"That's a legal issue"

In my macroeconomics tutorial last week I accidentally started a heated debate about an issue that I did not think was going to cause much controversy. The topic of the week was financial markets and financial globalization, here's a quick summary of the bits we talked about:

- Financial markets have become incredibly interconnected in the past decade due to the globalization of, well, everything
- This means the national banking systems of different countries are closely connected
- Put simply, banks fail when they don't have enough assets to cover their liabilities
- There are mechanisms in place to keep banks from failing

In the tutorial, we discussed some of these mechanisms and how they might fail to prevent banks from failing. There is deposit insurance which basically means when there's a loss, the deposits of the banks are insured (but only up to a certain amount, plus this doesn't always apply to bank branches abroad!). Reserve requirements are another one of those safety nets, they require banks to hold a certain percentage of their assets at the bank, which means they can't loan out the money and earn interest on it.
Note that these mechanisms are there to secure the bank, not necessarily the interests of the depositors. I know way too little about the banking system to suggest a complete revolution, but knowing they're not going to be the ones liable in the end creates an incentive for bankers to make riskier bets, or at least it doesn't keep them from doing so.

So, when we were asked what other mechanisms we could come up with I suggested that we should come up with a way to make banking more responsible by making decision makers partly liable. When I said that some dude from the back of the room interrupted me saying that's not economics that's a legal issue. As is economics was completely isolated from the rest of society. Regardless of what you think of that idea I think it's incredibly dangerous to talk about economics only within the realm of models and assumptions rather than the real world (even if it's just a tutorial). Students should be encouraged to recognize how economics interacts with politics and the law and how we can make use of that rather than just constraining ourselves to hypothetical models.

The Danger of a Burnout Culture

In a first year microeconomics lecture my professor introduced his 'three rule system' for university. The rules were as follows:
1. Sleep/exercise/self-care more than you study.
2. Study more than you party.
3. Party as much as you possibly can.
When this slide was read out, an amused murmur rippled around the theatre. I'm sure I must have rolled my eyes. Spending £9250 a year on fees, let alone the extra costs of existing, was an expensive price tag to swallow, even more so were I to consider prioritising extracurricular endeavours and 'self care'. This doesn't mean I never go out at uni or take time off. It does tend to mean however, I study on weekends and live in the library on weekdays before going home, often feeling underwhelmed by my failure to reach another unrealistic daily goal. When I fail to get something done on a Sunday (!) my boyfriend has to sit and remind me that weekends are supposed to be restful. But it's all worth it if you make the grades right? This logic was enough for me... until it wasn't. After working in a supermarket three days a week over my Christmas break and trying to complete a 4000 word essay along revision for numerous exams I had an exam that actually made me cry (in the middle of it). For the next month of awaiting my results I felt completely unmotivated, I was going through the motions, doing the readings, but ultimately was uninterested and uninspired. My perception that my success was now jeopardised led to several moments of panic, convincing myself that I was losing my edge in the future job market, and there was nothing I could do about it because I was already working at full speed.

