Sex Ratio Signaling

Nicholas Eberstadt on a “Global War Against Baby Girls“:

An ominous and entirely new form of gender discrimination, … skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males, … sex-selective abortion has assumed a scale tantamount to a global war against baby girls. … From a collision of three forces: first, local mores that uphold a truly merciless preference for sons; second, low or sub-replacement fertility trends, … and third, the availability of health services and technologies. … The total population of the regions beset by unnaturally high SRBs [= sex ratio at birth] amounted to 2.7 billion, or about 40 percent of the world’s total population.

Matt Ridley agrees, and is “pessimistic” about this “distortion.” But neither of them object to the lower fertility that is a contributing cause, nor to the morality of the act of abortion. So what exactly is the problem? A simple supply and demand analysis says that selective abortion both expresses a preference for boys and causes a reduction in that preference as wives become scarce. In South Korea this process is mostly complete, with excess boys down from 15% in the 1990s to 7% today (with ~5% as the biologically natural excess).

Eberstadt elaborates:

The consequences of medically abetted mass feticide are far-reaching and manifestly adverse. …[This] establishes a new social reality that inescapably colors the whole realm of human relationships, redefining the role of women as the disfavored sex in nakedly utilitarian terms, and indeed signaling that their very existence is now conditional and contingent.

What “new social reality”? A preference for boys was there and clear to all before selective abortion came on the scene.

Moreover, enduring and extreme SRB imbalances set the demographic stage for an incipient “marriage squeeze.” …  Unmarried men appear to suffer greater health risks than their married counterparts. …. A steep rise in the proportion of unmarried and involuntarily childless men begs the question of old-age support for that rising cohort.

But these are all about things getting worse for men, which is exactly how supply and demand solves such a “problem.” Finally, Eberstadt invokes some externalities:

The “rising value of women” can have perverse and unexpected consequences, including increased demand for prostitution and an upsurge in the kidnapping and trafficking of women. … Such trends could quite conceivably lead to increased crime, violence, and social tensions — or possibly even a greater proclivity for social instability. All in all, mass sex selection can be regarded as a “tragedy of the commons” dynamic, in which the aggregation of individual (parental) choices has the inadvertent result of degrading the quality of life for all.

Now more voluntary prostitution in such a context is not obviously a bad thing. Yes, kidnapping and crime are bad, but there is little mixed evidence such things are increasing due to having more males. There is, however, good evidence that males now compete more by increasing their savings rate, which is overall good for the world.

This topic offers a good example of a conflict between sending desired signals and getting desired outcomes. Since parents who selectively abort girls show favoritism toward boys, it can feel quite natural to signal your opinion that women have equal value by condemning such parents, and favoring policies to discourage their actions. Not doing so can make you seem anti-female. Yet since via supply and demand the abortions chosen by these parents directly increase the value of women, then all else equal discouraging their abortions reduces the value of women. So if you want women to have higher value, your signal is counter-productive.

Of course it is far from clear that the relative value of males and females should be the main consideration here. One might instead argue that if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have more lives that are more pleasant?

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  • Rob w

    I agree with this, but the harm to unmarried men strikes me as the most significant outcome.

  • http://don.geddis.org/ Don Geddis

    1. Societies with large groups of unmarried young men, tend to be more violent (crime, war). Don’t they? Isn’t this part of the argument/observation against polygamy? Wasn’t that a significant factor in the Crusades?

    2. Old society: men are privileged, women are subservient, there are equal numbers of both. New technology: choose the gender of children. Two choices: (A) have more male babies, fewer female babies; (B) restructure society so that the lives of girls are not worse then boys. Clearly Eberstadt et al are arguing that society ought to put effort into 2B, instead of being happy to go down the path of 2A.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP
      • Miley Cyrax

        Interesting. My previous position was that people should be free to choose what sex their child would be even if a world with “excess” men led to negative utilitarian outcomes (greater male unhappiness, discontent, and violence) and was against my own self-interest as a man.

        But if more males leads to greater societal productivity due to redoubled male efforts in playing by the rules, so to speak, than it would appear to be a slam dunk in favor of letting people have more sons if they wished.

        I am a fan of saying when sex is easy, men are lazier in courtship and status accretion. With more men, sex will be more difficult to attain for each man due to pure supply and demand factors.

        I hadn’t thought of linking this rule to sex ratio discussions. Great link, TGGP.

