Monday, May 25, 2015

Interesting Comparison

Maybe it’s because I’ve written a few essays about wages this month that information about babysitting caught my attention.  I first heard it as one of those closing thoughts after the radio news and got home to look it up.  Sure enough I found the source ( and the average babysitting rate in the US is about $13.50 per hour, using the latest reported numbers for 2014, and higher in many larger cities.  No only that, it has grown by 28% in the last five years!

Having had some experience in the field many years ago when the pay was considerably less (but probably comparable when adjusted for inflation), I knew that this is pretty good pay to watch someone else’s one, two or three kids in their own house, get them to bed on time and spend the remaining hours watching television and possibly checking out someone else’s refrigerator and pantry for snacks.

This was not the first thing that came to mind, however.  Instead I asked myself, “How does this compare to the pay of childcare workers who usually are expected to have a higher level of experience and are expected to entertain and often educate wide awake children in a less familiar environment while meeting a slew of government regulations?”  I haven’t heard much about the plight of these workers lately and thought perhaps they were doing better.

I didn’t wonder for long.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics came to the rescue.  “The median hourly wage for childcare workers in the US was $9.38 per hour in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.85 per hour, and the top 10 percent earned more than $14.19.”  Comparing that to the average babysitter number in 2012, $12.02 per hour, it looks like they are somewhat behind.

How comparable is the workload?  A couple of sources gave a rough idea of state requirements.  In North Carolina the limit is a ratio of 1:5 caregivers for infants and 1:10 for 2 year olds.  In Colorado the ratio is 1:5 for children up to 3 years of age.  So in some states they can be responsible for up to 10 children hopping around (possibly having to simultaneously put up with irritating bosses or coworkers) and still get paid less on average than the babysitter sitting on the couch on Saturday night texting another babysitter on another couch while both keep one ear open for kids.  Where’s the justice in that?

This is just an observation.  Perhaps no conclusion can fairly be drawn except that relative pay does not always reflect relative contribution to society.  People love to point out that teachers earn less than professional athletes, and that doesn’t seem right.  What is right?  In many cases nobody really knows.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Parental Responsibility

Here is an interesting philosophical piece courtesy of Australian public radio.  It talks about social fairness and what role parental responsibility can play in either leveling the playing field or increasing the inequality.  Their contention, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, is that parents who read bedtime stories to their children give them an unfair advantage in life and such activities should be restricted.

“So many disputes in our liberal democratic society hinge on the tension between inequality and fairness: between groups, between sexes, between individuals, and increasingly between families.”  This basic observation led a couple of philosophers to research specifically the role of families, the structure and support, in the issues of inequality.  Is it “fair” that some people are raised in loving families where parents spend quality time talking to children and reading to them whereas others are ignored or abandoned to the care of a single over-committed parent?

Their research showed them that family activities like “reading together, attending religious services, playing board games, and kicking a ball in the local park, not to mention enjoying roast dinner on Sunday” gave a child more of an advantage than attending a private school.

What they are questioning is a real, measured difference in skills between children from higher vs. lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  According to a Stanford study from a couple of years ago, this difference can amount to as much as two years of academic readiness by the time children reach kindergarten.  But they admit in this study that the destiny of children need not be locked in by the parents earning ability.  “One critical factor is that parents [from different socio-economic strata generally] differ in the amount of language stimulation they provide to their infants. Several studies show that parents who talk more with their children in an engaging and supportive way have kids who are more likely to develop their full intellectual potential than kids who hear very little child-directed speech.” 

Apparently when raising children, the old saying that talk is cheap turns out to be a benefit.  Children of poor families can enjoy the advantage of being raised by involved parents as economically and easily as children from well-to-do families while the economically better off children can be handicapped by parents overly involved with their jobs and with trying to make the right social and political connections.

This inexpensive, self-help solution should be great news to all families as the government continues to spent over seven and a half billion dollars annually on a Head Start program that even the government itself found “did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.”  Once again we find the answer closer to home than Washington.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why You Should Know the Meaning of “Fungible”

Here is a word that is fairly rare, heard mostly about economic issues.  Fungible means “being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind.”  A close synonym is interchangeable.

