Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obama on the New Yorker's cover

The January 26th New Yorker featured Obama on its cover, made up to look like George Washington. They are offering free copies of the cover to those registering on their website, here. It is not easy to find a reproduction of the cover on the New Yorker's own website (they've moved on to the next issue already) but you can see it here. It is a dignified illustration, but not one of their better covers, IMHO.

I suspect both the muted nature of the cover and the offer of free commemorative copies are intended, at least in part, to make Obama's camp forgive and forget the minor dust-up this past summer over the July, 21st cover by Barry Blitt. That cover satirized some of the more overblown right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama's character by depicting him in the Oval Office, with a picture of Osama bin Laden on the wall, the American flag in the fireplace, and Michelle channeling Angela Davis. The illustration, titled "the politics of fear", was judged "tasteless and offensive" by an Obama campaign spokesman, and the McCain campaign agreed.

The Huffington Post at the time ran a brief interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick in which he offers a bit of context, but one gets a sense that he is mostly frustrated by the number of people who apparently insisted on misinterpreting the cover. Indeed, an interesting, though somewhat meandering, essay on the fracas by DB Dowd points out that to be offended one would need to be both culturally clueless and visually illiterate.

My sense is that the perceived offense arises in two ways:
1) people are worried that other people might be offended, and thus take it upon themselves to be offended for those other people;
2) people are worried that many other people are, in fact, culturally clueless and visually illiterate, and thus will not realize that the cover is satirical.

If I am right, this implies that those who took it upon themselves to be offended have a rather dim view of the sophistication of their fellow Americans (or at least, of those fellow Americans who ever look at a New Yorker cover). I would hope that they are wrong, but some of the
reactions to the cover at the time suggest that they are at least partially right. In light of this, perhaps the rather anodyne inauguration cover was a wise choice. Still, Mad Magazine's inauguration cover, spoofing general talk about what Obama might be able to achieve in his first 100 days, is rather funnier.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Evolutionary roots of human behaviour / gender pay gap

The year-end issue of the Economist offered an overview of some recent work in the burgeoning field of evolutionary social science, i.e. the inquiry into possible evolutionary roots of human social, economic, and political behaviour. The article is titled "Why we are, as we are", and primarily reviews studies that highlight "Darwinian answers to social questions", i.e. different ways in which the evolutionary drive to reproduce may translate into observed patterns of human behaviour. The article is interesting though also a bit simplistic.

One of the more interesting and counter-intuitive findings: the number of children a man fathers is, on average, correlated with his income. It is important to note, however, that this relationship is drowned out by the impact of education (i.e. it only holds if one controls for education, which is highly correlated with income but tends to reduce reproduction). The apocalyptic scenario laid out in the movie Idiocracy may, therefore, still come true :-)

More importantly (and problematically), as my favourite evolutionary biologist points out: most of the findings discussed in the article lean rather heavily on the assumption that "correlation probably implies causation". For example, the article suggests that the growing income gap between men and women as they get older may be related to the fact that older women feel less of a need to show off to catch a mate, and may care more about security and working conditions. Fair enough, this may be part of the explanation. But the fact that women may care more about security does not mean they are not experiencing gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

After all, this particular "finding" downplays the fact that there have been dramatic reductions (in some places and among some groups) in the gender pay gap over the past century. This is hardly long enough for meaningful evolutionary change among humans on this issue, leaving discrimination as the rather more obvious explanation. To hint that all (or even most) of the remaining gap is evolutionarily determined seems willfully (even disingenuously) naive.

In fairness, it is worth noting that the actual report on which the Economist relies to sustain its argument (available here) does not rely on evolutionary claims, nor does it say that no pay gap exists. It mostly argues
1) that the gap is smaller than it appears in aggregate data because men and women are not evenly distributed across all types of jobs (and part of that difference is by choice), and
2) that, as a result, one-size-fits-all policies aimed at redressing the gap will probably fail.

Both of these claims are uncontroversial. Unfortunately, both the report's author and those who have cited it seem inclined to gloss over two important points:
1) A gap that is smaller than it might seem at first sight (and shrinking) may still be sizeable and, for those on the "receiving" end of the gap, of great importance.
2) Narrowly targeted policies aimed at overcoming gender discrimination within particular economic sectors may well succeed (and, hence, are worth trying)

Friday, January 23, 2009

The euro in 2009

Some interesting recent articles about the euro zone. The Economist, in its January 3rd issue, calls the euro "Demonstrably durable", arguing that it provides a crucial haven in financial storms, even though it may no longer afford euro-zone countries the ability to postpone painful reforms. The New York Times, on January 23rd, strikes a similar note, albeit with a different emphasis. Declaring that "For some in Euro zone, dream turns nightmarish", Landon Thomas suggests that some of the weaker euro states, such as Greece or Italy, "may be forced to declare bankruptcy or abandon the currency." Meanwhile, on January 1st, Slovakia became the latest European Union member to join the euro area. Finally, though it is not even a member of the European Union, "Iceland considers adopting the euro", as Reuters pointed out at the end of November last year. 2009 is shaping up to be an intriguing year for the euro.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The UN as a nuclear power?

Funny article in the Jan. 13, 2009 issue of The Onion: "U.N. Acquires Nuclear Weapon." They hit all the right notes, including a nice reference to the weakness of the UN's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As Ban Ki-Moon says: "We look forward to receiving your full cooperation in eradicating malaria in the developing world. Or else." :-)

Legal justice & the war on terrorism

The January-February 2009 of the Harvard Magazine has an interesting article on the role of habeas corpus in the war on terrorism as it is being fought by the U.S. government. The article is by Jonathan Shaw and is titled "The War & the Writ: Habeas Corpus and Security in an Age of Terrorism." The story of the Uighur detainees who have given up hope of ever leaving Guantanamo even though nobody even thinks they constitute (or ever constituted) a terrorist threat is particularly depressing.

Humanitarian workers on the frontlines

The January 5, 2009 issue of the New Yorker has an excellent article about life on the front lines of a humanitarian emergency, by Jonathan Harr: Lives of the Saints. It gives a good sense both of the difficulties of the situation in Chad, on the border with Darfur (Sudan) and of the risks and challenges to which humanitarian workers are continually exposed, whether they report to the UN or to a non-governmental organization such as Doctors without Borders. Highly recommended.