This experience is endemic of broader pressures and expectations, both internalised and externalised, in modern job markets and broader culture. One result of an education fuelled by the need to accumulate human capital is a culture of burnout. Rhetoric of productivity, efficiency and reminders of just how competitive the job market is (not least with recent technological advances) can lead to an over extension of the individual, stretching ourselves thinner and thinner to feel like we are maximizing our odds of success. The Marxist critique would take a more structural stance, pointing to an agenda of capitalist sustenance to ensure the survival of a system that feeds on growth and accumulation. Such social cues of 'a culture that looks with disdain at anything that smacks of disactivity' are in abundance, whether through the increasing sophistication of devices that ensure we are accessible at all times, or media call-outs of 'benefit scrounging'.
This trend has increasingly become linked to 'millennial burnout'. The association has stemmed from the particular ramping up of work expectation compared to prior generations and the resultant individual crashes that follow years of juggling increasingly insecure and flexible work demands, alongside basic life requirements such as cooking and running errands. A dual image of a generation that 'doesn't know how to have fun' and has lived a rosy life being 'babied' fails to account for numerous differential generational pressures. The laugh-ability of getting onto the house market early, the increasingly limited nature of pension plans, lowered worker protections accompanying declining unions and idealisation of unstable forms of work, praised for entrepreneurship yet riddled with difficulty and insecure incomes paints a different picture. The belittling of achievements (for example how easy it is to get a 2:1 nowadays) is accompanied by a genuine confusion as to why the number of university students with mental health issues are increasing. A dialogue of adversity and inter-generational competition is almost reflected in such conversations. The reduction of both struggle and achievement is at risk of encouraging more of the behaviours that can lead to burnout, taking on more responsibilities to prove worth and admonishing yourself when you fail to reach the mark you are aiming for. There should be more to life than the superficial and relative measures of success we beat ourselves up with, and the suggestion of some time off shouldn't preemptively induce stress. This is something that needs to shift, with individuals and communities engaging with strategies to recognise and alleviate burnout, providing support rather than criticism.
For a detailed look at Millennial burnout see https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work
and some examples https://metro.co.uk/2018/07/16/the-pressure-of-getting-a-2-1-at-university-was-terrible-for-my-mental-health-but-now-i-know-a-2-2-doesnt-mean-less-success-7686765/
https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/245d1d9f-17f6-483e-81d2-3979d69432c6

The Quota Debacle

Last Friday many of us took International Women's Day to celebrate the awesome women around us as well as focus on what we need to do to get closer to achieving gender equality. Yet there are always some (men) pointing out that we have indeed already achieved equality or even worse wondering what on earth was so bad about the times when women just *voluntarily* stayed in the kitchen and cared for their families. Something that seems to come up a lot in the gender debate is quotas - targets of a certain share of women in a committee (legislature, executive, firm) to achieve descriptive representation.

First, what is descriptive representation?
This concept came from the political sciences and holds that the people that represent us should look like us. Descriptive representation - or the politics of presence - means that what we talk (substantive representation) about and who brings up issues is closely related. Groups that have been historically discriminated against or marginalized share distinct experiences that enable them better to bring up these issues in government for example. In my Gender in Politics lecture the lecturer brought up the example of period poverty, the fact that even in the UK many women can't afford hygienic products during their period (because bleeding and period pains are not enough, no we also have to pay so we can go on with our everyday lives). Can a man bring up this issue? Sure. Will he bring up this issue?  Given the fact that many men get uncomfortable simply talking about menstruation (if you speak German check out this amazing link), I highly doubt it. This idea of descriptive representation combined with the fact that women are still underrepresented in most decision making bodies has led to quotas, voluntary or mandatory targets of the share of women (e.g. 50/50).

In preparation for my essay (and because it's fun) let's go through some of the main objections to quotas.

1. If women were good enough to be in parliament we would just vote for them
(equivalent: if women were good enough to be managers they'd just get hired)
Ugh. Statements like these first of all ignore the fact that the system was designed by men and (consciously or not) for men, too. For example, in many scenarios to even be considered as a candidate for political office you need a political network which is way harder to build if you're a newcomer than if you come from a political family. And, even more important, there is direct and indirect bias against women. Whether people (mistakenly) think women won't be as qualified or they think they behave in a gender-neutral way but actually subconsciously prefer men, this hinders women to get to the top. Lastly, how do we even define qualification? For the government, for example, we seem to have pretty low standards (*cough* TRUMP *cough*) as to who we consider an appropriate candidate. Furthermore, representatives need a wide range of skills, there is not a list of skills/qualifications that you can check and determine whether someone would be a good congressman/woman. Case in point, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was deemed too young, too inexperienced, too naive (or maybe just too female???) to be a congresswoman and now she's there kicking ass. In summary, women are amazing and there are many reasons they are not yet equally represented, but their qualifications are not one of them.