      • Konkvistador

        Miley Cryax: Women have emerging competition in the “satisfing male sexual desire” market in the form of technology.

        Also all the “trade unions” artificially raising the price of sex have been more or less dismantled. The only measure I can think of that is still currently in force and raises the price of sex is the establishment of a norm that it is improper for a man to have sex with a much younger women.

  • Miley Cyrax

    I also agree with Rob w and Robin Hanson. The hysteria around the sex ratio is absolutely signaling and posturing, with the focus centered on how “unjust” it is that individuals in some societies would rather have sons than daughters, leaving the actual effects of this phenomenon (men eventually getting left out of the dating market and potentially feeling disenfranchised from society) as a minor footnote.

    The same people who excoriate others for preferring sons over daughters would express no distaste for the reverse.

    • Antsan

      The same people who excoriate others for preferring sons over daughters would express no distaste for the reverse.

      You know nothing.

      • Miley Cyrax

        Sure, if saying so makes you feel better about yourself.

  • rapscallion

    Just as men fantasize about being high-value alphas surrounded by women, I suspect many women relish the idea of a future in which there are many men and few women, making the lives of average women much better. I suspect feminists would show much more concern about sex selective abortion if it were males that were more likely to be aborted.

  • Carey

    “The same people who excoriate others for preferring sons over daughters would express no distaste for the reverse.”

    Show me a situation where men were being selectively aborted to the same extent, and I’m pretty sure you’d see outrage. The trouble is, your theory will never get tested because it’s unlikely to ever be the case.

    I know Robin seems to think that forced prostitution, violence against women and general increases in violence as a result of sex-selective abortions aren’t a big or reported deal, but it turns out, they are:

    http://www.zbm.unisg.ch/org/opsy/gs.nsf/SysWebRessources/BA+Basil+Weibel/$FILE/BA+Basil+Weibel.pdf (“Striking 70% of the world‘s poor
    are women (OECD, 2008, p.17). Some years ago Sen (2003) noticed that although female disadvantages in mortality in most parts of the world decreased substantially, the number of missing women is increasing because of sex selective abortions. And moreover, people in low income countries face a larger gender gap than those in high income countries, which suggests
    that poor girls and women are most affected by gender inequality. …”)

    Also, there are a number of links that directly tie into the rise of sex-imbalances leading to competition in the marriage-market that directly impacts the economy (Benería, 2001; OECD, 2008; World Bank, 2001)

    A lit review of the various studies on the subject can be found here: http://www.unfpa.org.np/pub/vaw/VAW_REG_Analysis.pdf

    • Miley Cyrax

      “Show me a situation where men were being selectively aborted to the same extent, and I’m pretty sure you’d see outrage. The trouble is, your theory will never get tested because it’s unlikely to ever be the case.”

      This isn’t even sex-ratio specific. I actually had in mind Americans excoriating other Americans, and unless I’m mistaken, the sex ratio is relatively balanced here.

      An American couple that would prefer having a son would get criticized for expressing that preference, but a couple that revealed a preference for a daughter would not, and would perhaps be even commended.

      In America, showing concern for females and prioritizing them over males is a way to posture and to signal moral rectitude.

      • Antsan

        Ah, so you were talking about the mainstream and not actually informed “feminists”.

      • Miley Cyrax

        “Ah, so you were talking about the mainstream and not actually informed ‘feminists.’”

        Feminism has played a large part in shaping American political correctness, but nowhere did I mention feminists. By the way, I love the phrase “informed ‘feminists,’” and its No True Scotsman counterpart “no informed feminists…”

      • Antsan

        You wrote:

        The same people who excoriate others for preferring sons over daughters would express no distaste for the reverse.

        This explicitly includes informed feminists and masculists as they are part of the people you are talking about and they are even the most vocal about it. So it is rather normal and even expected to think your statement is about them.

  • Sid

    Robin:

    but there is little evidence such things are increasing due to having more males.

    But for example Mara Hvistendahl’s Book ‘Unnatural Selection’ says:
    “The best way to predict whether a certain part of India has a high murder rate, indeed, is to look at its sex ratio. Even a high poverty rate doesn’t correlate as strongly.”
    I got this from: http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/05/17/a-book-i-was-proud-to-blurb-unnatural-selection/

    • Sid

      Sorry, the indenting is off. The first line is meant to quote Robin.

  • anonymous

    Great entertainment awaits when the “gay genes” are found.

