Tag Archives: Sex

Explaining Sex Rate Changes

According to the Post, polls say 28% of US men age 18-30 report not having sex in the last year, almost 3 times as many as a decade ago. Women that age show a much smaller increase, and other ages don’t show noticeable changes:

Even if much of this change is due to random polling error, I’d bet there is still a real effect here to explain. I asked via a Twitter poll if the young women switched to sex with older men, or with more desirable younger men, and by 3-2 (out of 11,456!), they favored the latter theory. Yes, in principle women could be switching to sex with other women, but I’d bet that’s not the biggest effect here.

So there’s probably a real effect here to explain: regarding heterosexual sex, over the last decade many more young men are having no sex, compared to other ages and genders, and with their potential partners switching to more desirable young men and older men. That’s a pattern we might want to explain.

If we think of sex as a mating market, using simple supply and demand concepts, then the (quality weighted) quantity of sex that each person gets should depend on 1) how much they value sex, 2) how much they have to offer potential partners, and 3) how much those partners value them. In addition, 4) search and other deal frictions can make it harder to find and sustain pairings.

So the young men who have less to offer, relative to average young men, might get even less sex over time because they become even less desirable in the eyes of women, because those women now find other options more attractive, because these young men are less eager for sex, or because of increased costs to find and proposition well-matched women.

These are categories of proximate causes, and are consistently with many distal causes. For example, longer lifespans could cause changes in youthful desire, or changes in outside options. Yes, each of these categories can be broken down further. For example, young men might be less eager for sex either because young women have changed and become less desirable to them, or because those men now find other activities more enjoyable.

In one of my most popular Twitter polls to date (with 4940 responses), I asked people to pick from three cause categories:

While there is no strong consensus, respondents did favor pickier young women by almost 2-1 over each of the other two options (less male desire and less desirable men). The stories of pickier women and less desirable men will in practice be pretty hard to distinguish, especially as there can be feedback loops, such as where men who succeed less get discouraged and try less hard. So let us just bundle these stories together into: PW+LDM. In my poll, that bundle is favored 3-1 over the men want sex less story.

While my poll induced many commenters to offer theories, most did not think very carefully about how to explain social changes. So let me elaborate here on that. If real, this particular pattern is regarding one particular subset of people, less-desirable young men (LDYM), who are losing out over a particular decade to another particular subset, young more-desirable men, for a particular thing, sex. So any explanation of this pattern needs to be specific to these two groups, this outcome (sex), and this time period.

Thus it won’t at all do to point to effects that are constant in time, such as people not always telling the truth in polls, or men having lower standards for sex partners. It also won’t do to point to changes over this time period that effected all ages and genders similarly, such as obesity, porn, video games, social media, dating apps, and wariness re harassment claims. They might be part of an answer, but can’t explain all by themselves. To explain an unusual burst over the last decade, it is also problematic to point to factors (e.g., computing power) that changed over the last decade, but changed just as much over prior decades.

A good theory instead needs to identify why its favored effect was much stronger in this past decade, especially for the package of LDYM. Consider the explanations mentioned by the Post:

There are several potential explanations … Labor force participation among young men has fallen, particularly in the aftermath of the last recession. … 54% of unemployed Americans didn’t have a steady romantic partner, compared with 32% among the employed. … Young men also are more likely to be living with their parents than young women: In 2014, for instance, 35% of men age 18 to 34 were living in their parents’ home, compared with 29% of women in that age group. …

One final factor that may be affecting Americans’ sexual habits at all ages is technology. “There are a lot more things to do at 10 o’clock at night now than there were 20 years ago,… Streaming video, social media, console games, everything else.” (more)

But streaming video and social media effect all ages, genders, and desirability levels, not just LDYM. The other two effects are at least specific to LDYM, but there’s no mention of just how much living at home has changed among young men, and the drop in labor force participation (e.g., 79.6-73.0% for men age 20-24 from ’06-’16) seems much less than increase in the sexless.

A related effect the Post didn’t mention is women going further in school than men now, and women being reluctant to date men with less school. There’s been a big change in that over the last 15 years:

Note that these 3 possible causes, schooling differences, labor force participation declines, and living at home, all more plausibly act through the PW+LDM channel, relative to less male desire or higher deal frictions channels.

