The Politiconomist

Where Politics and Economics Hang Out

Gay Men: Let’s Work Past This Fat-Shaming Thing, Okay?

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I read Luis Peitzman’s “It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat” like a sucker punch to the gut that I’ve frequently been told is disgusting. It is very much on point.

The piece could have been a little too reliant on stereotypes, but I think Peitzman actually overcompensated. He spills a bit too much ink hedging, trying to anticipate the obvious, #NotAllGayMen objection. So yeah, in neither my piece nor his is anyone saying this is an immovable constant nor that people who aren’t gay men can’t work on this. Just that the over the top, uncalled for disgust with fat bodies is a real thing that is painfully prevalent among gay men.

I wanted to share my own, concrete story as an addendum to Peitzman’s point. It’s how I came to realize that the fat-shaming was so toxic and so prevalent that we had made it transcend body type.

I was siting at a restaurant with a bunch of gay guys for a standing dinner. And I had come to dread the ritual of ordering food and then making self-deprecating jokes about being a fattie. I was noticeably the heaviest guy there and while I firmly believed there was no ill-will meant towards me, being surrounded by skinny guys worrying about becoming fat was doing me no favors. I was, at that point, just starting to work through my body-image issues and come to grips with not being The Male Ideal. For some weeks it felt like salt on an open wound.

And then one day we were in the middle of this ritual and something clicked for me.

These guys were expressing a sincere fear. I finally internalized my belief that their comments, while thoughtless, were about them and not me. They were sincerely terrified that they might get labeled as fat and genuinely didn’t seem to realize that everyone else at the table saw them as skinny. We can argue if they had THE SAME body issues I did, but the differences were not a gaping chasm.

It was in that moment that I realized I could shed as many pounds as I might, but if I still lived in fear of being judged for my weight and eating habits, I would gain nothing. If my impulse was to throw a blanket around me when my body came up, if going on dates meant worrying about my waist, if I couldn’t enjoy food without worrying I was too fat to be allowed to enjoy food then what difference would being skinny really make? It was then I truly decided to work on being more comfortable with the body I had.

And here’s the great paradox of all this. I started exercising more. I started calling up friends to go hiking more often. When I still had access to a pool, I went swimming. When I was bad about doing all that, the spiral of shame for being a fatty-fat who no one would want to date wasn’t often the reason. I slimmed down a bit.

I also started returning some of the awkwardness to sender. I usually send a gentle PM or pull the person aside. “Hey, I know you meant well, but I’m actually pretty healthy and anxiety about my weight has been a much bigger issue than my physical health.” A few of the more odious comments have gotten the teeth that sometimes come out on this blog. “Look, if my choice is between butter and guys like you? Butter. I will choose butter every time.”

I’m not all past those days when I would sit, mortified that the skinny guys might notice I was a fatty in their midst—that I was the monster they feared. I still look in the mirror sometimes and feel that horrible surge of shame. One of my biggest anxieties about dating is still the harsh lens gay guys turn on each other. And yeah, I sometimes look at pictures of guys with ideal body types and compare unfavorably. But importantly, those days are fewer and farther between. I’m even less hard on myself for having them.

To all the other gay and bi guys out there with bodies society doesn’t take as perfect, we’ve got a leg up. We’ve learned to love ourselves in spite of society once before. (You have worked on your internalized homophobia, right?) We’ve done the careful balancing act that is calling in and calling out people who haven’t learned to love us we come. We know that there will be days we can’t live up to the ideals of pride, and that beating ourselves up is just another form of self-hate, repackaged to look like our values. We know that we have to be there for each other and to teach those who don’t share our struggle how to be there for us.

And, if we’re not completely worn out after all that, maybe we can teach the skinny gay guys how to properly enjoy a bowl of ice cream without feeling guilty.

Written by R. A. Stark

June 30, 2015 at 5:00 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

You Want to Play that Game???

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Excuse me, got a little carried away.

