It’s Time To Show Your True Colors

Do You Care About Protecting Women Or Just About Middle Class Values

It’s time for everyone claiming to support criminal bans on prostitution because they want to protect vulnerable women to choose sides. Are you really concerned about doing what it takes to protect vulnerable women or are you just using that as an excuse to justify your middle class values and your discomfort with the idea of exchanging sex for money?

Time to choose sides since it looks like research based on the (unfortunately brief) accidental Rhode Island experiment in decriminalizing indoor prostitution has some interesting results. Decriminalization resulted in a 50% drop in gonorrhea and a 30% drop in reported rapes (which, given the ability for prostitutes to go to the police without fearing prosecution, should have increased if rapes had stayed the same). Importantly, it appears that even women who weren’t in the prostitution industry saw a decrease in incidence of rape. I’d say these results were surprising except they weren’t to those familiar with the field, indeed, that’s why I’m willing to say this seems like a pretty solid result (maybe not the actual number but the direction of the change).

While no one suggests that the lives of most prostitutes (though the high end ones sometimes do well for themselves) are sweetness and light but sex workers who have experienced decriminalization will usually express strong support for the change and the ways it has changed their lives. However, one could still make an intellectually cogent case for decriminalization creating a real net harm, e.g., suggest that even if it makes the lives of sex workers better it makes more people into sex workers. However, if this research stands up, its just no longer even plausible to claim women are better protected in a regime which results in 30% more rapes. No matter how far you stretch the additional harm of increased numbers of sex workers (though often of a different class which isn’t as vulnerable) it doesn’t go that far.

But I’m pretty pessimistic. While I believe the passionate advocates in this area really do care about the victimization of women (though one can care so much that you are unable to let some go to save more) I don’t think that is what drives criminalization of prostitution at all. Rather, it’s just more of the usual human psycho-sexual drama about the threat which ‘virtuous’ women perceive from prostitution dressed up in new language.

The Effects of Decriminalization in Rhode Island

The study itself was a standard difference in differences design. Basically, that means they look at the data on rapes and STDs from both Rhode Island and the rest of the country before the decriminalization and then after the decriminalization. If the difference between Rhode Island and other states changes at the time prostitution is decriminalized then we infer that this difference in differences is a result of the change in legal status at that time. Of course, the actual statistical work is a bit more complex than this and uses data over a number of years but it’s a decent way to estimate the effect in a natural experiment provided one doesn’t believe that some other change singled out Rhode Island at the same time. To further shore up their work they use synthetic controls (basically they find the states which resemble Rhode Island in terms of the pre-decriminalization data and then use those as a control instead of the rest of the US).

Unfortunately, a reason why this study itself is only fairly persuasive and not highly persuasive is that the recriminalization results were not as strong. While rapes did rise again after Rhode Island made prostitution illegal again this result had a p-value of only .2. The story the authors offer is that the fact that this change was widely anticipated might dull the statistical power of the difference-in-differences method. In other words, they are suggesting that maybe the rapes started rising again once everyone realized they were going back to criminalization. I don’t find this very plausible since most mechanisms for this effect I can imagine, particularly including the author’s suggestion that rape is a partial substitute for paid sex, shouldn’t see much change, if any, until prostitution is actually recriminalized.

However, I think this result actually fits very nicely into a different model. In particular, while it may be the case that rape and consensual sexual encounters are partial substitutes I’m pretty skeptical that accounts for the effects here. Its not as if prostitution doesn’t exist when it is illegal or someone willing to rape for sex wouldn’t avail themselves of it. Rather, I suspect there are more general network effects at play here. In the pre-decriminalization world you have a system that relies on a system of pimps, organized crime and other bad actors to operate in which the girls involved may have little control/ownership interests and probably have only a minimal support network among themselves. Decriminalization not only removes this criminal element from the scene it also, as suggested by the health data, draws in a new class of prostitute who has better resources, planning, risk mitigation and isn’t at the mercy of her drug dealing pimp, i.e., more middle class prostitution. Recriminalization appears to have push some people out of the industry but it doesn’t change the fact that the criminal element is no longer present. A prostitute with a regular list of clients, a system for meeting new clients online and who isn’t already enmeshed with the criminal element has little need to return to their clutches even after recriminalization meaning the benefits linger. Sadly, I would guess that in the long term we will see a regression to previous levels as the police work to disrupt the organization and continuing business relationships these women have used to replace pimps and organized crime and eventually people will go back to securing prostitution through this element and rapes will rise.