  • richard silliker

    Technology is the medium and therefore the message.

  • MichaelG

    “In South Korea this process is mostly complete, with excess girls down from 15% in the 1990s to 7% today”

    You mean “excess boys”, not girls.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yup, fixed.

  • Rena

    Societies where unmarried men are facing a shortage of girls manage to, in some sense, devalue the existing women anyway! How? By forcing or deceiving a woman into “marrying” her husband’s brothers or cousins against her will. A patriarchal society will manage to oppress women even when there are hardly any left.

  • Mitchell Porter

    When I saw the title of this post on the LW sidebar, I thought it was going to be about efforts to get more women into various intellectual online communities with a strong male majority…

  • Antsan

    Now more voluntary prostitution in such a context is not obviously a bad thing.

    Who said anything about “voluntary prostitution”. As far as I know this is pretty uncommon and it will most likely even get less common when the supply *shudder* gets scarce.

    Your sense of ethics is alarmingly skewed. Nothing against a good analysis, but describing humans as “supply” hasn’t got anything to do with analysis but with ethics. You reduce them to some product, used for consumption, which seems to be some desirable thing in itself rather than good for keeping humans happy and healthy. Did you even think once about purpose?

    There is, however, good evidence that males now compete more by increasing their savings rate, which is overall good for the world.

    Yeah, China is a good example for a healthy society, right?

    Yet since via supply and demand the abortions chosen by these parents directly increase the value of women, then all else equal discouraging their abortions reduces the value of women.

    About *what* value of women do you talk about? Certainly you are talking about their value as spouses and sex objects, so, largely their value to men.

    Given your goals this post makes sense, but I disagree. Your goals are sickening.

    • Antsan

      About *what* value of women do you talk about? Certainly you are talking about their value as spouses and sex objects, so, largely their value to men.

      To elaborate: Scarceness of women does not heighten their value as members of society, but the signalling involved with aborting female foetuses for their gender lowers the value of a woman as member of society.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Aborting females reveals a woman’s value as a child. How exactly is that more about being “member of society” than is being a spouse? Parents typically weigh a child’s value as a spouse heavily when figuring their value as a child.

      • Antsan

        Aborting because the child is female signals the following: “Having a female child is not desirable.”
        Supporting that notion leads, as far as I can tell, to the idea that women are not desirable and thus less valuable. Most people that don’t want a female child don’t want it because they think that women are less valuable.

        This influences women’s status as a whole – not only their role as spouses and as the sexual counterpart to men, but every part of their live. Their live is devalued.

        The scarceness influences only the part, where sexuality comes into play. Maybe you agree with me, that this is not the whole life of a woman.

        I am not saying, that a changing sex ratio is bad. I just think that you forget the whole part where women are more then just spouses and sexual objects.

    • steve

      Lighten up. That’s just the way economists talk. They can (and must to perform an economic analisys) apply cost benefit analysis to all human actions.

    • John

      One side: “Girls sucks, let’s abort them and have boy babies!”
      Other side: “Oh my god, that’s awful, girl babies have moral worth!”

      You see Robin as participating in the debate: “Hey guys, girls don’t suck that bad, at least they’re good for sex!” Obviously, that would be very messed up.

      But he’s not participating. He’s commenting. He’s pointing out that, in the long run, all other things equal, aborting female babies will cause the social and economic value of existing women to increase. If we believe that girls have moral worth, this is a good thing. So he is simply pointing out that if you attack gender-specific abortion rather than gender attitudes themselves, you will end up making women and girls worse off. A pretty standard case of unintended consequences.

      Anyone who’s spent 15 minutes on Robin’s blog should recognize that he comments on debates far, far more often than he participates in them. Robin very rarely adopts the role, stated goals, values, and attitudes of a given “side”–rather, one main purpose of the blog is to point out cases where, for example, our stated goals, our means, and our values conflict with each other.

      On a site called “Overcoming Bias,” that’s probably a good thing.

  • Lake

    Yeah, this confusion of market value with value as a fellow human being is pretty outrageous.

    • Miley Cyrax

      Yes, the willful conflation of the two in strawman construction is pretty annoying.

      • Antsan

        Hm, the point was the following: RH talks about how abortion of females will lead to scarceness of females and then his conclusion is that this would lead to a heightened value of women.

        If I am correct that Lake answered to my post, then our point is that Hanson only justified the economical value of women in relation to sexual desirability but completely ignored the rest without saying so and thereby making a very general statement which I don’t think is true.

