Dynamist Blog

On Substance and Style

From my interview with Claudia Goldin about Larry Summers: "His style is our sort of style. Economists dress one way, and people in the English department dress another way. My friends in other departments--non-economics, non-science--wear just lovely clothes and beautiful jewelry, and their nails are elegantly shaped and their hair is nicely coiffed. Style is very important to them, and it is almost nothing to us....It's the bravado, it's the rough edges, of Larry that annoy people. People who spend a lot of time on their personal dress also spend a lot of time in choosing their words--in universities that is."

How to Get More Female Scientists

Differences among individuals--whether of interests, priorities, talents, or childhood experiences--lead to different career choices and opportunities. A lot of the debate over women and work, and most of the debate over Larry Summers's remarks, is about which differences are important and whether those differences indicate some underlying injustice. But, perhaps because I'm less interested in aggregates than a lot of social scientists, I think the essential question is a different one: Take a man and a woman who are the same on all those dimensions--same talents, same obsession with work, same supportive, slower-track spouse, same great mentors, same educational success--is there some difference that will nonetheless put the woman at a professional disadvantage? And the answer, especially in the university, is, of course, yes.

Biology has its own rules, which culture and technology can change only so much. One of those rules is that it's really hard to get pregnant if you're 40 but pretty easy to father a child at that age. Men postpone child rearing into their 40s with little consequence. Women cannot. That's a problem for professional women in general, but it's a much bigger problem for women on a tenure clock. And the later that tenure clock starts, the bigger a problem it is. That's why an amibitous female scientist faces problems that an ambitious female lawyer doesn't. Law school takes only three years; you're out at 25, and only 27 if you spend a couple of years clerking for judges. Work like a dog for seven years, postponing any thought of kids, and you're just 34. Your biological clock hasn't yet run down. (That's even more true in my profession, one of the few that doesn't require graduate training.)

If, however, you spend six years in grad school and another two as a postdoc, you'll be 30 when you get your first tenure-track post--and that's assuming you don't work between college and grad school. I don't have the numbers, but science training is notorious for stretching out the doctoral/postdoc process, in part because the researchers heading labs benefit from having all that cheap, talented help. Female scientists who want kids are in trouble, even assuming they have husbands who'll take on the bulk of family responsibilities.

So, if a university like Harvard wants to foster the careers of female scientists, this is my advice: Speed up the training process so people get their first professorial jobs as early as possible--ideally, by 25 or 26. Accelerate undergraduate and graduate education; summer breaks are great for students who want to travel or take professional internships, but maybe science students should spend them in school. Penalize senior researchers whose grad students take forever to finish their Ph.D.s. Spend more of those huge endowments on reducing (or eliminating) teaching assistant loads and other distractions from a grad student's own research and training. If you want more female scientists, ceteris paribus (as the economists say), stop extending academic adolescence.

Summers and the Economic Way of Talking

Editors don't always inflict painful cuts on my articles. Sometimes I inflict them myself. My latest NYT column, arguing that the reaction to Larry Summers's remarks about women in science is an attack on economists' approach to social problems, is a great example. By the time I explained the controversy and quoted Summers there simply wasn't much room for some of the most interesting reflections (mine and others') on how economists' habits of speech and mind got him into trouble. The article concentrates mostly on what happens when you dispassionately examine hypotheses about human life and human behavior: People with an emotional stake and without the disciplinary habits of separating "is" from "ought" get pissed. But there's more to the story.

Take Summers's use of the word "marginal," a concept so central to modern economics that economists can hardly think without it. Even as a journalist who tries hard to avoid jargon, I know from personal experience that if you slip and say "marginal" rather than "additional" or "incremental"--the economic meaning--people will think you mean "unimportant," "wasteful," "worthless," or just plain bad. If misunderstandings can happen in a speech on the economic importance of aesthetics as the absolutely critical "marginal value" that determines whether a good or service succeeds, imagine what happens when you're talking about affirmative action.

Then there's the concept of "path dependence." Biology and discrimination aren't the only possible explanations for why a group would be underrepresented in a particular profession. History plays a major role. Especially to a liberal economist like Summers, whose scholarly work looked for examples of market failure, history can lead to bad results that market interractions won't correct. So when he looks at workplaces that reward employees who devote nearly every waking hour to thinking about their work, he sees a bad equilibrium that unfairly penalizes women--a system stuck in a dysfunctional groove because it developed under different historical conditions.

