In Which I Yet Again Have to Explain Things to People Who Can Read

Via Tiny Pasture, we learn that Martin Kennedy might want to read the studies he’s drawing conclusions from before he draws conclusions from them. (Sorry, Martin. You know I love you, but I can’t let this nonsense stand.)

Kennedy says:

So, women are more likely to report violence against them and less likely to kill those who smack them around when we adopt policies that prevent them from dropping the case against their abusers.

Women are better off if we take away their choice?

Now, I know that, when pulled out like this, you can already see some flaws in his line of reasoning. For one “taking away women’s choice” does not equal “women are more likely to choose to report violence against them and less likely to choose to kill their abusers.” See, by providing abused women protection from their abusers when they do report violence (and making it more difficult for their abusers to manipulate them into dropping charges), it makes it easier for them to choose to report it and to choose courses of action that don’t lead them to feeling like killing their abusers is their only choice.

I’m linking to the original paper here so that you can see the real problem.

Note Kennedy’s language.  “Women are better off…”  “Well it is better if they, the women, don’t have a choice with respect to prosecution…”

But look at the paper.  Men are better off if women don’t have a choice with respect to prosecution.  Over twenty years, we’ve seen “the number of men killed by wives has declined dramatically from 1400 to less than 500 annually.”  (p. 23)

How are things working out for women?

According to the authors of the paper that Kennedy thinks proves that women have it better when our choices are limited:

the annual number of female intimate partner homicides nationally has declined slightly from 1500 to 1250 over the nearly 20 year period (p. 23)

and

Finally, we find no evidence that no drop policies lead to a reduction in domestic violence as measured by the number of women killed by intimate partners or the number of women admitted to the hospital for an assault. (p. 4)

and (most disturbingly)

We find that counties that adopt a no-drop policy witness a 14-17 percent higher rate of arrest for domestic violence relative to counties that do not adopt such a policy over this period.  However it is not clear from this analysis if this finding is due to an increase in reporting, or an increase in domestic violence as a result of no-drop policies (p. 31)

Let us recap.   Due to the no-drop policy, we see very little change in the amount of women killed by their partners each year, no evidence that it leads to a reduction in domestic violence, and uncertainty about whether it leads to an increase in domestic violence against women.

And this is what Kennedy calls “better” for women?  Perhaps the good professor has a different definition of “better” than I do?  Perhaps he meant to say “men” and not “women”?

Don’t get me wrong.  I think the no-drop policy is a sound one.  Batterers should be prosecuted and they should not have the opportunity to terrorize or manipulate the battered party into backing out of pressing charges.  And, frankly, the less murdered people, the better, so I consider it a good if battered spouses aren’t running around killing their abusers.

But to jump from “some good has come out of proceeding with prosecutions in spite of the wishes of the victim” to “women are better off when we tell them what to do, so let’s take away their right to an abortion!” is a leap no mere mortal should try to make, so it’s no surprise that not only does Kennedy fail to stick the landing, he seems to have left a couple of footprints in the plasticine after the takeoff board.

Ha, it’s not every day that you’re going to read an elaborate long jump metaphor here at Tiny Cat Pants.  Enjoy!

27 thoughts on “In Which I Yet Again Have to Explain Things to People Who Can Read

  1. Go easy on him, Aunt B. You know that right wing arguments toil an uneven rhetorical playing field. After all, everyone knows that the facts have a liberal bias.

    And did I see you use the word professor to describe Mr. Kennedy? I hope you were using a tongue-in-cheek term of endearment.

  2. I tend to think (having absolutely no data on hand to support this) that no-drop policies might actually cause a woman to hesitate before going to the police. And that may ultimately result in continued levels of violence.

  3. From the abstract:

    We find that “no-drop” policies… result in an increase in reporting. No-drop policies also result in a decrease in the number of men murdered by intimates suggesting that some women in violent relationships move away from an extreme type of commitment device when a less costly one is offered.

    Sooooo, not sure what the problem is here B. Perhaps it was just my provocative verbage. Two points:

    1. any change in costs/benefits tend to change behavior… in any situation.

    2. Removing a choice can make men and women “better off” in various situations. I define “better off” as enhanced utility.