This word came to my mind when I heard a radio ad for a company called  They were advertising that you could use their services to hire temporary, project-oriented help for your business, especially for such things as computer programming and web design.  They gave sample hourly prices to show how competitive they are.  Whether these services would originate in the US or somewhere else was not clear.  What I do know is that they could be easily delivered from almost anywhere and apparently low bidders have been signed up.

I am not in the market for such services, so there was no reason for me to pay attention to the details, but it struck me that this word, fungible, which usually refers to commodities – this ounce of gold being just as valuable and interchangeable as another ounce of gold somewhere else – can also apply to skills.  When you think about it that way, some major economic issues become clearer.

It has become clear both from the news and from the accents we encounter when calling for a customer helpline that skills like programming and telephone customer service are fungible skills.  A few websites offer basic legal services, because the filling out of the proper forms can be automated to a large extent – lawyers become valuable for their knowledge and negotiating skills rather than for their ability to follow the steps to draw up a simple will.  Some unions’ workers too have found their skills to be fungible.  Jobs move to Mexico or to new hires at a lower pay scale and with fewer benefits as the seasoned workers retire.  In fact worldwide, not just in America, the wages of the working class have been increasing only modestly due to this concept, the fungible nature of those skills and the ability of companies to find and quickly train a competent workforce elsewhere.  Unions who defend their members against management abuse are doing their job; those who try to protect their members against the reality that their skills are interchangeable in many parts of the globe are fighting a losing battle and, in the long term, harming their members and the companies that pay them.

This should be a warning to every high school student and to all parents who want to see their children succeed.  Common skills are no longer good enough, and as we move into a future with ever-increasing speed and bandwidth of communications, the need to develop more specialized and less easily duplicated skills is essential.  It’s no longer realistic to leave high school and go to work for 30 years in the same factory or mine that daddy and grandpa did.

We can’t let our children grow up with only “commodity” skills.  It should be an obvious conclusion by anyone familiar with the ideas behind supply and demand that the more successful students can be at differentiating themselves from the rest of the population, the greater their earning power will be.  Not everyone can be a star athlete or rap artist.  Education is essential.  Otherwise they will be left with fungible skills, skills that can be duplicated many other places with little effort by people willing to work for less.  The only other option would be total economic isolationism, which every economist knows is a terrible idea.

Friday, May 15, 2015

America Self-medicating

As the Internet and social media become more widespread and influential, the problem of self-medicating seems to be growing.  The situation can range anywhere from a harmless habit to a waste of money to a dangerous health practice.

As we read scary stories about cancer and look for ways to minimize the risk, many Americans turn to over-the-counter vitamin and mineral supplements, but a new study points out the dangers of believing what we read from uninformed sources or those with a financial incentive.  A meta-analysis done by the University of Colorado reviewed “two decades worth of research -- 12 trials that involved more than 300,000 people -- and found a number of supplements actually made a person much more likely to develop certain types of cancer.” These are not rare and unusual supplements but common ones like high doses of beta carotene, selenium, vitamin E and folic acid.

In addition WebMD warns, “many supplements may interfere with your cancer treatment, so never take anything without discussing it with your cancer doctor and treatment team.”  They go on to recommend antioxidants including “vitamins A, C, and E, and selenium!  A 2010 article from ConsumerReports lists 12 dangerous supplements and also contains a table of possible side effects of some of the more common ones.  You also may be getting more than you expected from these supplements.  “In the past two years, according to the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers have voluntarily recalled more than 80 bodybuilding supplements that contained synthetic steroids or steroid-like substances, 50 sexual-enhancement products that contained sildenafil (Viagra) or other erectile-dysfunction drugs, and 40 weight-loss supplements containing sibutramine (Meridia) and other drugs.”

As we try to rationally absorb all of this information about the dangers, articles like this one from Britain appear, telling us that a “groundbreaking two-year study discovered a combination of B vitamins and omega-3 found in oily fish prevented brain shrinkage, a hallmark of the devastating condition that develops in 550 people a day in the UK.”  Then this other website tells about five super vitamins to help fight dementia.  This list includes vitamin E and folic acid (see above).