I, on the other hand, think the system is not only efficient but pretty darned fair, regardless of how it may differentially affect the sexes. "Time on task" makes a huge difference in productivity and problem solving. People who spend all their time thinking about work are more likely to be better at what they do than people who have other interests and priorities, just as people who actually spend time with their kids are probably better parents than parents who are never around. The general culture stigmatizes that single-minded dedication to work as weird or morally suspect. The workplace rewards the added productivity, and also pays a "compensating differential" (as the economists say) to make up for the sacrifices elsewhere. That seems reasonable to me. A research university is an odd institution to join the campaign for "balanced lives."

Finally, I find it quite possible that more men than women are really, really great at math and science, just as I find it not only possible but likely that on average women have poorer spatial abilities than men. (That goes quadruple for me, which only proves the importance of motivation and social assumptions. If I can drive a car, a lot more kids can learn calculus.) I doubt, however, that "fat tails" make a huge difference in the run-of-the-mill Ivy League job. In a country of nearly 300 million (not to mention the rest of the world) even a skinny tail includes a lot of women. My guess is that, aside from family issues, temperament and interests matter as much as raw ability.

American Leather: Old and Improved

I've now posted the original, much livelier version of my feature on American Leather, mentioned below. The published version was brutally cut for space, even after I'd seen versions from two editors. Someone, apparently thinking it was a wire service news story rather than a feature, even lopped off the last paragraph--which was the punchline to the final anecdote.

Jobs at Spirit of America

Jim Hake of Spirit of America emails:

In this message we are asking your help in finding new members of the Spirit of America team. We have both job and volunteer opportunities. Please forward this message to those you think may be interested. More information on these positions is here: http://www.spiritofamerica.net/site/about/488.

When I met with General Tommy Franks in December he said he thought that Spirit of America had a better opportunity to reduce/defeat terrorism than anything happening inside the Government bureaucracy today. That's a great responsibility to live up to.

We see the potential to make the contribution that Gen. Franks sees. Certainly the need is there. Most importantly, we think the American people are ready to participate and contribute to a broader effort to see freedom, democracy and peace prevail. Your support has provided very encouraging evidence of that. To realize this potential requires a great team of people - a team that will be able to produce even greater results in Iraq and Afghanistan and also look at appropriate ways for Spirit of America to advance freedom elsewhere, e.g., Iran, Syria and No. Korea.

Here are the key positions where outstanding men and women are needed.

Vice President, Project Management: an uber project management and operations executive with potential to be COO or Executive Director.

Vice President, Communications: a marketing, media and communications genius.

Director, Volunteers: an experienced grassroots volunteer organizer to design and manage our volunteer program from scratch.

Project Managers - Military Requests: these are volunteer positions to work with and support requests from U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We're also looking for a Development Director, Logistics Manager and Administrative Assistant. Most positions are in Los Angeles, some are in Washington, DC and a few can be anywhere. Click this link for more information and job descriptions.

These are great opportunities for talented, experienced professionals who after 9/11 have been looking for a way to make a significant contribution.

Please forward this message to anyone that would be interested in these key positions. Updates next week on many projects in the works - tools, sewing centers, Polaroid cameras, etc. -- visit our website at http://www.spiritofamerica.net for current information.

With Best Regards,
Jim Hake and the Spirit of America team

Reinventing an Old Industry

My latest article (for a special NYT section on small business) is a profile of American Leather, a flourishing Dallas-based company in an industry struggling with Chinese competition. The company embodies many of the themes I find particularly interesting: the application of modern manufacturing techniques, the use of information technology to manage complexity, the value added by variety and aesthetics, and, of course, the innovation and improvement spurred by competition.

DALLAS--WHEN Bob Duncan was studying engineering management at the University of Texas in the mid-1980's, Japanese competition had American businesses terrified. "There was great concern that Japan would eliminate the U.S. manufacturing base just totally," he recalled.

To the confident young Mr. Duncan, however, Japanese manufacturing was not a threat but an inspiration. After graduation, Mr. Duncan worked for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), teaching clients lean manufacturing techniques originally developed in Japan.

Within a couple of years, he had an idea for his own company. He decided to do for leather furniture what Japanese companies had done for cars, steel and shipbuilding: shake up a staid, complacent industry by rethinking the manufacturing process. In 1990, with another Andersen consultant, Sanjay Chandra, as his partner, Mr. Duncan set out to turn this concept into a business, the Dallas-based American Leather.