2. We want the best candidates for a position. What if the "quota women" take away the spots from better-qualified men?
This links closely to the previous argument of how we define who is qualified. But also, as an anecdote, when now US Supreme Court Justice (and overall badass) Ruth Bader Ginsburg went to Harvard Law school as one of nine women in a class of 500 men, the dean of Harvard asked her (and the other women) how they justified stealing the spot from a qualified man. He asked Ruth Bader Ginsburg?!?!?!?!?! What I'm trying to say here is that women are very well qualified but for some reason (historic discrimination maybe, who knows?) constantly have their capabilities questioned. Furthermore, there is an argument to be made that the women that actually do make it as far as being considered for a leading position are already from a pool of better-qualified candidates. As previously mentioned, women face a lot of additional hurdles, whether it's having to constantly prove themselves as capable, being judged harsher by critics (don't even get me started on the media) or facing discrimination throughout their lives, the women that make it as far as even being considered are definitely as qualified (if not better) as their male counterparts. To illustrate this, think of a hurdling race. 10 women and 10 men start at the same time and compete for one of 10 spots for the championship. Women run on a track with 15, men on a track with 5 hurdles. At the finish line, there are 7 men and 5 women who made it. Now all 7 men make it to the championship and only 3 women (there are 10 spots total). Does that seem fair? I'd rather have the 5 women who already had to work way harder and made it at the championship that decides over access to health care, tax issues and civil rights (breaking the metaphor here a little). You get the point, women are very well qualified, quotas simply attempt to level the playing field.

3. What if the "quota-women" are not seen as legitimate which impedes their ability to do their work?
Well, just overcome your stereotypes and intolerance then.

Okay, in all fairness, people have raised some fair doubts about quotas and I am sure there are some legitimate philosophical objections concerning positive discrimination (or the trigger-word for all conservative Americans "affirmative action") but in reality, we are at the point were gender equality should really not be an issue anymore. Once you accept that women are very well qualified (or alternatively that the way we define qualification unfairly favors males) but don't achieve representation because of unnecessary institutional hurdles and bias, quotas shouldn't be that hard of a pill to swallow anymore.

The Rokia Experiment

I am going to list two options below; have a think about which of the two is most likely to induce you to make a donation.

1) Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor, and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education

2) Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42 percent drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans—one third of the population—have been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance

This is the question posed by Small, Loewenstein, and Slovic in a 2006 study attempting to decipher people's responses to charity appeals and the effectiveness of using the smaller versus the bigger picture. The study in fact concludes that most people are likely to respond more positively to option 1 than option 2. This is described in terms of the 'identifiable' life and the 'statistical' life. Identifiable life refers to a specific case and personal story as opposed to the broader population impacted less visibly through conceptualisation as statistics. Indeed we often see charities use this trend in advertisement and donation appeals, highlighting individual stories to encourage sympathy and eventual donation. This dissipation of donation when statistics are relied upon instead suggests the most successful appeals are those made to the heart not the rational mind. Small et al suggest this links with individual perception that a donation will make a difference. The individual case appears more feasible to solve than the millions facing starvation in Ethiopia. The attachment of different weights to identifiable v statistical lives and implications of perceived donation viability is extended further within this paper. When the researchers presented both the identifiable life and statistical lives to an individual, overall donations actually decreased in comparison to when individuals were only presented with one. This would appear to reinforce the idea that the decision to donate is somewhat correlated with the perception of its success.

The paper is yet another insight into the difficulty in assuming human beings act in a rational way, highlighting the importance for assumptions and hypotheses to be studied in order to accurately reflect the reality of human decision making. Humans are impacted by emotion as opposed to pure logic, and underestimating this factor implies a serious gap in understanding. As the authors conclude ''although victim identification may distort aid allocation somewhat, its impact generates more aid than any other pitch." Thus maybe appealing to the rational mind is not a universally successful approach.

To read the study: 
as well as a more concise article about the method: