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Don't Be a Feminist: An Interview with Bryan Caplan
Why the dictionary definition is wrong, talking about men's feelings, "feminization" and world peace, and the optimal level of fame
Transcript and audio lightly edited.
Today I'm delighted to welcome Bryan Caplan for my first interview as a contributor to Time Well Spent. Bryan is an economist at George Mason University, and author of the Bet On It blog on Substack. I consider him a major influence on my own online writing—my first blog post was actually an email Bryan shared to his site.
Bryan has written some of my favorite books, including “Myth of the Rational Voter”, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”, “The Case Against Education”, “Open Borders”, and today we will discuss his most recent release: “Don't be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice”. Bryan, thank you so much for joining me!
Bryan Caplan 00:36
Fantastic to be here!
Wonderful. So my first question is inspired by a survey of Bay Area women in tech I saw on Twitter. About half of respondents felt they were assigned to low-level tasks that men were not, 2/3 reported unwanted sexual advances from a superior, and 9 in 10 reported seeing sexist behavior at work.
Many people see this as evidence for Feminism. Why do you disagree?
Bryan Caplan 01:03
Very good question. First let's back up.
So what is Feminism even? There is a popular definition that you'll see in dictionaries these days saying, Feminism is simply the view that men and women should be treated equally.
I say that cannot possibly be a correct description of the way that we use the word in English, because if you actually do a survey, you'll find out that almost all non-Feminists agree that men and women should be treated equally. So I say that a much better definition that fits the way that people actually use the word is that Feminism is the view that our society generally treats men more fairly than women.
And this is one that I say actually fits usage, because of course, almost all Feminists do in fact agree that our society treats men more fairly than women. And other people that are not Feminists, there's either disagreement or at least doubt in any case. So that means whenever I'm thinking about whether Feminism is true, I'm always thinking about evidence that men are being treated more fairly in our society than women.
The first thing you could of course about a poll like that is, “have we talked to the men and found out how they feel?”. So that is one way to begin. And at least that way, that would give us a comparison. But on top of it, it's also the case that you are talking about a sample of some of the most left-wing women in America. So we should expect that to heavily bias their answers. And then furthermore, I think that is very likely that these are responses that are, in fact, very influenced by Feminist philosophy. It’s a case of believing is seeing. So if you think that our society is very unfair to women, then you will tend to misinterpret otherwise neutral or actually positive experiences in a negative way.
So I think that's a lot of what's probably going on, doesn't mean in all those cases it is false. But I think probably one of the main things going on is just what your threshold is. So if almost everything in your view is sexist, then it’s not surprising that 90% will say they've experienced sexism. If just someone going and smiling at you for a second longer than you thought was appropriate is an example of a an unwanted advance from a male superior, then you're gonna see a lot of that, too. So I think that there's of course, a general human hypersensitivity and tendency to overstate, and just to exaggerate harms to oneself. But then I think this is definitely a case where Feminist philosophy is leading to a large false positive hit rate.
Yeah, I think that makes sense. So even in the framing of something like unwanted sexual advances, I mean, that could encompass a lot of different things right? If someone asks you on a date, and you don't want to go on a date with them, that would be an unwanted sexual advance.
Bryan Caplan 03:43
It absolutely would be, or at least according to some people, right? You know, so I would say a non neurotic person would say, well, they asked me on a date, it wasn't an unwanted sexual advance. They just asked, and I said no, and it was okay. On the other hand, if you were hypersensitive, then that would definitely go in there along of course, just with someone looking at you the wrong way. Which could be something that is totally in your head, of course.
Yeah. And I mean, it's not unreasonable to even flip it the other way and think, well, maybe that's even reflecting like, if 2/3 are saying that they've received an unwanted sexual advance, that could reflect even an unfairness for men. That men are rejected for dates more often than women are.
Bryan Caplan 04:27
Yeah, I mean, I do think that it's likely that a smaller share of men would say that they endured an unwanted advance just because men endure far fewer advances. Then another way to think about re-asking the question is, how often do you receive a wanted advance and how often do you receive an unwanted advance? I think that women are just likely to receive a much higher share of both. And then to realize there's really no possibility for a world where you only get the advances you want. You can crush all advances, but you can't say don't do anything that is unwanted because how do you find out whether something is unwanted except by trying it?