In December, the Atlantic outlined a great many possible theories:

Fisher, like many other experts, attributes the sex decline to a decline in couplehood among young people. For a quarter century, fewer people have been marrying, and those who do have been marrying later. … But this doesn’t explain why young people are partnering up less to begin with. …

It might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido. …

Rates of childhood sexual abuse have decreased in recent decades, and abuse can lead to both precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. And some people today may feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to changing gender mores and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality. Maybe more people are prioritizing school or work over love and sex, at least for a time. …

In more recent decades, by contrast, teen romantic relationships appear to have grown less common. … Unless you are exceptionally good-looking, the thing online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time. … Tinder … logs 1.6 billion swipes a day, and just 26 million matches. … overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to so much as a two-way text exchange, much less a date, much less sex. … #MeToo movement … less healthy reactions, like avoiding romantic overtures for fear that they might be unwelcome. In my own conversations, men and women alike spoke of a new tentativeness and hesitancy. … Online daters, he argued, might be tempted to keep going back for experiences with new people; commitment and marriage might suffer. … porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences. … Learning sex in the context of one-off hookups isn’t helping. …

Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift … Designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” … May also be newly worried about what they look like naked. … Social-media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction. … a lot of men who would like to perform oral sex but are rebuffed by their partner. … Women will say … ‘It’s the ugliest part of my body.’ “ …

There may be such a thing as waiting too long. Among people who are sexually inexperienced at age 18, about 80% will become sexually active by the time they are 25. But those who haven’t gained sexual experience by their mid-20s are much less likely to ever do so. (more)

Note that many of these channels result in women being less interested in or open to male sex proposals, and are thus within the PW+LDM channel. These include less child sex abuse, feeling less pressured, prioritizing careers, women feeling more anxious about their bodies, and more #MeToo disapproval of sex proposals. (Though that last one can also be seen as higher deal frictions.) Overall, both my polls and MSM stories seem to agree that PW+LDM is the most likely channel of change here.

Note also that the “waiting too long” problem can contribute to cohort specific sex cultures. That is, age cohorts often generate distinct tastes in music, food, and hobbies, tastes which can last a lifetime. Similarly, age cohorts can generate distinct lasting sex cultures, cultures that are especially sensitive to the conditions around when that cohort first started to have sex. In general, age cohorts seem eager to change from the fashions of prior cohorts, to define themselves via distinct music, etc. And in addition, dramatic events like 9-11, the great recession, and #MeToo could help push a new age cohort to switch to a new cultural equilibrium, which might then stick around for a while, at least until the next such disruption.

It seems that, whether due to recent cultural events or random cultural drift, the latest age cohort has switched to a new sex culture wherein the less desirable half of young men are now seen as even less desirable by young women than previous cohorts would have seen them. And within this culture it is seen as more acceptable for young women to share the more desirable half of young men, relative to the higher (but never maximal) priority previous cohorts put on more monogamous ties.

Random future cultural changes could of course move back the other way. But my increasing-wealth-induces-farmer-to-forager story about the direction of modern cultural changes predicts otherwise for the long run. Via marriage, foragers were more promiscuous and less monogamous than farmers, and this recent age cohort sex culture change continues this predicted farmer-to-forager movement.

Added 10p: Some evidence against the porn story.

Added 10Apr: TGGP reviews data & concludes:

Between the two explanations, I would thus conclude that a shift toward older men relative to the 18-29 group fits better than an increase in variance within 18-29.

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#MeToo In A Star Is Born

The Me Too movement (or #MeToo movement), with many local and international alternative names, is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. #MeToo spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It followed soon after the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. (more)

It is now a bit over a year since #MeToo started to push for more strongly censuring an expanded range of activities. Both the facts of change and expansion suggest that we are now less clear on what exactly counts as unacceptable sexual “harassment.” This increased ambiguity struck me when watching the new Star is Born movie, which now has a 64% chance to win the Best Picture Oscar, and when asking my twitter followers a few related questions.