        So, where is the strawman again?

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Sex Ratio & Violence

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    The Chinese data is fascinating, but contradicts the American study I’m aware of (finding American men LESS willing to save and MORE willing to borrow as a response to a sausage fest). I suppose we’d expect populations to vary in response to gender imbalance.

    The gender ratio one’s offspring will face when it’s time to get sold into marriage is a complicated coordination problem: parents try to predict the likely ratio, but also cooperatively create the ratio. So we have an information problem (rock paper scissors decision making), a problem of differing incentives (parents v. children and parents v. society), and all the usual biases that always apply, like wishful thinking.

    If you conclude the market creates just the right number of females, I think you must also conclude that it creates just the right number of lawyers. (I am of course in favor of abortion in all cases, but gender ratio does seem important for quality of life, especially young men’s quality of life. The prevalence of genital mutilation demonstrates that parents don’t generally care about their children’s future sexual well-being as much as one cares about one’s own.)

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Sigh. I suppose that might well be on net unclear as well.

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    One of the weird things about Eberstadt’s article is that he really spends
    quite a small fraction, perhaps 25%, of the article talking about
    why he thinks a changed sex ratio is a bad thing.
    The bulk of it is spent calling it “sex-selective feticide”,
    “biologically unnatural”,
    “shockingly distorted”, “intentional female feticides”,
    “naturally impossible 108 or higher”, “unnaturally high SRBs”,
    “suspiciously high SRBs”…

    The rhetoric sounds … disproportionate.
    Is this guy a neophobe in other contexts?
    When prospective parents were picking some other characteristic
    of their children, does this guy go equally overboard?

    It’s unnatural, the horror, the horror.
    Well, so are vaccines, spectacles, and crystals of elemental silicon.

  • Marcus

    Supply and demand? Really? That’s a watertight axiom to apply to mismatched populations? MFC, you utilitarians are monsters.

    • Antsan

      If I am not mistaken not every utilitarian is also a supporter of capitalistic theory.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Sex selection against girls in societies where boys are more highly valued means that fewer girls are in families that resent them. This seems like a utilitarian win– and the parents are presumably happier since they have boy children. This also leads to the mothers getting better treatment.

    I don’t know how this should be balanced against the men who have lower chances of marrying, but it’s definitely part of the situation.

  • Gulliver

    I sense a chicken and egg conflation. Parents select for boys either because they want their child to not grow up to be a second class citizen or because they support the social mores that make women second citizens. Either way, shifts in supply/demand of either gender won’t alter the underlying mores. Being more valuable as a spouse doesn’t necessarily lead to having equal rights. On the contrary. The city-state of ancient Sparta provided an object example of the extent to which a minority may go to control a majority of the populace.

    • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

      Being more valuable as a spouse doesn’t necessarily lead to having equal rights.

      Beautiful sentence. Indeed – sometimes being valuable is the worst thing to be. In highly stratified societies, purdah-type restrictions on females are generally only practiced by those in the top echelon, whose females are of the highest marriage value.

      • Gulliver

        It also occurred to me after I posted that parents might be motivated to select for one or the other gender because they think they’d be better at raising a girl or a boy, or because they already have one and wish to raise a brother or sister. Indeed, in a truly egalitarian society, that would seem (to me) almost by definition to be the only logical motivation. Which adds credence, me thinks, to the idea that it isn’t the selection itself that’s deleterious, but the underlying social mores that cause overall selection to be skewed radially toward one or the other gender, which in practice is gender inequality.

        Consequently, I’m pretty skeptical that simply implementing policies that artificially balance the selection rate (say with quotas) would even make a dent in the underlying inequality that leads to the imbalance, as I suspect it would be treating the symptom rather than the disease.

        Market forces are remarkable engines of transformation. But only a free market of ideas has hope of conferring equal agency as a person. A free market of gender selection will, at best, confer equal value in some gender-specific role (such as spouse). And in any society where free agency of self-determination (which is to say civil liberty/rights) is not gender independent, equal value as a spouse still won’t mean equal rights as a person.

        Basically, I think the two are a lot less interdependent than I take Robin Hanson’s thesis to infer; but I concede I may be reading too much into his conclusions. Either way, I still think the only way a society achieves the stability of equal rights/liberties is to institute equal protections under the law, and the only way that happens is if the governed revere the principle of not treating others the way they would not themselves tolerate being treated,