    I find that interesting because it challenges a fundamental assumption of economics. I believe we do not always know or appreciate what is best for us.

    I did not bring up abortion, but since you did I will add that I do think women (and men) would be better off if the choice of abortion were removed. I realize of course that some women would be hurt via illegal abortions, but that does not change my thinking.

  4. 1. any change in costs/benefits tend to change behavior… in any situation.

    Sounds nice and reasonable, but it isn’t always true. Sometimes it is true, to be sure, but often the ‘change’ is worse than the status quo. So that point is, well, pointless.

    2. Removing a choice can make men and women “better off” in various situations. I define “better off” as enhanced utility.

    I seem to recall that a similar strain of sophistry was used to justify enslaving black people. If anyone out there wishes to reinstate that institution, the line forms at my front door, which is less than five hours by plane from most places in the country. Pack light.

    Seriously, though, Mr. Kennedy, the only benefit to this whole no-drop deal is that less abusers are getting killed. The rest of the data cited in the study show that the status quo is roughly the same (statistically) and likely worse (practically). When I have time, I’ll red the whole thing. But from what I’ve seen in the first seven pages, the researchers assumptions about the battered women’s ‘preferences’ seem dangerously and irresponsibly facile. Perhaps they spring something more comprehensive on the reader later on.

    I believe we do not always know or appreciate what is best for us.

    This may be true of some more than others; in any case, one wonders how such self-immolating ignorance manages to propagate itself so vigorously. I’m not wondering too hard right now.

  5. Church Sec,

    Sometimes I do respond even when people are uncharitable, petty, and well a bit nasty. This time I won’t.

  6. I did not bring up abortion, but since you did I will add that I do think women (and men) would be better off if the choice of abortion were removed.

    why is there any need for mere belief concerning this point? we have ample evidence, both historical and contemporary, for what societies with abortion banned look like.

    on the other note, saying that “removing choices can help things” is not the same as saying “we don’t always know what’s best for us”. if the latter were true, we wouldn’t know which choices are good ones to remove, after all. but removing options can serve, paradoxically enough, as a kind of structure on which to build our choices.

    really tangentially, i see a similar phenomenon in computer programming very regularly. there, deciding on a platform or framework (even a very restrictive one!) can help make the people limited to that framework dramatically more productive, even though there’s no obvious reason it should.

  7. “I believe we do not always know or appreciate what is best for us.”

    Yes, indeed. Free will leads to mistakes, but I absolutely prefer it to the alternatives. What cracks me up about classical and neo-classical economics as a branch of the profession is those economists act as though they know what “best” would be and that “best” doesn’t change all that much culture to culture or person to person. (Goes without saying that Homo Economis has usually been male, and white, and shares a lot of social assumptions with the researcher.) Humans who have the capacity to do otherwise and yet persistently choose “contrary to their own interests” must have some insight into their own interests that the pocket-protector boys don’t. That’s the starting point of behavioral economics, isn’t it? (Unfortunately, behavioral work often boils down to people get bad information or have clouded judgment…so they are deluded into making “bad” decisions…no indication that some of the decisions that appear to be “bad” might be perfectly satisfactory to the actor even if they don’t make sense to the researcher.)

    If anyone’s interested in the way behavioral economists think about personal choice, here’s a good starter article:

    http://www.harvardmagazine.com/on-line/030640.html

  8. Martin, the problem is and remains that you said that this study proves that women are better off when they have more limited choices. But the study actually shows that men are better off when women have more limited choices.

    It doesn’t surprise me that you agree with that, but it does surprise me that you can look at it and still call it “better for women” when clearly it’s not.

    As for abortion, please, Martin. Please. You did to bring it up. I try always to be respectful of you, please don’t insult my intelligence. You said, in that very post, “Women are better off if we take away their choice? The implications, not to mention the reaction of feminists, are very interesting to consider.” “Choice” “Feminists” “Implications” “Women” Oh, gee, I wonder what you could be talking about?

    Bridgett and CS, what I find most perplexing about the study is that they seem to not take into account at all that the women might be economically dependent on their abusers. I find that very strange as I imagine most women return to their abusers because they need that income, or feel they do, anyway.

