Friday, July 21, 2017

The CSWA Survey in Plain Language

It's going to take a bit of work to properly critique the the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey as published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. In this post, I want to take a sentence-by-sentence look at the plain language summary. In later posts, I will elaborate on each point by way of a critique of the substance of the paper. I have already pointed out that the press releases spin the survey in ways that the paper itself belies. As it turns out, this spin is also present in the summary. Indeed, it is also present in the abstract, but slightly more subtly. Like I say, I will go through it one sentence at a time.

Women generally, and women of color specifically, have reported hostile workplace experiences in astronomy and related fields for some time.

This is, of course, true. As Kate Clancy has noted elsewhere, it's true of every field of human endeavor, and it is true of all races and genders. Everyone has experienced hostility at work. Work is done by humans in human environments and hostility is a human capacity. Indeed, humans are "capable" of hostility in both directions: they can dish it out and they can take. In short, the first sentence is a truism. The second sentence gestures at something less trivial.

However, little is known of the extent to which individuals in these disciplines experience inappropriate remarks, harassment, and assault.

It's true that this specific question hasn't been studied directly in astronomy. But there is some evidence to suggest that astronomy and related fields are not especially hostile places, specifically to women. (Women of color are, as is often noted, very underrepresented in astronomy and do seem to get lost in such studies.) One study found that women don't think about leaving the discipline more frequently than men; another found that, while they are 1.64 times more likely to have negative experiences than men, the average level of hostility was on the order of occasionally hearing a sexist joke. But it must be granted that the extent to which individuals have particular experiences is not well understood. The next sentence implies that this study will do something about this gap in our knowledge.

We conducted an internet-based survey of the workplace experiences of 474 astronomers and planetary scientists between 2011 and 2015.*

What they here imply here is misleading since the paper explicitly states that "these data cannot provide a direct assessment of prevalence". That is, their "plain language summary", presumably intended for the non-expert (or journalist) gets the reader to think that they have done a study to gain the knowledge we lack, even though the authors are well aware that the study was precisely not designed to gain that knowledge, i.e., knowledge of the "the extent" (prevalence) of hostility in astronomy. That is of course also why they don't present general findings of prevalence, only comparisons of groups within the sample:

In this sample, in nearly every significant finding, women of color experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences, including harassment and assault.

This may seem like a quibble, but it is worth noting: the survey asked about "verbal harassment" and "physical harassment", not harassment and assault. They don't actually know the extent to which people in their sample were reporting assaults, except on a definition of assault in which any unwanted touching constitutes an assault (I'll discuss this in another post). Note that we are not told whether they experienced these things at a generally high or low rate, mainly because the study sets no threshold to make such judgments. The next sentence does report some alarming levels of hostility, however.

Further, women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex 40% of the time, and as a result of their race 28% of the time.

This sentence is simply a misinterpretation of the relevant result. It distorts and exaggerates their actual finding, as stated in the abstract: "40% of women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex, and 28% of women of color reported feeling unsafe as a result of their race." That is, it is not true that respondents felt unsafe 40% of the time; rather, 40% of respondents felt unsafe some of the time—or, more accurately, had felt unsafe at some time in the past. Indeed, they were specifically asked whether they had "ever felt unsafe" in their current position (see also footnote*). Answering "yes" here says nothing about how long or how often they felt unsafe. If 40% of respondents had ever felt unsafe, surely the population doesn't feel unsafe 40% of the time.

Finally, 18% of women of color, and 12% of white women, skipped professional events because they did not feel safe attending, identifying a significant loss of career opportunities due to a hostile climate.

As far as I can tell, this is a completely accurate summary of the result. I have said before that this is an important one, since it shows that there is a difference between feeling unsafe and doing something about it. It has been established in other studies that women feel more unsafe than men (even when both sexes feel very safe) and it stands to reason that this would translate into more absenteeism among women for this reason. It needs to be stressed that the survey found that only 9% of respondents reported "physical harassment", i.e., arguably an actual violation of personal safety. This suggests that women generally feel less safe than they are. This isn't a particularly surprising result, especially in a climate where women are told (by scientists and politicians) that harassment is "rampant". This study, of course, is one of the things that might be making women feel unsafe. Indeed, the authors say women are unsafe explicitly:

Our results suggest that certain community members may be at additional risk of hostile workplace experiences due to their gender, race, or both.

My standing objection to this way of putting it is that it does not account for the fact that "certain community members" would be in other environments if they were not doing astronomy. The authors don't give us any way to decide what the comparative ("additional") risk of hostile work experiences would be if they went into banking, politics or even another scientific discipline. As I said at the outset, there is a risk of hostility in any human environment. If a woman of color took away from this study that she best stay out of astronomy and choose another line of work then that would be a reasonable, if tragic, conclusion to draw from the "plain language" of this summary for the public. But, since the study itself eschews any claims about prevalence, it is not actually a reasonable conclusion to draw from the survey. I think that is a serious problem in the communication of this result to the public. It is not only astronomers that should take issue with this; the whole ear of the public is rankly abused.