I want to draw your attention to the talking point that the usual suspects are coalescing around because it is so delightfully wrongheaded. Let’s take the National Orginization for Marriage’s version. NOM (omnomnomnom) is one of the leading anti-marriage groups. Its board is made mostly of Mormons who have never looked up “irony” in the dictionary; they take the stance that marriage has always been between one man and one woman. And they have the sourest of grapes today:

This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has issued an immoral and unjust ruling. In 1857, the Court ruled in the infamous Dred Scott v Sandford case that African Americans could not become citizens of the United States and determined that the government was powerless to reject slavery. In 1927 the Court effectively endorsed eugenics by ruling that people with mental illness and other “defectives” could be sterilized against their will, saying “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” And in Roe v Wade, the Court invented a constitutional right to abortion by claiming it was an integral element of the right to privacy. Over 55 million unborn babies have died as a result.

Setting aside the abortion debate, I hope no one here is pro-Eugenics or slavery. Clearly the Court can be wrong. It is, after all, made of nine mortal men—and as of late, a few ladies too. No one is arguing the point.

But missing from this is the Separate but Equal decision of Plessy v Ferguson. One might presume that’s because the Dred Scott ruling was plenty illustrative—and it is. But less charitably, they omitted it because talking about Jim Crow leads to an awkward moment for Court naysayers. In the famous Brown v Board decision, they reversed Plessy. They destroyed Separate but Equal and effectively expanded the understanding of the 14th amendment.

There are the painfully obvious aspects of this. Ruling against the electoral (and might we add, religiously backed!) will of the people was the right thing to do. It should have happened on Plessy, but that doesn’t change the matter.

But the issue is that the logic of equality under the law keeps expanding. If we accept that the Court was right on Brown, then equal protection—including from religious objection—must be the right thing for Americans. Including gay Americans. The misdirection about electoral will looks good; we like to feel warm and fuzzy about Democracy. But we must be clear that we are being in part warm to some of the gravest injustices in our history.

Its true the Court’s immense power cuts both ways. They are as often behind injustice as for it—let me add Korematsu and Kagama decisions to NOM’s list. But complaining the Court is acting as a check on the electorate’s impulse to strip rights from the minority ignores literally every argument in the Federalist Papers for having the Court. Arguing that Justices in 1786 or 1868 would have failed to extend full rights is pure applesauce next to the reasoned, careful justification for finally doing so.

Written by R. A. Stark

June 26, 2015 at 1:08 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

The Profound Racism of White Heritage

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The identity “white” is nothing to be proud of. It is a recent political fiction that has consistently changed with the understood purpose of excluding black people from political life. Perversely, it also required white participants to give up their own heritage, frequently because it too was maligned. To celebrate it, and with the flag of the Western Hemisphere’s most explicitly White Supremacist country, is profoundly misguided.

The full history of whiteness is a complicated story, and one I won’t be printing in full. Americans have a good idea of what it looked like by the Civil War, but often forget that there peripheral categories that, while not black didn’t qualify as white in the familiar sense. In 1900, if one was Catholic, one was viewed as an outsider. Slurs like “Mick” for Irish people, exclusion of Italians, and the racially driven fear of Eastern European anarchists were part of the political fabric of American life. The KKK protested these groups as corrupting racial purity in the United States.

None of this is to suggest that it was equivalent to the systematic horrors visited upon black people. By design, those from the Catholic sphere formed an in-between class. White enough to help oppress black people, but no so white that they ranked equal with White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

It was not until the New Deal in the 30s that this shifted. The Democrats were increasingly outflanked by the Republicans—who were inching towards a coalition to enfranchise black Americans into political life. By incorporating the powerful racial machines of urban politics, the Democrats were able to bring the working poor under a single umbrella. This precipitated a shift to viewing Catholics with pale skin as white. Though protestants remained first among equals for some time, this cleared the way for the first Catholic president a generation later. (When, it is worth noting, the Northern Democrats were carrying racial enfranchisement to its logical conclusion in the most profound party realignment this country has ever seen.)

