Friday, June 18, 2010

Contra Dahlia Lithwick, I would sneer if Elena Kagan started dressing like Miley Cyrus.

So a while ago, I suggested that I'd have thoughts on Deborah Rhode's The Beauty Bias . Dahlia Lithwick recently published a review in Slate, and I'm sort of plumb out of blogging material, so here goes nothing.

I have *some* sympathy with Rhode's notion that appearance bias is a problem worth fretting about. At the risk of navel-gazing, but in the interests of full disclosure, my own priors on the subject are odd: back somewhere around the age of twelve, my self-image got stuck at "ugly girl" and refused to come unstuck, despite what has sounded like years of attempts at desperate flattery. I once had a roommate who would occasionally make wry comments about other women's weight or looks, in the tone of oh-we-pretty-girls-can-get-away-with-it. It felt like being back in elementary school when we'd divide into Red and Blue and Green teams for Field Day, and I'd forget it was Field Day because I thought the whole exercise was beneath contempt and accidentally show up in a green shirt even though I was actually supposed to be on the Red team.

Still, this book isn't really addressed to me. It's not addressed to people who are worried about the public choice problems associated with expanding equal employment opportunity bureaucracy, or people who get generally concerned about expansions of state power on libertarian grounds or what have you. In several places, Rhode talks about passing the law to "raise awareness" of the problem or the like, a statement which makes me want to scream and throw things when I am not in a calm frame of mind and murmur "Yes, but unintended consequences" when I am.

In fairness, Rhode does try to meet libertarian-ish types a little bit, as Lithwick says, by pointing out that few claims have been brought in the jurisdictions that have actually enacted such laws. And, in most of these cases, the appearance discrimination claim was brought in conjunction with a more conventional anti-discrimination claim, e.g. race or sex. Rhode tries to use this as evidence that the burdens on employers will be light, claiming that most solve problems through voluntary education and compliance. Maybe, but voluntary compliance and education of workers still isn't free. Consciousness raising still takes time away from producing goods or services, a point that Rhode doesn't really acknowledge.

In a sense, there's a collective action problem here. The argument would go something like this: women would all be better off if we stopped sinking so much time and money into trying to look good. But it's in the interest of each of us individually to keep trying to look as good as possible. So all of us keep frivolously plunking down money for gym memberships and highlights instead of channeling the cash into 401(k)s and mortgages. It's true that legislation can be an effective response to certain types of collective action problems. It's not an argument Rhode makes explicitly herself, though in my view it's the most compelling argument for legislation. The problem is, though, that Rhode's proposed legislation would deal purely with employment discrimination, and I don't know that most women spend money on frivolous appearance-related things primarily for purposes of enhancing job prospects. So the only way to remedy the collective action problem is through some sort of sumptuary law, which would go far further into the realm of impinging onto personal freedom and choice than conventional employment discrimination laws.

As Lithwick notes, Rhode also writes at some length about dubious diet and anti-aging products. She wants legislation to combat misleading claims about their effectiveness. But unless I am missing something, people who are lied to and misled already can bring tort actions under fraud, products liability, etc. Though I know less about this area, I imagine that many states already also have consumer protection statutes in place that are directly on point. It's not clear to me why additional legislation is necessary, unless it is just to make people feel better -- a rationale that I reject as a matter of first principle, for reasons discussed above.

There's also an odd chapter at the end where Rhode discusses the obesity crisis. I am all in favor of people trying to eat sensibly, exercise in moderation, and so forth. I doubt that anyone (other than possibly Christopher Hitchens?) isn't. More controversially, I'd be delighted to slash corn subsidies so that cheap corn syruped products are less of a temptation. But the anti-obesity advocates propound an orthodoxy - think the "How dare you eat non-organic! How dare you do only cardio, without appropriate interludes of weights!" crowd -- that's every bit as self-righteous and obnoxious, if not more so, than the beauty and fashion industries. So I'm not sure how much net happiness we gain by focusing on health instead.

N.b. that there is a lot of anti-discrim dork fun that could be had writing about standards of proof and McDonnell Douglas and so forth, but I am not feeling quite that dorky today.


  1. "women would all be better off if we stopped sinking so much time and money into trying to look good."

    I've always thought the same was true of law school grades, given the curve.

    The same argument holds true for men, no? The problem is probably more severe for women though, since looks are just one plane on which men compete (there's fame, power, and money as well). For women, looks really are the only thing men universally care about in women that women can improve via effort.

  2. Anonymous: I'm focused on women here because Rhode herself focuses on women, as does Lithwick in her review essay (though Rhode does acknowledge that men face some of the same problems, particularly short men.) But I do hope that you don't really think that women don't care about competing for fame, power, and money. I know some biocon types like to claim that only looks matter to men in the sexual marketplace. But whatever the merits of the biocons' arguments, fame, power, and money have ample rewards of their own for both men and women.

  3. I am merely arguing that the rewards from fame, power, and money are far greater for men than for women. I don't think most men would enjoy their mate having a higher status on these criteria.

    Given that women will see the highest returns from beauty, it makes sense that there's lots of competition along those lines. This is not a normative defense of humans' innate preferences, just a positive explanation. Perhaps this Evo Psych story is a little too simplistic, but as a heuristic I believe it's useful.

  4. I am merely arguing that the rewards from fame, power, and money are far greater for men than for women. I don't think most men would enjoy their mate having a higher status on these criteria.

    I... am a bit skeptical. As sometime blog commenter Phoebe pointed out back during all the chatter about Elena Kagan's love life, the multiplicity of status hierarchies tend to make these pressures lighter on real couples than one might imagine. E.g. a prominent journalist might be more famous or powerful than her Biglaw associate boyfriend, but the Biglaw associate boyfriend makes more money, so there's a kind of equilibrium there.

    Historically, I think the same thing may be broadly true. See, e.g. Stephanie Coontz's History of Marriage on alliances in medieval and Renaissance Europe, in which young men were commonly married off strategically to women from wealthier or more politically connected families. I've read the same thing was fairly common at the close of the 19th century, when wealthy American tycoons commonly married their daughters off to European noblemen because they thought it would be cool to have titles in the family. The noblemen were apparently in many cases delighted to get the tycoons' hard cash.

    I admit I am not deeply versed in evolutionary psychology. I'm uncomfortable with most of the conservative popularizations of it because its advocates mostly seem to be using it as a cover for normative arguments that they don't want to advance directly because it's un-P.C. to do so. I don't like most P.C. either, and as I think I said on here a few months ago, I'd love to read someone with no axes to grind on this stuff. In the meantime, though, I remain skeptical of it.