Like I say, I will be looking at the paper more closely to support these various points of criticism and raise a few more in future posts. As is my custom, I will also be asking the authors for comment. To my knowledge, there has so far not been any serious criticism of the study in the press or the science blogs. It would be to Clancy's credit if she engaged with at least one critic as part of the discussion she so insists it is important to have. But I am not holding my breath.

*I will cover this in a separate post, but as a commenter on my last post pointed out, it does not seem true that the survey asked respondents to confine themselves to the years 2011-2015. As I read the questionnaire, the respondents might well have thought they were being asked "Have you ever experienced...?" I believe that the authors thought they had limited the responses in this way. But I don't think the respondents would generally understand it as limited to five years.

Monday, July 10, 2017

CSWA Study Published

The CSWA Workplace Climate Survey has finally been published. I've been following it since early 2016 and, since its authors wouldn't answer any of my questions, I've been impatiently waiting for the report. Well, here it is:

Clancy, K. B. H., K. M. N. Lee, E. M. Rodgers, and C. Richey (2017), Double jeopardy in astronomy and planetary science: Women of color face greater risks of gendered and racial harassment, J. Geophys. Res. Planets, 122, doi:10.1002/2017JE005256.

The PR push appears to be well-organized. But I notice that the subheadings of the UIL press release and the EOS interview both get the results wrong. UIL says the survey found "widespread bias"; EOS says it "reveal[s] the prevalence" of harassment in astronomy. The paper, however, says that "these data cannot provide a direct assessment of prevalence”, noting that "prevalence studies are exceedingly uncommon in research of this nature," which is true. (To their credit, the AGU and AAS get this right in their joint press release.)

In lieu of determining prevalence, the authors say* they tested four hypotheses, which I can't distinguish from the null or prior I would construct in such a study:

1. Female respondents will report more verbal and physical harassment than men.

2. Respondents of color will report more verbal and physical harassment than white respondents.

3. Trainees will report more verbal and physical harassment than those scientists of a higher rank.

4. Women of color experience double jeopardy where they are especially at risk for verbal and physical harassment compared to white women or men of color.

This isn't something that stands in need of empirical evidence. What we want to know is how astronomy compares with other fields of human endeavor. That is, we want to know whether astronomy provides a more or (as I suspect) less hostile environment for women of color than other fields. Indeed, we'd probably just be testing whether astronomy is generally less hostile for humans than other contexts. It's not going to ensure your safety 100% but it's probably a pretty good choice if it's hostility you're trying to avoid. Especially, indeed, if you're a woman of color.

Finally, it looks like a great deal is going to be made of the finding that "88% of respondents reported hearing negative language from peers". But this number does not distinguish between reports of hearing this sort of language "rarely", "sometimes" or "often". That is, the great majority of respondents reported that it is heard rarely or never. I'm going to look more closely at this in the days to come. (It actually seems a bit more complicated to disaggregate this particular result than the preliminary ones.) I just wanted to get my initial reaction out there now to encourage people to be critical in their reception of this survey. After all, the greatest respect you can pay to a scientific result is to critique it.

*I'm suspicious about whether these hypotheses had been stated explicitly before the survey was designed. They were not part of Christina Richey's 2015 and 2016 presentations of the data. If I'm right about this, there are some pretty serious "degrees of freedom" in their framing. Since the authors do emphasize their p-values, there's a risk that these hypotheses are a result of p-hacking their data.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Basic Income, Open Borders

In my utopia money is created as a basic income and collected as a single tax on land. The tax centers, as it were, the wheel of circulation by giving landowners a reason to produce something that consumers want to give them money for. There would be no sales tax and no tax on income, which only complicate the free exchange of goods, services and labor. Since every citizen has a guaranteed basic income, minimum wage laws and welfare payments could be abolished altogether. It's often said that this utopia cuts across the division between left and right by abolishing poverty while supporting free enterprise. Could it also bring the left and right together on immigration?

That's the question I want to consider in this post. I used to think that the left would have to accept strict immigration controls in exchange for the basic income. But I think this missed an important consequence of the system I'm proposing. In my utopia, everyone would be able to find a place to live that leaves them enough money after paying rent to eat. I'm imagining that the basic income would be set just below what a person would make if working full-time at the minimum wage. The lowest paying jobs, meanwhile would fall well below the current minimum wage. This means that, from the point of view of someone who has no UBI but is working a minimum wage job, rents would be incredibly high. In order to survive on a minimum wage job you'd have to work way more than full-time, perhaps more than 24/7.

Needless to say, that would take the incentive out of immigrating to my utopia. At least the incentive to immigrate illegally without the prospect of good job. It is possible to imagine someone without UBI working full time to earn the same as a citizen who doesn't work at all. But it's hard to imagine that citizens wouldn't be supplementing their income by providing a few hours of cheap labor every week. In other words, the bottom would fall out of the exploitative labor market because people who are unexploitable would gladly take those jobs to earn a bit of extra cash for luxuries and vacations.

Also, there is no illegal labor market. Without sales or income taxes, all exchanges of (legal) goods and services would be aboveboard, since the government doesn't have to know about any of them. That means you can't even offer your employer "off-book" labor. Everything is off book in the relevant sense. No one is ashamed of any of their economic transactions.

