Finding Mrs Right

January 29, 2010

According to new research out by Pew, the old social logic that women needed to find “Mr. Right” to improve their socio-economic status is changing, and in many cases, reversing.  In more than half of marriages amongst 30 to 44 year old Americans, women have at least as much education as men, and in 28% of cases, women have more education than men. And while in the majority of marriages men still earn more than women, the number of women who earn more than their husbands has increased 4-fold since the 1970s.

Maybe these statistics, and similar studies, have helped to influence government’s thinking about granting more generous rights to fathers when their children are born. Just yesterday, for example, it was announced that fathers in the UK will soon be eligible to take up to 6 months of paternity leave if their wives / partners return to work. Seeing as a good deal of those women may be making more than their husbands, sounds like a good deal for the economy, for the families and for the little ones that get to stay home with Mr. Right.

From Haiti, With Love

January 24, 2010

The pictures of the collapsed Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, some of the first and most striking images of the damage this month’s earthquake created, are a nice visual summary of what’s happened to the already exceptionally fragile Haitian government. Namely, it has partially collapsed. One indicator of just how much of Haiti’s governing is being done from Washington and UN headquarters is that the US government announced on Monday that they would expedite adoptions of Haitian orphans to US families who had been pre-approved for adoptions.

From an international relations standpoint this is of course peculiar. A high school friend and her husband have been waiting to adopt a Haitian toddler almost since his birth, and their file was, until the recent earthquake, stuck in a seemingly endless and excruciatingly slow loop of Haitian bureaucracy, where they were seeking approval for the completion of the adoption by the Haitian government. Now, thankfully for them and for their adoptive son Stanley, the US government’s decision to “parole” orphans whose adoption files were already significantly in process means that my friend is (very anxiously) waiting for good news in Ft Lauderdale while her husband is set-up in one of Port-au-Prince’s “tent cities” helping the orphanage staff and advocating for the children at the US Embassy. They are hoping to have an interview at the Embassy tomorrow, and to bring their little one home to Maryland soon.

The striking thing about this is that the only party who seems to be opposed to Washington’s decision is not the Haitian government (whose voice on the matter has not been reported, but whose position on the issue is impossible to make easy predictions about), but instead UNICEF, who is concerned about the possibility for trafficking of children in the wake of the earthquake. They issued a statement cautiously supporting the government’s decision, but only for children whose files had been previously approved. Their overarching policy is to provide safety for Haitian children in Haiti, in part because there is still reunification work to be done between children, their parents and extended families.

I’m hoping that little Stanley is soon with his American parents, at a safe distance from the chaos of Port-au-Prince (I type this while nervously checking my friend’s Facebook status, to see whether there is any news to report).  I also hope that in the longer run the government of Haiti is capable of recovering, functioning, and taking on the tasks of providing public goods so that future generations of children like Stanley never find themselves in a similar situation.

N.B. The title of this post does not refer to the killing of more than 45 million turkeys a year for American Thanksgivng tables, it’s just unhappy coincidence for the poor turkey pictured above. If you were hoping for a pro-veggie, anti-turkey eating tirade, I would recommend the new non-fiction book by the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (it’s illuminating!), or this shorter article in the New Yorker describing the book in all its gory detail.

A series of things takes place in my life between the end of October and the end of November which makes it rough going. The most basic is that London moves off daylight savings time, which means that the darkness starts to close in ever closer to noon. This is depressing enough in and of itself without the tri-facto I’m about to mention.

First, there is a certain lack of festivity in London in this period of the year, or more precisely, a premature Christmas festiveness which is explained by the half-hearted observance of Halloween and the non-existence of Thanksgiving. There is something that has to be said about US commercialisation of holidays – at least we have three between October 31 and December 25 to diversify amongst; I really can’t get into Christmas in early November (and yes, I’ve written about how this provokes my homesickness on this blog before).

Second, the autumn term at LSE, which runs 10 weeks between the first week of October and the second week of December, is in full swing, and therefore I am at a peak level of stress. Combine that with the third, and essentially, November acts as a knock out punch: it’s high flu season. One member of my  family has been sick with something or another every weekend for the past three. I’m recovering from several days out with the flu, which is exhausting for all parties concerned (as I described it to a friend recently, having one parent sick transforms a “two parent, one child” household into a “one parent, two child” household).

The only bright spot in this season is that at the very end of November, I get to celebrate N.’s birthday, which is a very bright spot indeed. So it’s not actually that November is the cruelest month, but instead the month falling between 25 October (the day that the clocks rolled back and the sun went down before 5pm) and 25 November (Thanksgiving Eve, as despite the logistical challenges, I usually manage to get some friends and family together for a turkey). But saying that the non-calendrical month falling between the 25th of October and the 25th of November was the cruelest month just sounded so much less poetic.

Mommy Capital

November 4, 2009

In the recent weeks, I’ve been discussing with my students the political and economic conditions that help democracies to emerge, and make them stick. One of the most abstract ideas  to get your head around is that having “democratic values” and a “civic culture” helps you become a democracy and stay that way (abstract because how do you get these things if you are not a democracy?). This includes things like having high levels of citizen participation in social and political organisations, believing in the benefits of democracy, etc.