Luckily, one doesn’t need to believe my analysis (which is just speculation) since one can rely on the fact that the results found for decriminalization are similar to what other studies have found.

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The Story Of Decriminalization

The story of how Rhode Island came to decriminalize prostitution is pretty neat so I advise you to read this article. I am not, however, please with the top billing they gave people who in my opinion were nothing but moralizing middle aged women who had never had to make really hard choices using the language of concern for vulnerable women to justify their disapproval.

Prostitution decriminalized: Rhode Island’s experiment

Around the world, there’s a growing movement to decriminalize sex work. Last year, Amnesty International, the largest human rights group in the world, came out with a recommendation that governments should decriminalize consensual sex work and develop laws that ensure workers are “protected from harm, exploitation and coercion.”

Free Speech Slip and Slide

In the past I’ve written at length about my concern that the newly invigorated attitude that we must outlaw, or at least severely socially punish the speakers, racist/sexist/etc.. speech is a mistake. I have doubts about the efficacy of such punishments and believe that pushing racism adjacent views into a hidden underground where they fester and mutate1 creates more hate. However, the primary thrust of my concern was the usual slippery slope argument (importantly serious harms arise as soon as well-intentioned people start to fear that an epistemic mistake could land them in trouble). Unfortunately, evidence for a steep slippery plastic slope with extra soap arrived all too quickly.

Superiority of Western Culture

First we had this really stupid opinion piece that I would have guessed was written by a machine learning algorithm trained on 1980s era conservative values pieces if it had only mentioned crack (still managed a shout out to the pill for destroying our perfect 1950s society). Personally, I thought it was just as stupid this time around as I did in the late 80s and early 90s except these authors should have seen how that went and known better. However, as far as offensiveness goes it rates as a “kids these days…have no … always on their..” but somehow it has become the subject of accusations of racism and the subject of serious controversy (yes, that last article is written by a friend of the original author so take its slant with a grain of salt).

True, there is no credible effort to have the author fired from her position in the law school but it has generated enough outrage for students to get up in time to picket Wax’s class as racist and its not just some hasty people with signs. At least a non-trivial segment of the Penn campus left is willing to call this piece racist, sexist or otherwise suggest it isn’t just dumb and wrong but deserving of open moral scorn.

While one might try and charitably reconstruct some argument based on the text of the oped2 what is going on is what is always going on with accusations of racism/sexism/islamophobia etc.. Rather than parsing the literal content of a piece and asserting those claims amount to racism (or providing evidence that the author was being disingenuous) people decide to call something racist if it feels like the things racists would say. In this case there is no doubt this oped has that feel. Indeed, it hits many of the points that one would expect from a racist dog-whistle: glorification of European/western culture, suggestion that something associated with whites is superior, a nostalgic comparison to the 1950s, reference to some aspect of black culture the author disapproves of (“anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks”) and even the obligatory focus on whites that have the traits you are criticizing.

The problem with taking this as grounds for accusations of racism is that it confuses being the sort of person whose strong affinity for traditionalism and reverence for long lived institutions and practices may make needed reform more difficult with actual racism. However, we are generally quite willing to let the earnest man who is such a strong believer in feminism that he frequently gives a piece of his mind to men who he views as pushing an aggressive male-centric approach on women and thereby does more to perpetuate the stereotype of women as unable to handle these situations than anyone he criticizes. This case is only different in that it is harder to imagine genuinely feeling that these old school conservative values are the secret to a better life and wanting to help minorities by sharing. Also in that often people who feel this way about morals and newfangled social innovations also feel this way about minorities but that’s just a stereotype.