  9. I believe we do not always know or appreciate what is best for us.

    Probably so. But if we don’t get to decide for ourselves, who does? Seems to me the people who want to have people decisions made for them always assume that they are the ones who will be making the decisions.

  10. … The implications, not to mention the reaction of feminists, are very interesting to consider.” “Choice” “Feminists” “Implications” “Women” Oh, gee, I wonder what you could be talking about?

    OK B you got me there. I knew you would make the connection.

    … Probably so. But if we don’t get to decide for ourselves, who does?

    That’s the problem isn’t it. I generally believe people ought to be free to make bad decisions… one of the reasons I believe in limited government.

    … we have ample evidence, both historical and contemporary, for what societies with abortion banned look like.

    Yes, we do. And, I’ll bet that people with different perspectives (on abortion) will argue as to the benefits and costs.

  11. On the link to the essay on behavioral economics… just started reading it and can’t finish now. I do think the author is too harsh with respect to the classical approach. It is not that behavioral economics has or will “upend” the standard approach. Rather, it is providing more insight. That shouldn’t trouble anyone. The assumption of a rational agent has always been somewhat dubious. We appreciate that we are more than merely rational. However, it is a crucial starting point. Without assuming a rational agent well there is not much to build on. So by bringing in our understanding of psychology it has the potential (already has) to provide greater insight.

  12. Wow, bridgett, thanks! I could hardly get through econ in college because it seemed so very, very counter to everything I knew about people and how the world really works. (Being a sociologist really didn’t help with that…though Economic Sociology turned out to be a pretty cool class, once I got up there.) I bulked up my suspension of disbelief muscles quite a bit during that time. And now it appears that there’s actual study going on about all of those things I was complaining about! Awesome.

  13. Martin, your field has been working with the concept of “bounded rationality” since the 1950s…if classical economics could have fixed itself through psychological fudge factoring, it would have done so by now (informational markets being self-correcting instruments and all). I believe that behavioral economics is replacing and will replace classical economics as the dominant approach; it’s not merely a corrective nor do the majority of practitioners see it that way, though I can see why a classical economist would want to.

    I guess I’d argue that my ideas about what is rational (and what is plausible, and what is an article of faith, and what is “of the good”) differ markedly from yours and so applying a unitary standard of rationality to decision-making would be problematic. (After all, statements about “utility” are always normative in nature.) Also, I tend to find economic models underprivilege pleasure and “what makes me happy” as an element within their calculations.

  14. I guess I’d argue that my ideas about what is rational (and what is plausible, and what is an article of faith, and what is “of the good”) differ markedly from yours and so applying a unitary standard of rationality to decision-making would be problematic. (After all, statements about “utility” are always normative in nature.) Also, I tend to find economic models underprivilege pleasure and “what makes me happy” as an element within their calculations.

    That always bothered me as well. How can we talk about utility, particularly in the context of choice and decisionmaking, and not deal with psychology? How can we not deal with pleasure? People factor ‘what makes me happy’ into economic decisions every day… I’d argue that at some level, it’s the primary determinant of certain types of decisions. And, as the article pointed out, people factor ‘what makes other people happy/unhappy’ into their daily decisionmaking as well. It may not be what drives wars or the stock market (though I’d argue there’s a fair bit of it there, too), but it’s always struck me as…. irresponsible… to discount this sort of thing in Micro.

  15. Yep. And I’d further argue that much of choice is based on immediate circumstance rather than a longitudinal plan of behavior that sets the array of possible actions in a broader context of possible trajectories. I mean, who buys their coffee like that?

  16. Aw, Mr. Kennedy, you’re just mad because I pointed out that your fancy discourse is wearing the Emperor’s Latest Fashions.

    The difference between your sophistry and my ‘nastiness’ is that I’m coming right at you. You use a barrage of words (many of them rather non sequitur-ish) to gild your support for sexism and authoritarianism, and you get pissy when someone calls you on it.

    I can be as respectful and polite as anyone (though nowhere near as charitable and forgiving as our lovely host), but you can always expect a sharp reply when you try to bullshit a bullshitter.