The prototypical #MeToo villain was Harvey Weinstein, a powerful older man in the movie industry who offered to help young pretty much-less-powerful women with their acting careers, in trade for sex. He’d help by recommending them for jobs, or hurt them by recommending against them. Yes, Harvey was also accused of directly forcing himself on some women, but society already had a strong consensus against that. These sex for career help offers were the newer issue.

In the new movie A Star is Born, a popular older male singer hears a young amateur female singer. He then quickly expresses both sexual and professional interest in her, and many people around the two of them indicate that they see both of these interests expressed. He offers to fly her to his next show, she declines, but then changes her mind. He brings her on stage to sing a song, which greatly helps her career. She stays with him that night and they have sex. She continues to travel with him, and he continues to help and they continue to have sex. She isn’t an idiot, so we must presume she knows that if she stops having sex with him, there’s a good chance he will stop helping her career.

One could interpret this situation as him making an implicit offer to trade career help for sex, and her accepting this offer. Which seems to violate the #MeToo standard that Harvey Weinstein violated. Yet few complain of this, even in a politically sensitive industry during this extra sensitive time. And in fact, while most of my twitter followers seemed reluctant to take any position on this, those who did were about 3 to 1 against blaming this man. They instead said they would not defend this woman and “believe her” if, a month into their relationship, she had soured on it and publicly accused him of abusing his position of power:

Yet given an abstract description of this sort of situation, about half of my twitter followers say that his behavior is not okay, and that he is not saved by her liking the deal overall, his asking only once, or his offering an implicit deal that gives her (and him) plausibly deniability:

These results seem to me to imply a lot of uncertainty, disagreement, and individual inconsistency. Whatever the actual causes of these opinions, we seem far from achieving a consensus on what behaviors to censure how much.

Added 7pm:  Many on Twitter now say that my last poll above is aggressive, offensive, pro-harrassment, and itself constitutes harassment, because I allow respondents the possibility of saying that the man’s offer could be okay. In particular, respected economist Betsey Stevenson says:

This kind of “innocent query” sums up why economics is a more hostile profession for women than many others. … it suggests the options you gave are potentially ok behavior. … why don’t you change your behavior given the feedback if you don’t want to be harassing.

Added 10:30a: I’m struck by the contrast between so many people taking a moralizing critical tone with me for even allowing survey respondents to say such an trade is okay, and the complete lack of anyone taking such a tone regarding the apparently implicit trade in the movie.

Added 19Dec: I did two more polls:

So given an abstract description of the situation in A Star is Born, ~26-27% of my twitter followers say that they disapprove of the relation, regardless of whether the woman complains or not. If the woman doesn’t complain, then ~29% approve of the relation and the remaining ~45% don’t want to express an opinion. But if the woman does complain, then only ~20% approve. It seems that ~9% of those who would otherwise approve switch to not expressing an opinion, instead of having some switch from approval to disapproval.

However, after watching the movie people are probably much more sympathetic to the relation, compared to hearing an abstract description of the situation. That’s what movies do to people. The still surprising thing to me is that #MeToo supporters don’t complain more about the movie, as it seems to create more sympathy for these relations, and probably encourages men to package expressions of both sex and career interest together in the way that this male character did.

Added 27Jan: It is standard polling practice to not explain the motivation for a poll to its participants, as knowing that can change their answers. The odds for A Star Is Born winning best picture is much worse now, at 10:1.

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Sexism Inflation

What counts as “sexism” seems to be slowly inflating. You may recall that in 2005, Larry Summers lost his job as Harvard president for suggesting that genetically-caused ability differences contribute to women doing less well than men in science. In 2017, James Damore lost his job as a Google engineer for suggesting that Google has fewer female engineers in part because women tend to have different preferences, being more artistic, social, neurotic, and tending to prefer people to things.

Now a recent article describes the sad story of a math paper on why males are more variable on many traits in many species. Its key idea is that variances is rewarded when less than half of candidates are selected, while variance is punished when more than half are selected. This paper was accepted for publication by a math journal, and then it was unaccepted. Then this happened again at another math journal. No one claimed there was anything technically wrong with the paper, but they did claim that it was “damaging to the aspirations of impressionable young [math] women”, that “right-wing media may pick this up”, that it “support[s] a very controversial, and potentially sexist, set of ideas”.

