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About meIm a rogue environmental economics consultant, an atheist, and trying to reinvent myself as a book reviewer so I can read books I can't afford to buy.

About my libraryMy library is dominantly economics, philosophy, literature, mathematics.



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(When Sexes Collide)
Maureen Dowd

(Berkley, 2005, 338 pp; $15)

When Maureen Dowd first ‘googled’ her name in the internet, she claims, the first return was a video of her giving Bill Clinton a job, probably because her coverage and commentary on Clinton’s impeachment and trial over the Monica Lewinsky affair were what clinched the Pulitzer for her in 1999, and she was perceived as critical of the deranged and hypocritical Ken Starr. But her ascerbic columns on the Bush dynasty and the stupid Republicans were what really caught my attention four or five years ago.

In ‘Are Men Necessary’ I am a bit disappointed but I had been forewarned. In her introduction she dowsed expectations with the usual warning that she was going to raise questions but did not necessarily have answers. To be fair, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading this book because the questions she raises are questions I also ask, as a man with doubtful claims as a feminist.

What strikes me as most relevant at this time is her ambivalence over Hillary and Bill. Although she castigates them both for their failings, and the latter for her betrayal of feminist principles and aspirations for pragmatic and other political aims, her liberal bias still shines through, and her bias is my bias too. If I understand Dowd, she would still probably prefer Hillary winning against the Republicans in 2008, although the timeframe in the book excludes the dawn and rise of Obama.

One thing which really confuses me about the dilemma over principles vs. pragmatism is that the opposing forces never really make their priorities clear, although the clash implies that there has to be a prioritization of principles which one holds dear and that pragmatism merely means that one gives up lower principles over higher ones, at any particular time. In practice, however, one may appeal to the lowest common denominator to get the support of a plurality or a majority to implement a common agenda.

The only solution I can propound at the moment is that ‘principles’ held by individuals and groups may not really be internally consistent and it will take some time to sort them out.

Take for example, Dowd’s plaint against the aspiration of western feminists to be ‘equal’ to men only to later find out that what men wanted was not worth it (at) all. For when the doors were opened, many actually opt to stay home as their version of fulfillment.

In the political sphere, the Philippines can superficially be called more advanced than the U.S. because we have already had two women presidents while there is still a ‘macho’ bias in the U.S. Dowd covered the campaign of Geraldine Ferraro for the vice presidency and recounts the experience in the book, from which I learned a lot of the details.

Yet, the Philippines remains an obviously backward country in terms of equality between genders. Even the so-called Left political parties---especially the party-list parties---are hesitant to advocate genuine divorce laws out of fear of the backlash from the Catholic church, of which many of them still swear allegiance to., and which is why the Philippines still remains as backward as ever. Obviously, gays and lesbians, according to segments of the Philippine Left, don’t belong in hell. But women who escape from unhappy marriages and abusive husbands do. And that is pragmatism.
More Sex is Safer Sex
The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics
Steven E. Landsburg

(Free Press, 2007, pp 274; PhP1170 at fully booked)

Expectedly, Landsburg got a lot of hate mail for the lead essay in this collection from readers who misinterpreted it as advocating promiscuity. It does not. What it does is use economic theory to argue that if responsible individuals shy away from the casual sex market, it leaves that market with a greater proportion of individuals with more risky behavior, and thus increase the risk for other people of contracting HIV.

Landsburg, who writes a popular column (Everyday Economics), is one of a few economists who believe that the world would be a much better place if the findings (and also the methods) of economics had a wider audience, and who act on that belief. He does a good job explaining these findings because he refrains from using economics jargon. He succeeds because he is a good writer, and he is a good writer because he is a clear thinker, though he falters in some instances. (Why he appreciates Scrooge).

The main reason I appreciate Landsburg is that he painstaking explains a key concept in economics without ever using the technical term (externality). As a perpetual student and practioner of environmental economics, I am often frustrated with people who don’t understand the idea, because I am a distance removed from the clear thinking of people like Landsburg.

But back to sex, which is probably why you are my accidental reader. To my knowledge, the AIDS scourge is already contained in the Philippines, but I could be wrong and the health authorities could be lying, or maybe the entrepreneurs of the sex industry here might really be more responsible. (Hey, I’m no expert on the sex industry and I’ve never had sex with a prostitute). But the main assertion in the essay holds, regardless. Certainly such ideas would raise the hackles of ‘respectable’ citizens in a morally challenged and hypocritical Catholic country such as ours. But wait, Landsburg refrains from discussing morality, but recognizes that moral values do matter.

In another essay, he could also be misinterpreted as supporting the Catholic church’s position on birth control in the essay “Be Fruitful and Multiply.” He argues that a larger world population would be good for all of us, but he doesn’t necessarily argue that governments (especially in the developing countries) should not spend tax money educating poor households on the merits of birth control and responsible parenthood).

Readers who enjoyed Freakonomics would probably enjoy this book. But they should know that there is a limit to how much economists would reveal the secrets of their profession, because after some limit, they would start to make themselves dispensable. And they would not generally want to cross that line.

The ‘more sex’ idea is not really his but that of Michael Kremer, a Harvard economist, who did the rigorous analysis and reported the results in “Integrating Behavioral Choice into Epidemiological Models of the AIDS Epidemic” in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

I bought a copy as a wedding present for a very good friend. Books generally make for unimaginative and inappropriate wedding presents, but not in this case. My friend Ben Endriga not only is a good economist and pianist, he would also most likely enjoy reading the lead essay.
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