To claim white as your heritage is to claim this as your history. White people should be aware that this is to a point an inescapable fact of their identity. That to this day, the political fiction around our skin provides us protection and power. But, without denying that reality, we should also claim our national origin that whiteness served to erase.

This is not completely uncomplicated. African Americans cannot, by design, claim a national heritage. National memory was suppressed under slavery in the attempt to create a single, black identity where all were oppressed. More, claiming European heritage still invokes the sins of Europe. As an American of German heritage, I must be careful in celebrating my ancestral lands; I hardly need rehash the German attitudes about race that culminated in the 1940s with a massive genocide attempt.

Still I claim pfeffernusse and that strange rationalism as my heritage. I reject as much as possible the totalizing banner of whiteness designed to keep black people out. I recognize that I still wear it as a shroud that protects and enfranchises me—and that I don’t get a choice in the matter. I repudiate the Confederate flag as something which has always existed to state, in the plainest way, that black Americans will never be confederated with white Americans.

It is at best naive and at worst an ugly, self-serving lie to suggest that White Heritage is anything but profoundly racist.

Written by R. A. Stark

June 24, 2015 at 11:27 AM

Rand Paul’s Mostly Progressive Tax Proposal

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And Some Interesting Observations about the Status Quo

The Politiconomist takes requests! A friend asked me to take a look at Rand Paul’s tax proposal to see if it was progressive—he thought it was. He is generally right, though for a lot of people it is actually regressive.

In looking at it, I found decent, high-level data from the CBO that highlights just how topsy-turvy our current system is.

The Proposal

Rand Paul wants to take the arcane Federal tax system, repeal it, and replace it with a much more simple proposal. Before I get into the meat of the proposal, there is some virtue to this. The Federal tax system is obscenely complex and that is in itself to the benefit of accountants, lawyers, and the well off people who can hire them. Proposals to simplify that have merit at face, even if we ultimately reject the simplification as unjust or unworkable.

In his own words:

…repeal the entire IRS tax code—more than 70,000 pages—and replace it with a low, broad-based tax of 14.5% on individuals and businesses. I would eliminate nearly every special-interest loophole. The plan also eliminates the payroll tax on workers and several federal taxes outright, including gift and estate taxes, telephone taxes, and all duties and tariffs. I call this “The Fair and Flat Tax.” …establish a 14.5% flat-rate tax applied equally to all personal income, including wages, salaries, dividends, capital gains, rents and interest. All deductions except for a mortgage and charities would be eliminated. The first $50,000 of income for a family of four would not be taxed. For low-income working families, the plan would retain the earned-income tax credit.

In doing my analysis, I will neglect the bit about charities and mortgages—but they are effectively regressive. As income increases, charity and mortgages taken together generally climb, though it’s not perfect or nearly as lockstep as legal taxes on income. They muddy the waters a bit, so the progressivity below is almost certainly overstated.

His proposal highlights one of the weirder aspects of progressivity. Until a family of 4 makes 50K, that family faces an unchanging tax rate of 0%. This is, by the elasticity definition I’m going to use*, means there is no change in progressivity and is very regressive. It has an objective measure of 0—1 is flat. Then, suddenly, at 50K, it jumps up to positive infinity—a fancy way of saying suddenly there is a tax—and then falls steadily, never falling below progressive.

Rand Paul’s proposal is progressive at high incomes, though facing diminishing returns to progressivity.

What about Compared to the Status Quo?

Interestingly enough…

According to the CBO, quintile over quintile, the tax system is progressive. It has diminishing progressivity. By my measure, going from each sees a decrease in progressivity, but each quintile pays a larger share of marginal income. Worth noting is that some people are able to use the complexities of the tax systems to make taxes regressive, but on net they are not the dominant actors. As stated above, I’m for simplifying the system to make that harder, but not at the expense of progressivity.

One interesting thing to note that is a bit off topic is that the second quintile benefits progressively from the transfer system. This is arguably regressive as we popularly understand the term; as income climbs, the government provides you with more subsidies. This is likely a product of credits for houses, farms, and college—things that the very poor do not have. This essentially stagnates going into the third quintile and than turns around for the upper 40%.