So first it was sexist to suggest human women have lower science ability, then sexist to suggest women have differing tech-job preferences, and now it is sexist to say that in general across species and traits males tend to have more variance because they are selected less often.

My job seems safe and I haven’t had any publications unaccepted. But I can report on a different kind of inflation regarding what counts as (something close to) sexism: it seems now not okay to presume that male-female differences that were common in the past may continue on into the future, unless you explicitly say that such differences are due to evil discrimination and claim that the future will be full of evil discriminators.

My evidence? In my book Age of Em, I guess that past male-female differences may continue on into the future. This includes differences in what each sex desires in the other sex, and differences in employer demand for each sex in differing circumstances.

On differing desires, Sarah O’Connor said in a Financial Times review back in 2016:

One also has to believe that current economic and social theories will hold in this strange new world; that the “unknown unknowns” are not so great as to make any predictions impossible. Certainly, some of the forecasts seem old-fashioned, like the notion that male ems will prefer females with “signs of nurturing inclinations and fertility, such as youthful good looks” while females will prefer males with “signs of wealth and status”. Even so, the journey is thought-provoking. (more)

On differing labor demand, Philip Ball said in Aeon just this last week:

He also betrays a rather curious attitude to the arrow of historical causation when he notes in The Age of Em that male ems might be in higher demand than female ems, because of ‘the tendency of top performers in most fields today to be men’. (more)

Here is the entire relevant section from my book on labor demand by sex:

The em economy may have an unequal demand for the work of males and females. Although it is hard to predict which gender will be more in demand in the em world, one gender might end up supplying proportionally more workers than the other. On the one hand, the tendency of top performers in most fields today to be men suggests there might be more demand for male ems. However, while today’s best workers are often motivated by the attention and status that being the best can bring, in the em world there are millions of copies of the best workers, who need to find other motivations for their work. On the other hand, today women are becoming better edu- cated and are in increasing demand in modern workplaces. There are some indications that women have historically worked harder and more persistently in hard-times low-status situations, which seem similar in some ways to the em world. (p.338-9)

So I consider both possibilities, higher male and female labor demand, and for each possibility I note a sex-difference pattern from the past suggesting that possibility. Why does that suggest a “curious attitude to the arrow of historical causation”? Emailing the author, I was told that “a blank statement of male predominance today could easily be misinterpreted as an acceptance of something natural and inevitable in it” and “To say that [men] have been the ‘top performers’ implies that they achieve better on a level playing field.” And also “such differences … [might] arise because of a choice to perpetuate the inequalities we have seen historically. And one certainly can’t dismiss that possibility. But you do not say that.”

So it seems that today, to avoid (something close to) the label “sexist” (or “old-fashioned” on sex differences), it is not enough that you avoid explaining past observed sex differences in behavior in general in terms of sex differences in any selected parameters, including abilities or preferences, and including their means or variances. One must also presume that such differences will not continue into the future, unless one explicitly claims they will be caused by continued unfair discrimination. Regarding sex differences, predicting the future by guessing that it may be similar to the past is presumed sexist.

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A Coming Hypocralypse?

Many people have been working hard for a long time to develop tech that helps to read people’s feelings. They are working on ways to read facial expressions, gazes, word choices, tones of voice, sweat, skin conductance, gait, nervous habits, and many other body features and motions. Over the coming years, we should expect this tech to consistently get cheaper and better at reading more subtler feelings of more people in more kinds of contexts more reliably.

Much of this tech will be involuntary. While your permission and assistance may help such tech to read you better, others will often be able to read you using tech that they control, on their persons or and in the buildings around you. They can use tech integrated with other complex systems that is thus hard to monitor and regulate. Yes, some defenses are possible, such as via wearing dark sunglasses or burqas, and electronically modulating your voice. But such options seem rather awkward and I doubt most people will be willing to use them much in most familiar social situations. And I doubt that regulation will greatly reduce the use of this tech. The overall trend seems clear: our true feelings will become more visible to people around us.

