon. People fed up with the divisiveness of that presidential election (and particularly those bitter about being on the losing side) half-jokingly suggested breaking the country up into the blue "United States of Canada" and the red "Jesusland". This notion tapped into a deep feeling that we can no longer agree on the direction of the country, and it would be better if we divorced now and formed two ideologically coherent countries.

I haven't heard anyone advocating for the country to split lately, so it would be tempting to laugh off that map as a passing fancy. But the idea that the "other side" is not just wrong, but illegitimate, has if anything gathered steam since 2004. The Birther movement can be seen as a crude way to deny to Obama the legitimacy to even advance an argument. Equally crude, though nicely packaged, is this argument from Ron Rosenbaum that the Republican party is irredeemably and undeniably racist, and thus not a legitimate participant in our national debate. Lest you think I exaggerate:
In a way mainstream media outlets who promote a false equivalency between the two parties by failing to note at the very least the neo-racist supporters of the Republican Party are themselves complicit in the charade that the GOP is a morally legitimate entity. Not that racists don’t vote Democratic, and yes I know the GOP was, was, the party of Lincoln, but that was long ago in another country.
The distance between this statement and saying that anyone who votes for Mitt Romney is a racist is short indeed, and from there it is just a few more steps to an argument that any Republican elected, or any Republican law passed, does not have moral legitimacy.

If all of this is a little too high minded, take a look at your Facebook or Twitter feeds after the next debate. I'm pretty sure you'll see the liberals decrying Romney's desire to leave the poor and vulnerable unprotected to help out his rich cronies, and the conservatives attacking Obama's anti-American, socialist policies that are destroying the country's spirit and shredding the Constitution. 

So what? People disagree about politics, and they aren't always nice about it. At the end of the day, most of these arguments come and go, with no lasting impact on the unity of our nation. Our democracy has lasted almost 250 years by adjusting to the changing beliefs of its people: eventually we find common ground and move on.

There's one exception to this rule, and I think the example is instructive. As I wrote a year ago, in the years before the Civil War we had fewer and fewer common principles to help us reconcile our differences. Eventually, the differences of belief between the Union and the Confederacy were severe enough to provoke first succession, then war. The only way to reconcile these wildly divergent beliefs was for one side to crush the other, and force its beliefs upon the losers.

Is there a current schism anywhere near as severe as that in the time before the Civil War? I took a stab at capturing some of the differences between "Red Culture" (that associated with Jesusland) and "Blue Culture:

Obviously this is an over-simplification, but my point is that in ways big and small these cultures are wildly different, with very few areas of overlap. This does not feel like the description of two strains within one coherent society to me, but two antagonistic societies living side by side. It also feels like there is not much chance of one side convincing the other on any of these issues, as these views are based in deep beliefs and worldviews that are hard to challenge.

My sense is that Blue Culture is the more recent development of the two, one that has its roots in the trauma of the Great Depression and which fully took shape when the Baby Boomers challenged the moral consensus around religion, sexuality and gender roles that existed (somewhat uneasily) before the 1960s. That worldview has always defined itself in opposition to a more patriarchal, conservative America, which they felt left the disadvantaged to fall through the cracks. In the 1980's, conservatives began to push back, reasserting traditional values and worrying that the goals Blue Culture was advancing would sap American individuality and vitality. We now seemed to have reached something of a stalemate.

A few essays ago, I argued in essence that this stalemate was somewhat stable, that neither side would really move us that far from the common ground that we have somehow stumbled upon. But I think the sense of impending crisis, and the limits of deficit spending, will undermine this truce. Conservatives want to cut taxes to give individuals more control of their money. Liberals want to raise spending to extend social services to more people. For a long time, we could take turns from one administration to the next, but we can't paper over our differences this way anymore.

How will this end? I don't believe we have a second civil war in us. My guess is no Californian will want to take up arms to keep Georgia in the Union, or vice versa. And I also don't think we are going to suddenly resolve all of these problems, barring an external crisis that forces us to come together for survival's sake. I see two possibilities: one is that a financial crisis much bigger than the 2008 crash devastates the country, and our irreconcilable differences force a rapid and nasty divorce on us. The alternative (and the one I'm rooting for) is that we realize we're running in place and decide to stop, and we figure out a way to either split up amicably or devolve all but a few functions of the federal government to the state or regional level.

Sadly, I don't see America in its current form lasting my lifetime. That may be tragic, but it doesn't need to be. A country with a single citizenship, a single military, but two different systems of domestic governance, could be a good thing. It would ease most of the contentious debates we suffer through today, and would allow those who don't "fit in" on their side to migrate to the other territory. And it would acknowledge our shared heritage while not lying about how differently our two cultures view the world.