Most importantly, it renders the standard for racism uselessly subjective. If it is no longer necessary to have overt animus or believe in some particular stereotype then it is insanely easy to apply the term to virtually anyone you want. Especially given that as the sphere of things that have been labeled racist expands fewer and fewer non-racists say anything in that sphere so just imagine the same dialog in 20 years about pieces supporting free speech. It would be something mostly racists talk about as a cover, anyone like me writing about it would explain that we believed in it for everyone (while detractors would point out that we kept focusing on the free speech of the racists as they don’t see it from the context in which that is the right place to make one’s stand), one could raise analogies to the contract rights arguments offered in the civil rights movement (yes its bad but the constitution…we just can’t do anything). The only thing this lacks is the subjective feel that comes from hearing lots of racists say something that sounds similar but we can’t cede to racists the power to decide what is and isn’t considered.

Also, as a practical matter this kind of use of the accusation of racism isn’t productive. The reason to use the term at all is to invoke our shared disapprobation of certain behaviors to change people’s behavior. Telling someone ‘suggesting that blacks only eat fried Chicken or look like Gorillas’ is racist usually results in an immediate change and the world is a better place but when you say that some vague thing about the gestalt I get from your article is racist doesn’t. If I were the author and was willing to sell out my views so I wouldn’t be racist how would I even know where to start?

Call these ideas out as stupid or even the kind of progress phobic thinking that perpetuates racism that’s great but its just not racism.

University of Tampa’s Impolitic Twitter Firing

Also, we have the University of Tampa firing a visiting professor for the following poorly considered and bumblinging inappropriate tweet

I dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.

This is obviously just a case of someone not realizing how what he said would be taken in context. When he did he apologized. That should have been the end of it.

While at first glance one might feel that this isn’t really relevant to the broader picture at the moment. However, while it wasn’t exactly an academic paper this tweet is fundamentally nothing but an expression of a political sentiment. Indeed, suppose the author really believed this was some kind of divine vengeance on Texas for voting GOP. Surely that is core political-religious speech if anything is so its hard to see how this is anything but a direct attack on the idea that Professors get to comment on current events and broader social issues without fear of being fired for controversial views (assuming they don’t bear on their academic qualifications…mathematicians probably shouldn’t say $\omega$ and $2^\omega$ have the same cardinality).

Mistakes

We need room for people to make mistakes! Even mistakes about what to believe on controversial issues because only when people feel they won’t lose their jobs or be shunned if they get it wrong can they allow themselves to explore the issue and reach the right conclusions.

I know its really hard in these discussions to imagine any other perspective than your own but rarely is it the case that someone just wakes up out of the blue filled with hate and the desire to see another race suffer. Sure, sometimes the reasons are just visceral (your gang is white they are black) but in most cases there is some chain of thought and emotion that made every step they took seem reasonable so if you suspect the target of your criticism of simply reasonless hate you should probably reevaluate that view.

However, that is what makes the situation so dangerous as well. Given that even racists think they have good and sound justifications for their beliefs an atmosphere which imposes severe penalties for even minor infractions allows only one safe response: parrot back the official dogma.

But, if we are going to fix the remaining barriers and harms inflicted by problematic stereotypes and structural racism/sexism we need to find them in non-obvious places and that takes open speculation. We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit so more looking for white or male ‘perpetrators’ (if it could have been fixed easily that way we would have) we instead need to look at the less examined reservoirs of stereotypes such as members of the group themselves or the well-intentioned helper3. That means we need to walk on the edge and consider possibly offensive or unpleasant possibilities if we are going to figure out what is really going on so we can do something to fix things.