We are often hypocritical about our feelings. That is, we pretend to some degree to have certain acceptable public feelings, while actually harboring different feelings. Most people know that this happens often, but our book The Elephant in the Brain suggests that we still vastly underestimate typical levels of hypocrisy. We all mask our feelings a lot, quite often from ourselves. (See our book for many more details.)

These two facts, better tech for reading feelings and widespread hypocrisy, seem to me to be on a collision course. As a result, within a few decades, we may see something of a “hypocrisy apocalypse”, or “hypocralypse”, wherein familiar ways to manage hypocrisy become no longer feasible, and collide with common norms, rules, and laws. In this post I want to outline some of the problems we face.

Long ago, I was bullied as a child. And so I know rather well that one of the main defenses that children develop to protect themselves against bullies is to learn to mask their feelings. Bullies tend to see kids who are visibly scared or distraught as openly inviting them to bully. Similarly, many adults protect themselves from salespeople and sexual predators by learning to mask their feelings. Masked feelings also helps us avoid conflict with rivals at work and in other social circles. For example, we learn to not visibly insult or disrespect big people in rowdy bars if we don’t want to get beaten up.

Tech that unmasks feelings threatens to weaken the protections that masked feelings provide. That big guy in a rowdy bar may use new tech to see that everyone else there can see that you despise him, and take offense. You bosses might see your disrespect for them, or your skepticism regarding their new initiatives. Your church could see that you aren’t feeling very religious at church service. Your school and nation might see that your pledge of allegiance was not heart-felt. And so on.

While these seem like serious issues, change will be mostly gradual and so we may have time to flexibly search in the space of possible adaptations. We can try changing with whom we meet how for what purposes, and what topics we consider acceptable to discuss where. We can be more selective who we make more visible and how.

I worry more about collisions between better tech for reading feelings and common social norms, rules, and laws. Especially norms and laws that we adopt for more symbolic purposes, instead of to actually manage our interactions. These things tend to be less responsive to changing conditions.

For example, today we often consider it to be unacceptable “sexual harassment” to repeatedly and openly solicit work associates for sex, especially after they’ve clearly rejected the solicitor. We typically disapprove not just of direct requests, but also of less direct but relatively clear invitation reminders, such as visible leers, sexual jokes, and calling attention to your “junk”. And of course such rules make a great deal of sense.

But what happens when tech can make it clearer who is sexually attracted how much to whom? If the behavior that led to these judgements was completely out each person’s control, it might be hard to blame on anyone. We might then socially pretend that it doesn’t exist, though we might eagerly check it out privately. Unfortunately, our behavior will probably continue to modulate the processes that produce such judgements.

For example, the systems that judge how attracted you are to someone might focus on the moments when you directly look at that person, when your face is clearly visible to some camera, under good lighting. Without your wearing sunglasses or a burqa. So the longer you spend directly looking at someone under such conditions, the better the tech will be able to see your attraction. As a result, your choice to spend more time looking directly at them under favorable reading conditions might be seen as an intentional act, a choice to send the message that you are sexually attracted to them. And thus your continuing to do so after they have clearly rejected you might be seen as sexual harassment.

Yes, a reasonable world might adjust rules on sexual harassment to account for many complex changing conditions. But we may not live in a reasonable world. I’m not making any specific claims about sexual harassment rules, but symbolic purposes influence many of the norms and laws that we adopt. That is, we often support such rules not because of the good consequences of having them, but because we like the way that our personal support for such rules makes us look personally. For example, many support laws against drugs and prostitution even when they believe that such laws do little to discourage such things. They want to be personally seen as publicly taking a stand against such behavior.