Instead of making sofas in big batches, with each step handling a week's worth of material at a time, they would treat each order as a single batch and make it in a few days. Rather than segregating cutting, sewing and upholstering, they would organize the plant in smaller teams, called "cells" or "minifactories," making it easier to spot quality problems and track a single sofa from start to finish. They would apply just-in-time techniques and keep the backlog to a week and a half, compared with the industry's six to eight weeks.

With this process, Mr. Duncan figured, their company could give customers quicker turnaround and more choice. If they wanted a sofa in a color other than black, brown or burgundy, they would no longer have to wait months for container ships from Italy. They could pick from dozens of colors and count on delivery in 30 days.

But raising money and selling furniture proved much harder than Mr. Duncan, now 41, expected. "At 26, you just don't know," he said. "You assume, Why couldn't you? It just seemed so obvious."

American Leather took more than a decade to hit $30 million in sales, not the projected three to five years. But the business was profitable by its second year, and today it is flourishing. "American Leather has literally come from nowhere to be one of the most popular leather companies in the United States," says Jerry Epperson, a furniture analyst with Mann, Armistead & Epperson in Richmond, Va.

Read the rest here. The Times website also has a slide show of photos from the plant, with audio commentary from American Leather CEO Bob Duncan.

After nudging from Reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie, I've established an email list to send out my articles. If you'd like to receive them by email, send an email to postrel-list-subscrib[email protected] with the subject line and message "subscribe."

Men Without Hats

Several readers protested when I criticized Vice President Cheney's inappropriate attire at the Auschwitz ceremonies, arguing that he shouldn't be expected to wear a formal overcoat and structured hat since he's got a heart problem. (These readers seem not to know how men dressed for cold weather a generation ago, let alone when Cheney was a child.) In an article that doesn't mention Cheney's attire, historian Deborah Lipstadt reminds us why putting comfort above ceremony was particularly inappropriate for this occasion. (She also gets in a line about blogging from the plane.)

Authenticity, Business Cards, and Spaghetti Sauce Labels

On Design Observer, Michael Bierut posts some interesting thoughts on authenticity and graphic design and elicits some interesting comments. Here's a bit of his post:

No one loves authenticity like a graphic designer. And no one is quite as good at simulating it. Recently on Speak Up, Marian Bantjes described the professional pride she took in forging a parking permit for a friend. "And I have to say," she admitted, "that it is one of the most satisfying design tasks I have ever undertaken." This provoked an outpouring of confessions from other designers who gleefully described concocting driver's licenses, report cards, concert tickets and even currency.

Every piece of graphic design is, in part or in whole, a forgery. I remember the first time I assembled a prototype for presentation to a client: a two-color business card, 10-point PMS Warm Red Univers on ivory Mohawk Superfine. The half-day process involved would be incomprehensible to a young designer working in a modern studio today; with its cutting, pasting, spraying, stirring and rubbing, it was more like making a pineapple upside-down cake from scratch. But what satisfaction I took in the final result. It was like magic: it looked real. No wonder my favorite character in The Great Escape wasn't the incredibly cool Steve McQueen, but the bewhiskered and bespeckled Donald Pleasence, who couldn't ride a stolen motorcycle behind enemy lines, but could make an imitation German passport capable of fooling the sharpest eyes in the Gestapo.

And the illusion works on yet another level. Consider: that business card was for a start-up business that until that moment had no existence outside of a three-page business plan and the rich fantasy life of its would-be founder. My prototype business card brought those fantasies to life. And reproduced en masse and handed with confidence to potential investors, it ultimately helped make the fantasy a reality. Graphic design is the fiction that anticipates the fact.

The Value of Joy


The NYT has comprehensive coverage of the new Central Park installation by Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude. "The Gates" will be up for only 16 days, which makes me especially glad to be going to New York next week. This A.P. story contains a great quote that applies not only to fine art paid for by its creators but to product style paid for by consumers.

"It's a waste of money, but it's fabulous," said student Shakana Jayson. "It brings happiness when you look at it."

If "it" were a beautiful handbag or a sleek cell phone, social critics would deem Ms. Jayson a crass materialist or a victim of commercial manipulation. (Some, I'm sure, would condemn the artists for spending $21 million on transient public art. Imagine all the people you could feed, house, or vaccinate for that money.) After I spent Saturday morning defending aesthetic products and consumer choice in a TV interview, it occurred to me that the critics are often the true materialists, unable to see any legitimate value in the sensory experiences or emotional associations embedded in aesthetic goods.

The TV interview was for a future episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit! on Showtime, whose new season begins in June. These producers plan ahead.

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