Here’s a graph. The curving line to the right of the vertical line is the theoretical progressivity of Paul’s proposal, deductions neglected. To the left, the curve sits on the x-axis and is thus very regressive. The blue points are the empirical progressivity of the status quo:



Whether you think this plan is overall regressive or progressive is something of a matter of taste. Objectively, it is regressive below the 50K mark, but for middle to high income earners it is more progressive than the status quo, converging together near the top. Which matters more to you?

I don’t think progressives should support this. Paul’s suggestion that the economy will “roar” if we cut taxes is betrayed by the experiences in Kansas. More, Paul explicitly proposes cutting spending to fund it. It’s a mistake to view that as progressive, regardless of what we find about the revenue side of things. But it’s also a mistake to call Paul’s tax structure regressive for high-income earners—it is evidently not.

If anything, this proves there is more to good progressive governance than tax rates.

*The formula for progressivity I’ve chosen is:

p=\frac{\Delta T}{\Delta I} \frac{I}{T}

where T is taxes and I is income.

Written by R. A. Stark

June 22, 2015 at 1:24 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

The Right Not to Bear Arms

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I do not categorically disapprove of outrage politics. Outrage is a legitimate—and correct—response to outrageous things. Events which provoke the feelings of violation and anger require us to respond by sharing those feelings of violation and anger.

Which brings me to the NRA.

The recent attack by a right-wing terrorist on the AME Church in Charleston, SC was in itself outrageous. But the response from the NRA, that if the members of the church had been armed they would have been able to defend themselves, left me completely speechless. The Internet at large has done a very good job taking on the victim blaming. But you know what, let’s take them at their word. Let’s reason forward from the premise that they could have defended themselves with arms.

They may well have chosen not to. The right to bear arms is a reservation of liberty, not a commandment.

Speaking personally, I do not like guns on a purely aesthetic level. They make a loud noise that I flinch at. I gain no pleasure from practicing firing them, a fact I’m sure related to my unsteady hands and poor depth perception. This is, incidentally, the case against me trying to carry them for self-defense.

But the American Methodist Episcopal Church has long had pacifist and non-violent elements*. Many of its members, as a matter of personal creed, chose to protect themselves and their communities by battling the systems that lead to this kind of violence, like racism and other forms of oppression. When we weekly hear that some [white persons’] religious liberty is getting run over, you would think that the right would be more sympathetic to the idea that there are faithful objections to guns.

But even without the backing of religion, the right to bear arms is the right to choose. Responding to a shooting by suggesting that they chose wrong implies that you view their situation as coercive enough that the choice was obvious. Which is an awkward road for someone against gun control to go down. If other people owning guns is such an onerous burden on a community that it is wrong not to choose to own a gun, then the very nature of liberty begins to look forced. If it is indeed true that Dylan Roof’s actions force us to carry guns, then we should view his ability to use dangerous weapons as coercive.

This is the case for gun control at its core. If guns are power, if they are control, if they are so dangerous that a terrorist can force us to carry them, then to defend our freedoms we must regulate them.

I don’t believe it’s so simple. I’m unusually ambivalent about guns for a liberal and I conditionally support the right to bear arms. But we must recognize that guns are, in a final sense, at odds with the liberal vision of life, liberty, and property. They can be used for extraordinary rights violations and have a chilling effect on discourse that sustained printed criticism never will. Especially salient is the effect violence has on minority communities. Balancing all this against against the bearers’ rights is no easy task—and one I will not attempt today.

But the NRA could not be more outrageously wrong about the Charleston shooting. If guns facilitate the kind of attacks we see—if they put citizens into the kind of conflict the liberal state is meant to protect—then the answer cannot be more guns.

*This is your regular reminder that pacifism and non-violence have specific, largely unrelated meanings.

Written by R. A. Stark

June 21, 2015 at 12:00 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Meme I Hate: Free College

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Hate is a strong word this time around. But “Meme I Have Strong, Negative Feelings because the Simplicity of the Argument Grossly Distorts Something” isn’t the greatest attention getter.