Gotcha, moving to my next question.
When I look at the past, men often seem oblivious to women's desires for long historical periods. Many assumed that women did not want to vote or would vote in lockstep with their husbands, for example. But you argue that people are naturally inclined to care more about women’s suffering than men’s suffering. How would you reconcile your view with mine?
Bryan Caplan 05:22
Yeah you know, of course, there's just a general tendency to be oblivious to other human beings. If we were to go and ask men are there any things that women are ignoring about us and our feelings? If you could actually get the men to talk, which is hard to do, because men are reluctant to talk about their feelings and they realize there's just not a lot of sympathy for that kind of thing, then you would find very strongly a lot of evidence that men do feel like their feelings get ignored. But you know, in terms of being hypersensitive to women's welfare, and especially women’s suffering I would say it's just not likely that many women were pining for the vote either. I think the kind of stuff I'm talking about is things like in a lifeboat situation, there's overwhelming evidence that in almost every society, and probably every society that I know of, that if you can either save men's lives or women's lives, people want to save women's lives first. Right?
If a woman is crying, or some man is crying, people care more about the woman crying. If a woman is complaining, people care more than if a man is complaining. So of course in a war, the idea that we'll send the women to the front and let the men hide in the rear is alien to every society that I know of. So again, I think it is a case where just male suffering is something that we ignore, and the reason it gets ignored in large part is precisely because people don't care about it very much.
Sure, but don't you think it's potentially problematic that even if men arrive at high positions mostly from merit, they’re maybe just oblivious to particular things that are really important to women. So you could think even just on a biological basis for example, that women experience childbirth, menstruation, just general issues with fertility and the pain and anxiety that causes. Might, for example, artificial wombs be delayed in development if there aren't enough women in STEM?
Bryan Caplan 07:22
I mean, I guess like in terms of men are less aware of problems that are unique to women, that's true. Of course, women are less aware of problems that are unique to men. I'd say a lot of what's problematic is only getting one side of the story, right? Or basically saying, well, if men had a problem, we would have heard about it. No, there is so little sympathy for men's problems that men generally just shut up. And, of course, then like, if enough people shut up, then even men themselves may not really be thinking very much about it. Like what's the point of even thinking about a problem if there's nothing you can do about it? There's just so little sympathy.
I would say that if we go and look empirically, for example, there's a lot more funding for breast cancer than there is for testicular cancer, which I think is reflective of the fact that human beings care more about women's well being and women's suffering than men's well-being and men’s suffering.
By all means, it's always a good idea to be open to the possibility there's something that you're neglecting. But to be hypersensitive to the possibility that we're neglecting something that is a concern to women is, I think, exactly the opposite of what we should be doing right now that we have gone really out of our way to be paying very close attention to women's concerns. I think that we have gone really overboard and it is long time since we corrected and say, well, let's go and take a good look at the problems that men have, because they've been so ignored.
Yeah, I guess if you think about these high status men in tech that supposedly are oblivious to women's concerns, like, there might be some truth to that, but there's probably even more truth to them being out of touch with low status men.
Bryan Caplan 08:59
Yeah, absolutely. One of the main things that I point out in the book is that Feminists tend to focus on how men are disproportionately represented in high status positions at the top of society, they’re right about that, but while neglecting the fact that men are also disproportionately represented at the bottom of every known society—much more likely to be in jail, to commit suicide, to be homeless, or to be conscripted to die in combat. So all of this stuff is really pretty much flying under the radar and very much worth taking a look at.
I saw an interesting tweet today in line with that kind of thought. I think Richard Hanania actually deleted it right after…
Bryan Caplan 09:40
Richard deleted something? Woah.
It was basically something from a women's organization and they were like, “A full 11% of journalist fatalities are women, this is a tragedy”, and Richard makes the point that well, the vast majority of fatalities are male journalists, right? So the Feminist framing can be pretty aggressive even when it doesn't kind of fit a full view of the big picture.