An extremely interesting article (accessible to everyone, not just LSE master’s students) was written in the mid-1990s by the political scientist Robert Putnam. It is titled “bowling alone.” Putnam is an expert on social capital because he studied the impact that having it had on the quality of policy and governance in various Italian regions for about twenty years. Basically, he found that if you had more social capital, you were more likely to have good governance, and good policy. Bowling alone takes these insights and applies them to the US. Putnam documents the decline of civic participation in the United States: Americans between 1950 and 1990 went from being highly engaged in social and political activities in their communities to being apathetic and uninvolved. Indeed, where they once bowled in organised leagues, they now go bowling alone.

All of this got me to thinking about the fact that one of the reasons M. and I decided to buy a flat in the same neighbourhood of London we currently live in is that we wanted not maintain the social capital we had already built up living here for 2 years. This social capital comes in the form of a couple of key forms, most of which are related to our role as parents. First, we have learned about activities during the day for our son: playgroups, library story and song hours, etc (if all of this seems like Greek to you because you are not a parent, the quick story is that babies these days don’t just sit at home and watch their mothers cook while teething on a rattle, they go to music and dance lessons, organised play hours with other children, swimming lessons and all sorts of other things). Second we know about schools and nurseries in this area. And third (and only partially related to being parents), we have gotten to know other couples in this area, and their children, which makes us feel more connected to the community.

A good part of this “connectedness” has been facilitated by my becoming a member of a group of mothers in the area. When I found out about this group about a year ago, it was just getting started in a formal way, in fact, they were in the process of building a website. Now, it’s a major “organisation” in our area with a blog, regular meet-ups for mothers and babies, social events (this past weekend, a Halloween party), a Facebook group and special discounts organised for moms at local businesses. They also provide information on schools, nurseries, doctors and political initiatives in the area. There are about 200 moms in this area who are members on the network which, if you assume on average that each mother represents a household of 3 people (a second parent and a child – a conservative estimate as many mothers have more than one child), that’s somewhere between 5-10% of the population of the area (depending on how tightly you define the neighborhood and whether you use 2001 census data or other sources).  Not a huge percent, but certainly a significant one.

You might guess what this made me consider next: does this unique form of social capital (“mommy capital”) in our neighbourhood have any tangible benefits along the lines that Putnam’s research suggests? I didn’t really  investigate this in any depth, or do any real statistics (certainly not any that would satisfy my quantitatively-minded MSc students), but I did look quickly to see how the area’s crime statistics compared to bordering neighbourhoods with similar or higher income levels, and to see whether there were any trends over time.

And here’s what I found. First, in the year that this network has been expanding and formalising, crime in the neighbourhood dropped, despite the obvious deterioration in economic indicators for London as a whole, and the neighbourhood’s demographic.   Unfortunately, there are only two years of statistics available, which makes seeing a longer term trend or a sudden drop impossible. Second, when you break down crime stats by type, there are fewer offences in quite a few categories in this neighbourhood vs. at least one adjacent and comparable (or more wealthy) area. In fact, crime rates in our neighbourhood are one of the lowest in Westminster. Drawing a causation between this rough data and “mommy capital” is of course silly, but it’s not silly to think that belonging to this group encourages people to become more involved in their community, which in turn improves the quality of living in the area on a number of metrics, including, potentially, crime.

Tear-Free Economics

September 28, 2009

Last night I was going through a fortnightly ritual: wandering through the kitchen and bathroom to determine what we needed from the virtual grocery store. Seeing as we are still (though perhaps not for long) a car free household (which marginally balances our flight related carbon footprint) we do almost all of our grocery shopping online. Among the things that I noticed was running low was N.’s baby shampoo. He’ll be two at the end of November, and though I’ve shampooed his hair dutifully every other night since he was born, the bottle of baby shampoo I bought with my mom just before he was born still has about 10% left.

This got me to thinking: maybe baby shampoo is a natural monopoly. In other words, an industry in which its most efficient to have just one producer.   While usually applied to utilities or transport because of the large cost of infrastructure, baby shampoo might just be the same kind of industry. The average newborn has about enough hair to warrant the application of a half a pea-sized amount of shampoo, and not even every day as their little heads dry out quickly. Even a toddler has a relatively small amount of hair (though perhaps if I had a two year old daughter rather than a son I would be washing more hair than I am now).  Thus, why would you want to make a very low-cost cosmetic product that needs to be replenished only once every two years?

You wouldn’t really, unless you had cornered the market.  And given that the cost of producing baby shampoo is almost nothing, the question is how do you do that? By a clever, and timeless, marketing strategy. The “No More Tears” on every bottle of Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo is so familiar that I remember musing as a child about what the ” secret ingredient” was that made it tear free. The brand leader is so well established that the generic version available in the online supermarket was the same canary yellow colour.

I literally can’t name a single other children’s shampoo (though a quick search at the supermarket revealed that there are lots of fancy organic ones that I probably should be using instead of Johnson & Johnson).  This is relatively rare for a cosmetic / household product: try an experiment. Toothpaste? At least three major brands. Adult shampoo? Countless. Cleaning products? Ditto. The natural monopoly like nature of this product might just mean that one day N.’s children are using J&J Baby Shampoo as well.  Somehow that makes me feel like the world is just a little bit smaller… and less tearful.