Consider rules against expressing racism and sexism. And remember that the usual view is that everyone is at least a bit racist and sexist, in part because they live in a racist and sexist society. What happens when we can collect statistics on each person regarding how their visible evaluations of the people around them correlate with the race and sex of those people? Will we then punish white males for displaying statistically-significantly low opinions of non-whites and non-males via their body language? (That’s like a standard we often apply to firms today.) As with sexual harassment, the fact that people can moderate these readings via their behaviors may make these readings seem to count as intentional acts. Especially since they can be tracking the stats themselves, to see the impression they are giving off. To some degree they choose to visibly treat certain people around them with disrespect. And if we are individually eager to show that we personally disapprove of racism and sexism, we may publicly support strict application of such rules even if that doesn’t actually deal well with real problems of racism and sexism in the world.

Remember that this tech should improve gradually. So for the first cases that set key precedents, the tech will be weak and thus flag very few people as clearly harassers or racists or sexists. And those few exceptions are much more likely to be people who actually did intend to harass and express racism or sexism, and who embody extreme versions of such behavior. While they will also probably tend to be people who are weird and non-conformist in other ways, this tech for reading feelings may initially seem to do well to help us identify and deal with problematic people. For example, we may be glad that tech can identity the priests who most clearly lust after the young boys around them.

But as the tech gets better it will slowly be able to flag more and more people as sending disapproved messages. The rate will drift upward from one person in ten thousand to one in a thousand to one percent and so on. People may then start to change their behavior in bigger ways, to avoid being flagged, but that may be too little too late, especially if large video, etc. libraries of old behaviors are available to process with new methods.

At this point we may reach a “hypocralypse”, where rules that punish hypocrisy collide in a big way with tech that can expose hypocrisy. That is, where tech that can involuntarily show our feelings intersects with norms and laws that punish the expression of common but usually hidden feelings. Especially when such rules are in part symbolically motivated.

What happens then, I don’t know. Do white males start wearing burqas, do we regulate this tech heavily, or do we tone down and relax our many symbolic rules? I’ll hope for the best, but I still fear the worst.

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Responses to Sex Inequality Critics

As I promised yesterday, here are specific responses to the nine mass media articles that mentioned my sex redistribution post in the eight most popular media outlets, as measured by SemRush “organic traffic”. (For example, the note (21M) means 21 million in monthly traffic.) Quotes are indented; my responses are not.

My responses are somewhat repetitive, as most seem content to claim that self-labeled “incels” advocating for sex redistribution are deeply icky people, and especially that they are women-hating. Even if that were true, however, that doesn’t to me say much about the wisdom or value of sex redistribution. I’m much more interested in general sex inequality than I am in the issues of the tiny fraction self-labeled “incel” activists.  Continue reading "Responses to Sex Inequality Critics" »

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Comparing Income & Sex Redistribution

Disclaimer: This post is on sensitive topics of sex and power. I try to make it clear when I make a claim; beware drawing indirect inferences; I rarely value signal.

As promised in my last post, I now return after a civility pause to the topic of comparing sex and income inequality and redistribution. This post will be unusually long, as I’m trying harder to speak carefully.

If a feature of individuals can be compared across individuals, and ranked, then we can say that some people have more of it than others. We can then talk about how equally or unequally this feature is distributed across a population. Some features are seen as good things, where most people like to have more of it, all else equal. And the values that people place on some good things exhibit diminishing marginal utility (DMU). That is, people put a higher value on getting a bit more of it when they don’t have much, relative to when they have more.

For good things, we usually seek policies (including informal social norms and formal programs by government, charities, and other organizations) that can raise its distribution, all else equal, and get more of it to more people. And for good things with DMU, unequal distributions are regrettable, all else equal, as any one unit is worth more to those who have less. Any policy that changes a distribution is by definition said to “redistribute” that thing. (If you doubt me, consult a dictionary.) A policy that reduces inequality more might be said to do “more” redistribution.

Of course all else is usually not equal. People vary in their ability to produce things, in the value they place on things, and in how much those people are valued by their society. Both the things that people value, and the arrangements that produce them, tend to be complex, multi-dimensional, and context-dependent. “Income” and “sex” are both labels that point to such complex, multi-dimensional and context-dependent good things. Both are usually produced via unique pairings, sex between a man and a woman, and income between an employer and an employee. The value of these pairings vary greatly across possible pairings, and also with a lot of other context. Continue reading "Comparing Income & Sex Redistribution" »

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