  1. I’ve seen any number of scenarios in which the perception that certain topics can’t even be discussed doesn’t erase those ideas from people’s minds. Rather, it pushes them to form groups (the ones that go silent when a woman or minority comes by and we work so hard to eliminate) in which they feel they can comfortably express views they are sympathetic to but are too controversial for general consumption. Unfortunately, when people gather together for the purpose of feeling safe sharing controversial views creates a strong social pressure not to call anyone else’s views in that group out for sexism/racism/etc.. even in a polite friendly way. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly both such groups form and how quickly they descend to the lowest common denominator and serve as a breeding ground where hateful ideas can infect good people because there is no opportunity to apply the corrective of a good counterargument and criticism. 
  2. Taking their complaints at face value would seem to suggest the problem is that suggesting WASP culture (not so named) is superior is racist or at least unacceptable and bad. While those of us immersed in liberal sensibilities naturally flinch a bit when the suggestion is made that one culture is superior to another that doesn’t make the claim wrong or racist. Indeed, we all believe that, at least in the modern context, modern western culture is superior to the violent revenge culture in some New Guinean tribes all things considered (of course cultures have so many traits surely we could cherry pick a few improvements but the original piece doesn’t deny this). Hell, the very idea of tolerance and equality that those on the left are fighting for is a rare value for a culture to have and we are right to identify it as something good and important. But I think this “can’t say one culture is better than another” line isn’t a very charitable interpretation. 
  3. Everyone knows that a great deal of slut-shaming and outfit policing is done to women by women and we’ve learned recently that it is other women who do the majority of interrupting women and may very well be the ones preventing more competitive female involvement. This matches both my experience at caltech (women who had few if any female friends their whole lives were way more likely to just blunder in and shot their load on the conversation or dismiss someone else’s contribution as stupid) and what evolutionary psychology would suggest (men have little interest in policing women but each gender needs to police rivals). Of course, men aren’t on the hook they are just on the hook for something else perpetuating harmful male stereotypes which can harm women as much as they do men (say by men not being willing to become primary caregivers). 

A US House Of Lords

As our system of government becomes more complex the importance of independent agencies and the boards that govern them continues to grow. If we define such agencies functionally, rather than legally1, this sweeps in the obviously influential supreme court but in the modern world more and more turns on agencies like the FCC, Federal Reserve, SEC, etc… Indeed, in many ways these independent agencies are more important than congress itself. For a variety of reasons congress simply isn’t equipped to engage in precedent driven rule making requiring substantial expertise and institutional competence, e.g., its hard to imagine congress successfully running the recent broadcast incentive auction or developing a set of rules for whitespace devices much less run the Fed.

However, recent battles over supreme court appointments and the controversial choices of new FCC commissioner Pai to rollback net neutrality rules expose the obvious danger in this system. As the importance of these agencies increases the importance of these appointments to various political interests grows and that turns the appointment and confirmation process into an acrimonious partisan struggle. Now, at first glance one might think that’s fine. After all, if these agencies have so much power over the lives of average Americans isn’t it appropriate for our political disagreements to play out in the appointment process? Unfortunately, especially given limitations imposed by supreme court precedent, this method of choosing the heads of independent agencies is problematic for a number of reasons.

  1. Political interest in such appointments is usually limited to a few hot button issues which means politicians will favor predictable ideologues.
  2. The best policies for these agencies are often counterintuitive and not what plays well for voters who lack the time to learn.
  3. The president is given a disturbing amount of (effectively) legislative power.
  4. Politicians’ self-interest will push them towards the most vanilla least criticizable candidates rather than the best.
  5. All too often political conflict leaves us with unfilled positions exacerbating the other problems, particularly 3.