    Bridgett: Naomi Klein has written a hell of a book about how a certain school of economics has wreaked havoc on much of humanity in the last half century or so. Toward the beginning she discusses how– due largely to the influence of this school of thought– economics has been elevated from a social science to ‘hard’ science. Again, the results have been devastating to a large portion of the planet’s population.

    So, yes, I’d say that it makes sense to suggest that most people don’t know what they really want when you subscribe to a philosophy that depends on forcing people to accept what most people definitely would not want if given the choice. (Which also dovetails nicely into the suggestion that limiting choices ‘can be’ a good thing.)

  17. Yep. And I’d further argue that much of choice is based on immediate circumstance rather than a longitudinal plan of behavior that sets the array of possible actions in a broader context of possible trajectories. I mean, who buys their coffee like that?

    Heh, indeed.

    Not to mention the usual stupid practicalities and imperfect information stuff… if I have to drive across town for The Best Deal, and I’ve only got 20 minutes for my break, I’m not going to act in my own best interest. And if I don’t know that The Best Deal exists, then, well, I’m not going to pursue it.

    Both of which are pretty standard arguments… my thing about those two things is that there’s a temporal element to them that tends to be ignored too. I want a cup of coffee right now, when I come into work and the office is cold…. in 20 minutes, I may have warmed up and not want coffee, or want a different kind of coffee, or have decided that I’m not all that sleepy and would prefer tea. And if Starbucks hasn’t started their seasonal run of that lovely hot chocolate stuff they do, then even if it’s the best choice for my overall lifetime preference for hot chocolate, I simply can’t make that choice. And my preferences and the array of options which are practically available to me change dynamically over time and interact with each other in a way that makes most of the models I’ve seen… clunky, at the very least. Useless at worst.

  18. And I’d further argue that much of choice is based on immediate circumstance rather than a longitudinal plan of behavior that sets the array of possible actions in a broader context of possible trajectories.

    Damn right. If I may whore for Naomi Klein a bit more, that’s the heart of what she calls “disaster capitalism.” You wait for something awful to happen (or make it happen yourself), then use people’s disorientation and their enhanced sense of in-the-moment decision-making to push through policies that they’d otherwise reject with prejudice. (If necessary, you use violence to grease the wheels.)

    But back to the original topic, and the point that you, Aunt B., and Mag are making (if I read you correctly). It is easy to be smug about women making ‘irrational’ decisions regarding their abusive partners when you don’t have to face such highly irrational situations yourself. This is another facet of the sort of patriarchal authoritarianism that keeps getting insinuated into our public policy.

  19. You know, plenty of people will drink only fair trade coffee. That’s a long-term economic decision. I’m not saying it’s relevant to this discussion, but it is Bridgett’s metaphor.

  20. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. That is not to say that your responses are all wrong, but in important respects, very wrong.

    Economists employ assumptions and make use of models in order to SIMPLIFY a very complex world. Assumptions and models – that cause many students to shrug and gripe that economics isn’t “realistic” – are quite valuable. They help us, all of us, gain insight. For example, a paper airplane is not a B-17 but it can serve to demonstrate Bernoulli’s principle or the concept of lift. Neither is a plastic model of a B-17 a real B-17 but it can help us see how the crew was arranged, where the gunners stood, why the ball-turret gunner was in a dangerous position. A propeller on a stick is not a B-17 but it can be used to demonstrate another important principle.

    So, if the charge is that economics is not realistic – Guilty. Not valuable? Not Guilty. If an economist asserts that he or she is capable of capturing the full complexities of human life via economic models he/she is a fool. None that I know would assert that.

    Some specifics:

    rational behavior: If a sane person has goals and behaves in such a way that is consistent with achieving those goals I would say that that is rational behavior. Obviously people can have very different goals.

    utility: normative concept in the sense that some people like chocolate and some vanilla. I discuss the concept of utility a bit more than most. I want it uderstood that a monk is pursuing utility just as a salesman is.