What do people end up doing?  It appears from the fact that almost half the population takes at least one of over 65,000 supplements on the market, that they self-diagnose and self-medicate.  Encouraged by people likeDr. Oz, they constantly look forward to the next miracle product and volunteer to become their own laboratory mouse or guinea pig.  As one woman told me, “I don’t care what they say, I think my gluten-free diet makes me feel better.”  How much of this is placebo or wishful thinking?  No one knows.

This love affair with supplements and other alternative treatments is science rejected in the name of a new religion – isn't religion the belief in the absence of proof? – while deniers are ignored or reviled and sometimes treated like heretics.  Such faith-based, rather than fact-based, decision making can only be interpreted as a religion.

This would not be a problem if it were not for two things.  First, behavior has consequences - some to this stuff is just a waste of money, but some is really dangerous.  Second, the fanaticism of this new faith tends to drive out, or at least overshadow real medical science with the promise of real cures.  

Monday, May 11, 2015

How Large is the So-Called Gender Gap?

Last time I introduced the idea of a psycho fact, information that has been so frequently and commonly passed along that it is accepted as true without the need for further investigation or proof.  It falls into the category of “everyone knows that” because everyone says it or hears it so often.  The textbook example is the idea that we use only a small fraction of our brains and have so much untapped potential.  (This notion is a staple among the self-help gurus and motivational speaker crowd.)

Another bit of information that has been repeated so many times that it has become accepted as fact is that a woman is paid only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, usually implying that this is true for exactly the same job even when age, education, experience, and all other factors are considered.  Related to this is the idea that men outnumber women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields due both to societal pressures portraying these fields as unfeminine and to a belief by some that women have less aptitude in these areas.

The most recent challenge to the first idea appeared in Forbes as an in-depth examination of the employment and salary data from the UK, which shows, when comparing all male workers to all female workers, a similar gap to that found in the US; and it explains why the UK Statistics Authority characterizes this conclusion as “highly misleading.”  They emphasize the need for accurate statistics as a guide to government policy.  To do that “we need to know how much of that [gap] is because of choices that people make over working hours, what job they do, the flexibility they might prefer over pay and so on, and then see what’s left which might be the result of direct discrimination.”  Unless such a careful comparison is made, the numbers are worthless in guiding policy decisions.

Digging deeper into the data, the problems are clarified a bit.  “Given the society we do have, rather than the one that some of us might like, it’s really no surprise at all that more women work part time than men, what with juggling child care duties. And it’s also no surprise at all that part timers make less per hour than full timers.”  Some data actually contradicts the premise showing that women working part time actually make 3.4 % more than men do, but this is offset by the fact that 4 times as many women opt for part time work.  This choice factor is only one component of a highly complex calculation and many other factors must be considered in order to make a fair comparison.  The simplistic comparison of all men to all women results in the popular, but “highly misleading,” 77-cents-due-primarily-to-discrimination conclusion that many in the US immediately jump to.

On the second point, a recent report from the PBS News Hour challenges the notion that STEM fields are unattractive to women and that they are therefore so greatly outnumbered by men.  “On closer inspection, it turns out that these ‘truths’ are nothing more than assumptions, and that these assumptions are inconsistent with the facts.”  They go on to tell about, and show graphically, some STEM fields and academic majors where women actually outnumber men.  Despite these facts, well-intentioned institutions continue to set up educational opportunities and other strategies to try to deprogram young girls from hating math.  It’s a solution to a non-problem, often funded by taxpayer dollars or charitable donations that could be better directed.

What is the purpose of the constant repetition of these two related psycho facts?  They likely remain popular because it places women, in general, in a victim status giving some the opportunity to vent and to take out their frustrations when things don’t seem to be going their way.  It is not affirming, not inspiring, not supportive, but it is not intended to be.  Rather, the purpose seems to be to give power to the rescuers who promise results through strikes, protests, or legislative action; rescuers whose main interest is not justice or equality, but retention and growth of their own political popularity and power, even if it is based on a poorly developed and “highly misleading” statistic.

That is not to say there is no discrimination at all, but those who rely on these sloppy generalizations choose to wallow in victimhood and be taken advantage of by manipulative public figures rather than taking responsibility for their own individual situations.