I think we can do a lot better. We need a way to render such appointments responsive, in a long term sense, to the will of the voters but insulated from their immediate interests and preferences. I propose a kind of US house of lords consisting of former senators and representatives who have retired from office (and are barred from ever holding federal elected office again) as well as perhaps former judges and commission members from these independent agencies. Unlike the UK house of lords I wouldn’t let membership determined by votes but be automatic for all former congressmen who wish to join with their voting power proportional to their number of years of service (thus making the votes proportional to congressional representation modulo age/participation gaps). One might imagine multiple ways this could work from the body directly selecting appointees to being responsible for admitting distinguished academics, lawyers, etc.. into various expert bodies which then nominate board members for independent organizations.

Importantly, in the long run this body still reflects the choices of the American voter but, barred as they are from running for future office, their concerns will tend to be more long term and historical in nature. This would be especially true if we mandated secret voting in this ‘house of lords’. The voters will never again evaluate them for public office so why not let them vote secretly?

Of course this would require a constitutional amendment but I still think it’s a neat idea.


  1. That is an independent agency is a unit of the federal government answerable to a governing body appointed by the president with senatorial consent but whose members can’t be removed without cause. 

No Way Doxing Racist Marchers Can Go Wrong!

So apparently in the wake of Charlottesville a campaign has formed to identify and dox the people who marched in support of white nationalism. No way this could end badly!

I’m sure white nationalists and their sympathizers we see spending all day posting on parts of 4chan and reddit have neither the time nor inclination to respond in kind. And if they do I’m sure they’ll restrict themselves to simply publishing the identities of those in antifa movements or anti-racist marches. No way they will expose gay people in the closet living in repressive regimes or name individuals anonymously sharing their experiences of sexual assault/violence. Surely they would never stoop so low as to reveal the identities of women who live in religiously conservative communities or work for conservative religious employers who seek advice about dealing with the emotional aftermath of an abortion.

Also, I’m sure that giving those who might be sympathetic enough to go to a march but not really committed a really good reason to hold a grudge and making sure they can’t hold a normal job will help them see the error of their ways. No way it will turn them into hardened extremists.

And certainly the groups who form to dox these white supremacists will understand that nazis are a special case and, after receiving a bunch of praise, will just pack up rather than going after another group they see as having unacceptable views or if they do it will surely be one you also see as unacceptable.

And, of course, all these vigilantes will exercise great care and verify that every last person they dox is really a white supremacist. No way they will accidentally mistake some passerby or blogger covering the event. I mean this is totally different than the situation will real life crimes like rape or murder where we think vigilantism poses far too great a risk of getting things wrong.

Yup, no reason to worry about this at all. Lets get those nazi bastards.

Don’t Change The p-value Threshold

Personally, I think the proposal to ‘change’ the p-value for significant results from .05 to .005 is a mistake. The only sense in which this proposal has any real bite is if journals and hiring committees respond by treating research that doesn’t meet p < .005 as less important but all that does is make the incentives for the kind of behavior causing all the problems much stronger.

I’d much rather have a well designed (ideally pre-registered) trial at p < .05 than a p < .005 result that is cherry picked as a result of after the fact choice of analysis. Rather than making the distinction between well designed appropriate methodology and dangerous potentially misleading methodology more apparent this further obscures it and tells any scientist who was standing on principle they need to stop hoping their better methodology will be appreciated and do something to compete on p-value with papers published using problematic data analysis.

In particular, I think this kind of proposal doesn’t take sufficient account of the economics and incentives of researchers. Yes, p < .005 studies would be more convincing but they also cost more (both in $ and time) so by telling fledgling researchers they need p < .005 you force them to put all their eggs in one basket making dubious data analysis choices that much more tempting when their study fails to meet the threshold.

What we need is more results blind publication processes (in which journals publish the results based merely on a description of the experimental process without knowledge of what the results found). That would both help combat many of these biases and truly evaluate researchers on their ability not their luck. Ideally such studies would be pre-accepted before results were actually analyzed. Of course there still needs to be a place for merely suggestive work that invites further research but it should be regarded as such without any particular importance assigned to p-value.

However, as these are only my brief immediate thoughts I’m quite open to potential counterarguments.