From the point of view of the potential immigrant, my utopia is not a "land of opportunity" at all. The only way it becomes attractive is through legal immigration: it would attract very hardworking, very self-reliant people who are willing to apply formally and then apply themselves over a number of years towards earning citizenship and therefore the UBI. Someone living in the shadows would see only very high rents (even at the low end of the market) and very low wages. It would simply not be an attractive place to live unofficially.

I've been thinking of this as, not the Wall, but the Platform. It would allow people to cross the borders physically as they please on very expensive vacations or, in some cases, as investments in their future, bringing savings into play in order to ascend to the very high living standard in Utopia. Immigration policy would be all about deciding how many new citizenships should be granted every year, i.e., how many more people should be given the UBI, and on what criteria they should be granted. There would be no need to have any draconian border controls since there would be every incentive to apply formally for citizenship and no incentive to live in my utopia without it.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Single Tax, Basic Income

People will always have a hard time understanding universal basic income (UBI) as long as it is presented as an improvement on (or a replacement of) the welfare system. When presented as a fiscal policy—a government spending program—people will, rightly, wonder how it will be funded. But basic income should be understood as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the fiscal and monetary systems, as well as a restructuring of capital and finance. It is not a panacea, I sometimes say, but it is somewhat utopian. It's a big idea.

First, let the state issue money (i.e., create it) as basic income. Yes, that means the "funding" question is answered by simply "printing" (digitally) the money required. If you are handing out, say, one thousand dollars every month to every adult American then that means printing about 250 billion dollars per month! That is a lot of fresh money and will, of course, have an inflationary effect if not checked by some countervailing measure. Indeed, without such measures, the money would be essentially worthless.

So we must require that only US dollars can be used to pay a single tax on the unimproved rental value of land. That would give every landowner (including homeowners) an incentive to collect dollars from their fellow citizens, whose basic needs are funded by the freshly printed money. If you own a farm or a factory, you must use it to produce something people are willing to exchange for their money. If you want to own a home you will need to get a job (on a farm, in a factory, in an office)—that is, you will need to find someone who is willing to compensate you for your time—so that you have the dollars you need to pay your property tax.

This tax would be easy to administer and could be adjusted as needed (always giving ample warning to property owners) to expand or contract the money supply. If the economy is growing, basic income could be increased, or the land tax could be lowered, leaving more money in circulation. If the economy is shrinking (perhaps owing to drought or war*) taxes can be increased. In order to cover them, producers may need to up their game.

Not much will be gained if this system doesn't also do away with income taxes and minimum wages. The economic incentive to work any amount of hours on any given day must be straightforward. Even the least skilled and most capricious worker must be able to earn a little extra so long as someone else is inclined to pay for it. The more skilled and dependable you want your labor to be, the more you'll have to pay, always mindful that no one is taking a job out of brute desperation.

As far as I can tell, the total value of privately held land in the US today is about 15 trillion dollars. The total tax needed to "cover" a $1000/month UBI would be 3 trillion dollars. Roughly speaking, then, we're talking about a "wealth tax"** of about 20%. But I'm here assuming that the value of all assets ultimately devolves upon the value of real property, which isn't true; the total amount of wealth in the US is upwards of 60 trillion. I'm also assuming that the state has no other expenses, which is also not true; so lets give the state a total budget of about 6 trillion dollars.

Since there's no tax on income (and no sales tax), it seems reasonable to tax the accumulated private wealth of the nation at about 10% annually. But since this tax is only levied in proportion to the unimproved rental value of real estate, you could avoid the administrative burden (and a relationship with the state) simply by renting your home and business address from someone else. You would pay no taxes, but have high rent (compared to today).

Update: I ended this post somewhat abruptly. What I was trying to say was that you could collect 6 trillion in taxes by way of 40% property tax on the 15 trillion dollars worth of real estate in the US. This, however, would ultimately constitute only a 10% tax on the accumulated private wealth of the nation. Moreover, fully half of the tax would be immediately redistributed as purchasing power to the consumer***, which, you'll notice, is also good for the the producer and the landlord.

Also, before you reject the property tax as exorbitant, remember that the 40% is an average. The tax will always be apportioned according to the rental value of the property. So it's all together possible that a $60,000 dollar home will be taxed at only $12,000, which, you will notice is exactly the amount of the UBI. On the other side, some properties (with very high rents, owing to desirable location or exploitable resources) might be taxed much higher. (Since every property would be apportioned some tax, and if some cap, like 40% of the total property value of nation, is set on the total tax collected, no one will pay more than 100%.) Indeed, the existence of the tax is likely to stabilize housing prices.

*Notice this sudden insertion of sanity into the economy. War is an expense; it is a use of resources for immediate destruction. It should not have a positive effect on the economy in the near term. It may of course be considered an investment, as under imperialism. The conquered territory is eventually added to the productive power of the nation. But while the war is going on it should be experienced as a drag on the home economy, not, as too often happens these days, a boon.
**Update: those scare quotes are important. While the tax is indeed on wealth, it does require reporting of actual wealth. The tax is simply levied against registered owner of the property.