    How can we talk about choice / decision making without talking about psychology? Easy, if you are an economist teaching economics and not a psychologist teaching psychology. An economist can attempt to measure the benefits of marriage with regard to better health outcomes for men, but will be ill-equipped to explain why some type of men are more likely to choose a particular type of woman. In short economics isn’t pychology but that doesn’t imply that an economist can’t benefit from understanding some psychology and vice versa.

    How can we not deal with pleasure? We do. Hard to quantify but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t recognized.

    Decision making over time: There.

    The consideration of the well-being of others: No question that we recognize that… back to Adam Smith.

    I don’t think there is any tension between behavioral economists and other economists. I think most economists find it interesting and worthwhile. I do. I can’t imagine that many behavioral economists think that it undermines basic economic theory. It adds insight. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert is doing very interesting work with an economist from Carnegie-Mellon.

    I must say that it is ironic that the various points and objections made here are identical to criticism I’ve heard many times from people coming from a very different perspective. Many well-intentioned devout Catholics assert that economics – the assumption of the rational agent – undermines the dignity of the human person. Then there was J.S. Mill and utilitarianism… not surprising that Catholics reject that. They proceed to trash the entire discipline. I think it not only silly but dangerous and anti-intellectual. In short, my response to them is that you shouldn’t dismiss economics because it is not theology. Neither should one dismiss economics because it is not pychology.

  21. I agree with most of what you just wrote there, Mr. Kennedy. However, this is why I mentioned the erroneous reclassification (by some, not all) of economics as a ‘hard’ science (like mathematics) rather than a social science (like psychology). No one here is questioning whether economics has value (no pun intended). The question is how is it used?

    Some of my favorite authors have solid educational backgrounds in economics: Thom Hartmann, Antonia Juhasz, Naomi Klein, and Greg Palast come to mind. However, these writers refuse to try separating economics from its ultimate goal of serving human needs. When the goal of economics is reduced to fattening the bottom line no matter the cost to the majority of people affected (a la Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys), then you create what the Catholics are likely rejecting. (Much the same could be said of psychologists who get involved in torture.)

    The concepts of choice and decision making can never be divorced from the dynamics of human psychology, not even in economics. To suggest that they can be separated is to buy into Friedmanite dogma which elevates economics to a law of nature whose power extends beyond the scope of human will. That suggestion is bullshit of the most dangerous variety.

  22. What CS said.

    I don’t object to economics as a discipline (though I did object to the way I was introduced to it), I object to the way it is fetishized as Truth in this country, in particular. My favorite professor (and thesis advisor) wrote his dissertation (and some other published papers) on economists, and the place they enjoy in American thought and society.

    For a simple anecdotal comparison… if a large group of economists (or a small group of really prominent ones) say that a certain policy will cause the stock market to go down, it is very likely to be acted upon immediately by governmental officials, and taken (in the circles of people who pay attention to such things) as Fact. If, on the other hand, a large group of sociologists (or… I’m not even sure we have sociologists who enjoy the same kind of widely recognized privilege) says that a certain policy will have widespread ill effects, then… well, the phrase: “That’s nice, dear” springs to mind. And so on and so forth.

    And of course, there’s the co-occurring problem of cross-application. Employers using macroeconomic concepts to make policy decisions when they’d be better served overall by applyiing social psychological ones. People talking about rational self interest in trying to decide which school to go to. Repeated reliance on the simplified model when it’s really, vitally, amazingly important to go with the complicated and messy one instead (think about, say, tax cuts for the rich. There’s a nice, simple model that says good things about it. There’s a complicated and messy reality that says otherwise, and it’s kind of really important that figure out why they’re not working as promised. Whether in the end it means that they just weren’t big enough – which I doubt – or that we’re applying the wrong concepts, it’s clear that the simple model isn’t working one whit.).

    Which brings me to the issue of simplicity. It’s true, a propeller on a stick can tell you some important things about the world. But if you’re building my stealth bombers, I want you to have a damn sight more at your disposal than a propeller on a stick and a paper airplane. Realistic models matter. Complicated models matter. Interdisciplinary models matter. And because of the way economics is positioned in our popular culture and the way it talks about itself (even if only at the basic levels, where most people get their information), there’s a stubborn insistence on this one set of simple, incorrect assumptions because they tell us some basic things.

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