More Crappy Treatment Of College Athletes

Why do we put up with this kind of shit (preventing college athletes from even monetizing their own youtube videos)? I mean no one really believes that this is deeply important to preserve some weird value of “amatuerness” in sports do they? Even if you thought that why not let the athletes themselves vote on whether being amatuer is worth the loss of revenue?

If you think they are too young and immature go ask former college athletes to make the call. Of course they won’t because this is all about making money off them.

Sigh, it just pisses me off that we can fight so much about issues of political controversy on campuses but in places where its clear as day that colleges are doing the wrong thing and both the right and left should support fixing somehow gets a pass. Yes this is just a contentless rant but sometimes it happens.

Skepticism About MIT’s Gender Balance Win in MechE

If it really is true, as MIT suggests, that the gender ratio in their department is convincing a substantial percentage of women to enter MechE who otherwise would have avoided a STEM field its a big deal. However, upon reflection there are some aspects that are troubling.

First, as the article suggests, they engage in fairly extensive recruitment and some degree of affirmative action for female students in STEM fields. This calls into question the existence of any such effect as for all we know MIT is just recruiting women interested in MechE away from other schools. Indeed, even just considering the benefit MIT is suggesting (women are more attracted to programs with a reasonable gender balance) one should expect MIT’s efforts here to be worsening the gender balance at other schools like caltech

But if you really believe that gender imbalance both makes life worse for female students and repeals them from the field it seems downright irresponsible to attrach female MechE majors from other schools (without a better understanding of how these effects work). If, as seems quite plausible, the discomfort (and willingness to drop out/not major) is most extreme when the percentage of women is the least (e.g. superlinear as percent goes to 0), then this could be a substantial net harm as the gains from greater gender equality at MIT are more than offset by the decreased gender equality at other schools. It all depends on the specific numbers but its concerning that people seem convinced this is a good thing without even having an intuition about the size and direction of this cross school interaction.

Before anyone applauds these results we really need some good studies checking that MIT’s efforts really are bringing more women into MechE. I hope they are but I fear that they may be doing the exact opposite. If I had to guess I’d bet that any positive effect of gender balance is offset by the fact that MIT is harder/more competitive than the other schools who would otherwise get many of the women MIT recruits and I expect the harder/more competitive a science class the more likely people (of either gender) are to drop out to a less quantitative subject (but that’s just speculation).

Also, I’d like to know what people whether MITs affirmative action efforts create a situation in which men tend to noticeably outperform women. As much as I hated the huge gender ratio at caltech I very much appreciated the fact that they were obviously equals. Now, like everything else, what I appreciated isn’t what matters but it does seem like we should at the very least have a pretty firm grip on what kind of effects on subsequent attitudes affirmative action has before we praise the policy. Even if, this effect doesn’t appear at MIT right now (e.g. they most just steal girls from caltech and cmu) it might if more schools try to implement such a policy.

I find it pretty crazy when MIT is congratulating itself when they don’t seem to have any grip (or at least are hiding it) on what they are trying to achieve or whether their policies achieve it.

Now, of course, most social programs will depend greatly on priors and I’d be happy with a short little explanation about why they think the net benefit of achieving gender balance in their departments is worth the effect it has on other schools. Are they suggesting their policy would and could universalize and benefits would be seen from that? Some words about why would be nice. Also some words about why they have the intuition any blowback is worth the cost. As it is it kinda makes one feel like you are being scammed with a meaningless advertising statistic.

I think its quite possible MIT’s policy is net beneficial but I’ve yet to see any cogent account of why I should think that so if you have one I’d love to hear it.

As an aside I’d add that while I don’t think there is any inherint moral value in making sure men and women are equally represented in every discipline, only in making sure they are equally welcome and have equal access, but I do think there would be substantial societal gains to increasing the number of women in STEM fields. Not only would this make scientists happier (and less socially isolated and less likely to accidentally harass) but merely making it clear that quantitative, systematic thing oriented reasoning isn’t anti-female.