In what marks the first of what I’m sure will be many posts of me being ambivalent about Bernie Sanders, there is this meme:

Modeling off the European system, eh? That requires a tweak I’m not sure everyone sharing this meme is ready for. First of all, not all countries in Europe do this. The German system has been especially successful, but it also has one of the lower rates of tertiary education in the OECD. Among its living citizens, only 27% of their citizens have graduated college, compared to the US’s 42%.

None of this is surprising—you can read about me talking about how subsidized college makes college more expensive here. The way to control this is rationing.

I’m not against that, but that doesn’t seem to be Sander’s proposal. He merely looks to instate a static tax of 50 cents per hundred dollars on the stock market. There seems to be little recognition of the dynamics of either investment or higher ed. Unless we limit access to college, proposals to make it easier to go will make higher ed more unmanageable and more expensive.

I don’t hate that Sanders is trying to solve this problem. In a strategic sense, I could be persuaded to support the bill since I think it would end with public education being rationed—I support that. But this is what the Democratic primary is going to look like: Clinton making sound proposals that help the elite while Sanders makes unworkable proposals that sound like they’ll help people.

And that reminder is why this is a Meme I Hate.

Written by R. A. Stark

June 5, 2015 at 12:16 PM

Posted in Meme I Hate

Large Lectures Destroyed Open Discourse at Universities

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There is finally (finally!) a piece I’ve read criticizing contemporary problems in Social Justice without resorting to denying the last century (Kipnis) or three (Chait) of scholarship, flat out denying the politics of individual identity (Halberstam), or making an appeal to tradition. Seriously, Edward Schlosser’s piece is worth your time. If you have time to read just the piece or my thoughts on it, I’m telling you to stop reading my blog and head over to there.

It’s not perfect. It manages to flatten some of the problems, distorting extreme examples into broad practices. He is far too sympathetic to Laura Kipnis, whose views are a bit more personal than broadly defending teacher/student relationships. He reads a couple of his examples uncharitably. If you’re finding problems in the piece, I’m happy to discuss them because I see plenty too. His conclusion is a good taste of why I feel so good about the piece, even if I’m hedging:

Debate and discussion would ideally temper this identity-based discourse, make it more usable and less scary to outsiders. Teachers and academics are the best candidates to foster this discussion, but most of us are too scared and economically disempowered to say anything.

(Emphasis mine.)

His critique is good to its limits. There really are problems with the hyper-obsession with identity. But he also read a tweet—the definition of flattened discourse—this way:

Kelly is intelligent. Her voice is important. She realizes, correctly, that evolutionary psychology is flawed, and that science has often been misused to legitimize racist and sexist beliefs. But why draw that out to the extreme of rejecting scientific inquiry as a whole? Can’t we see how it’s dangerous to reject centuries of established thought so blithely? Or how scary and extreme that makes us look to people who don’t already agree with us? And tactically, can’t we see how shortsighted it is to abandon a viable and respected manner of inquiry just because it’s associated with white males?

Dude. It’s a pretty widely accepted point that “white patriarchal” positions can be advocated by minority women. Tokenism is an old, well-accepted Social Justice concept. We can quibble about the “most”—I think the tweet would be stronger with “much”, but that’s an awfully fine hair to be splitting on Twitter. But if you’re going to read the tweet that closely, then you have to accept that she not advocating the rejection of anything, just calling the state of scientific modeling into question. The Jacobian link does just that, and at the very least we can agree that there’s not enough textual evidence to decide what the tweeter would about that piece. The use of systemic markers (instead of identity markers) is a good indication she gets that white biases in science aren’t the same as fleeing science wholesale because bros.

This is a lot of words to call open season on dissecting this piece. It would be very good for social justice to split the good from the bad and get to work. But that’s not the main reason I’m writing a post.