But since the odds of an amicable divorce seem so long, I'll end with a bit of a prayer: please, please let me be wrong.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Crisis Slouching Towards Us

NOTE: This is third in a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post,I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. The second post considered the possibility that things aren't all that bad, but political marketing is making us feel the world is falling apart. This post looks at whether we are waiting for a crisis we know must come, but is taking its sweet time to get here. The final post will consider the possibility that our society is in fact splitting in two.

I was in a small meeting with a group of a half dozen smart and experienced marketers here in New York City, when the conversation turned to the screwed up-ness of our society and our politics. In no time at all, about half the group was discussing the steps they were taking to prevent the government from seizing their retirement assets in the event of financial collapse, how much cash you should take out of the bank and keep hidden under the proverbial mattress, and whether a shotgun or a pistol is the better home defense alternative. And the half not participating all had a look on their face that said, not "look at the conservative nut jobs" but "geez, I probably should start thinking about this stuff." Doomsday preparedness has, it seems, achieved a sort of mainstream respectability it completely lacked not too long ago.

This failure of leadership has been widely noted by the public: consider how abysmally low are the approval ratings for Congress, who are after all directly elected by the people expressing their disapproval. We often explain this seeming inconsistency by saying that a lot of people like their congressman alright, but hate the results of the whole assortment of them. But what if people are voting for the party they find less objectionable, because they accept the narrative that the other guys are mostly to blame, without any real faith in the individual they are electing? (As a personal observation, I've never voted for anyone, for any office, feeling that that individual was worthy of support. I've voted against people I thought would be awful leaders, and I've voted for certain expressed positions without much confidence in the person expressing them.)

Is our doom hanging over our heads? The problem is that we can't be sure. Maybe this is just the extended darkness before the dawn. But the belief people seem to have, regardless of political affiliation, is not that things are going to get better, but that we pulled back from the precipice briefly, but the problems are only getting worse behind the emergency barriers we've erected.

Where that crisis comes from depends on your political affiliation. When I talk to liberals, they tell me that that this is a crisis caused by our business and financial elites. In their telling, the system is rigged to enhance their power and earnings, and their narrow-minded selfishness is wrecking the fairness and the shared prosperity of the American system. Conservatives will blame different elites: those in the government and the heights of culture who want to overspend other peoples' money and try to solve deep rooted societal problems through heavy-handed federal intervention that's doomed to fail. Interestingly, one side's hero is the other side's villain. Liberals think the government can constrain the greed of businessmen. Conservatives lament that by constraining businessmen, government has exacerbated our financial problems, keeping the 'job-creators' on the sidelines.

This public split may actually be a core reason why a future crisis seems inevitable. If we can't even agree on who is driving us to ruin, how can we stop it? And each side identifying a cohort of wrongdoers who align with their preexisting politics disguises another possible answer: our business, our political and our cultural elites have all failed us. Peggy Noonan has noted that we seem to have elites in all walks of life who want to be cool instead of being leaders.

What I guess I'm suggesting is that, if we take off the partisan blinders, we might find that our problems are in no small part due to an elite that has become self-perpetuating and self-serving. This elite shares certain assumptions (about the virtue of a meritocracy created by a flawed college admissions system, for example) but more importantly, certain relationships. The fact that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have four Ivy League degrees between them is often cited as an example of their talent and drive, but rarely as an indication that leaders from both parties tend to travel in the same rarified circles. Increasingly, the elites from all walks of life come from the same background, which means they are broadly more sympathetic to each other than to those left behind by the modern world. It also means they lack the necessary sense of urgency to hold off the crisis dragging towards us: everyone they know is probably doing fine.

The problems we face don't have painless fixes. But our elites gain power by telling their supporters that they don't need to bear the pain, that it is the responsibility of the other side. So as long as the crisis is held at bay, they can retain their power through these cheap arguments. Which perhaps explains why the crisis is slow in coming: if there are short term financial moves that can be made to forestall it, our elites will grasp it, no matter the long term consequences. Because every day that they are in power is a day they can enrich themselves, and be told how wonderful they are by their cronies and hangers-on.

If the gut feeling expressed by my work colleagues is right, the crisis is coming for us like a zombie: slowly, but relentlessly. Our elites aren't thinking of that eventuality, but are playing for their short term advantage no matter what might be looming on the horizon. And the bulk of citizens, who intuit that things are going off the rails, can't find anyone they trust to fix the problem when they can't even agree on who's to blame.