I want to draw your attention back to the first quote, and specifically the part I bolded. Professors are “too…economically disempowered to saying anything.” While he only grazes over this in a few places, mentioning in particular the very real plight of adjuncts, it illuminated something for me. I kind of expected him to make it more explicit and was disappointed that he never did. Students are asserting themselves as they always have, just through administrative means.

Defining and tracking course size is a challenge this blog won’t be tackling, but the consensus I’ve heard from the people doing the teaching is that they are expected to teach ever larger courses. It’s not hard to see the difference in dynamics. This can be summarized by two econ professors I had, one not great at all, one fantastic.

The first taught a large, introductory macro course. We’ll call it a class of 200, but I honestly don’t remember. At any rate, his quiet, flat demeanor made his lectures difficult to sit through. The tests were exclusively multiple choice, and I was never expected to work through an open ended problem. He got the job done (in most places), but it was a horrible, boring, transactional slog.

The second professor taught a much cozier course on taxation. While the roster said 40, by the time attendance was factored in, he was teaching 15 of us and merely testing the rest. He had a hybrid lecture/discussion section where he’d briefly introduce new material and then discuss with us the modeling wrinkles. His reserved way of speaking made him seem like a guide or an informed moderator, depending on if he was lecturing or discussing at any given moment. We had open-ended problems where the emphasis was on our defense, not our conclusions. He tailored class to our questions, fostered dialogue where we were onto something, and challenged our bad assumptions.

They were both the same professor.

When education is a dialogue, it is easier to informally work with your professor, to shape conversation as a stakeholder. But the model that universities are forcing is much more authoritarian. Large lectures must, necessarily, overrun student needs. The check on this has been students reaching for formal redress. After all, their professors have an enormous task teaching these over-large courses, which makes informal redress stressful, difficult, and inconsistent for everyone.

There are problems with informal redress—abuse of power isn’t magically solved by talking to every abuser. I know Laura Kipnis is a worn talking point on this blog, but her piece on sexual panic details an environment so ripe for abuse that I can’t understand why she’s become such a focal point for those concerned about the state of education. Regardless, when education was more of an exchange, I will charitably concede that the environment was likely a few shades less ripe.

Professors can hardly blame students for wanting to avoid abuse. I think most of the professors I had would have taken into consideration a student bringing up a personal issue in a respectful way if they didn’t have to worry about 199 other students. Drop power is helpful for the rest of them. No solution will cover everything, but that leaves only a small set of (still important!) cases to be discussed. But as teachers have more power over students, they will continue to see administration take more power over them to check it.

That’s bad for everyone.

We need to start viewing open discourse (“free speech”*) objections as a shell game. Open discourse was grievously injured as we limited the fora for discourse, not when we made sure professors used their widening power well. Above a very low thresh hold, the number of people in a classroom will limit the exchange each student can participate in. There are good reasons to push beyond that threshold—introductory macro is a series of canonized models that form a basis for later conversations, so conserving resources by limiting conversation at that point is pragmatic. But when those later conversations never come, when resource conservation becomes the primary goal of administrators, this is a necessarily authoritarian move. Social Justice proposals that don’t address that merely move the greatly curtailed freedom from teachers to their students; the push-back from professors doesn’t widen discourse either.

Schlosser has every right to object—and I’m obviously sympathetic to those who are even marginally aware of the power dynamic. If Social Justice folks have a shortcoming in this regard, it’s that we’re viewing admin as our allies and teachers as those wielding power. It’s true only in a sadly myopic sense. (Plenty of Social Justice folks, however, do recognize where the squeeze is coming from.) The constraints on universities, some artificially imposed by the state, some by administrators, and still others from overcrowding at universities, are not easily shed.

But if we care about discourse at universities, something must give.

*The argument is well thought out enough I will relegate this to a footnote, but remember: there is an important conceptual difference between open discourse and free speech. The latter looks to government involvement, the former to the health of our conversations. Schlosser is clearly talking about open discourse, so I will be labeling it accordingly.

Written by R. A. Stark

June 3, 2015 at 11:57 AM

Posted in Uncategorized


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