Bryan Caplan 10:06
It very much fits with the idea of women and children first. And of course men dying is just something that happens and we’ve got to get used to it. It's not a perfect world. But if one woman dies, then this calls into question the unfairness of an entire society.
You know, of course, none of this is to make light of anyone getting murdered, that's terrible. But if you’ve got 89% of journalists getting murdered are male, to say we need to really focus on the murder of female journalists… it's like, shouldn’t we focus on the murder of the group that is nine times as likely?
Or just the group as a whole.
Bryan Caplan 10:43
Yes, yes. Either just say, “let's focus on the murder of journalists.” Or if you're going to say let’s especially focus on something, especially focus on the thing that is much more common!
Yeah, I think that's reasonable.
Bryan Caplan 10:55
You better believe it is!
Well, we're on the same page, at least so far.
So you frame your lead essay as a letter to your daughter, which you explained in a recent interview as follows:
I spent about eight years writing this essay in my head, the primary motive of the essay really is just to stop my daughter personally from being a Feminist. If the book sells no copies, no one else likes it, if I just stop her from being a Feminist, I'll consider the book to have been a tremendous success. I spent a month of my life and I avoided this unfortunate outcome.
How can you be so confident writing this essay will have the desired effect, given your view that similar parenting interventions have little to no long-term impact?
Bryan Caplan 11:34
Yeah, well, of course, I can't be confident. I'll just be honest about that. It's the kind of thing where persuading any human being is hard, especially if they're not coming in soliciting the advice. What I do say in the book, though, is that I think this is unusually likely to be effective for two reasons. So one of them is just that she starts off in a demographic group of highly educated women. That is, of course she's not highly educated yet, but you can predict that she will be based on her family background. So based upon her family background, you expect that it's very likely that she will be a Feminist.
At the same time, I just say that the arguments are so flimsy that I think it's not that hard to go knock them down in a short amount of time. And then combined with this I just have really high credibility in my family because I really have gone out of my way to have a reputation for absolute honesty among my kids. This is just generally accepted in my family. I just do not tell sugarcoated lies, I tell it like it is, they know that I do this, I really value my reputation.
When someone else says “Oh, try this food, you’ll love it”, they just ignore that person. They look at me, right? First they just see whether I'm eating it, because that's a pretty good predictor of whether they’ll like it, because I have such childish food references. But secondly, they also look at me because they'll say, “Will I like it dad?” and I will say, “Well, I like it, but there's only like a 60% chance you'll like it.” And I'll give them answers like that and really try to be calibrated on this. So my kids know that this is how I operate and so I think I've got a lot of credibility with my kids.
Gotcha. And so in your answer, you kind of made reference to your daughter being a particularly high risk population, just on the basis that college educated women are very often Feminist.
Bryan Caplan 13:22
The DC area doesn't help at all either!
True, true. But doesn't that add a little bit of tension to your argument about schooling as well? Because, I mean, it seems like the effect is coming through education there.
Bryan Caplan 13:38
Right, well, so there's the peer effect. And there's the one that we think about the teachers going and brainwashing you, I still think that the the evidence is strongly in favor of peer effects as much more important for shaping the views of more educated people compared to listening to their teachers. In my book, “The Case Against Education”, I go over this evidence.
The thing is that highly educated people do not generally have the views of their teachers, they do have the views of other highly educated people. Now even since I wrote “The Case Against Education”, there has been a substantial shift in the views of highly educated people. Most obviously, the education slope of partisanship has greatly increased in favor of Democrats. So highly educated people have suddenly become a lot more likely to be Democrats than less educated people. Basically, Democrats have gained a lot of college grads and lost a lot of non college grads.
So anyway, in terms of what's really going on, you know, there's of course just general noise and randomness. Another story that I'm open to is that up until, say, six years ago, the dosage of left-wing brainwashing kids were getting in school was low enough that it didn't matter much. And now they've just finally increased the dosage to such an astronomical level that it's having the effect that people previously falsely believed. I did have a section in my book called “The Paper Tiger of Political Correctness”, just saying there wasn't much sign in the data that highly educated people actually were getting very politically correct views or very woke views. Now I am starting to wonder about whether that has changed. It doesn't mean the previous research was wrong, it just means that something has changed in the meantime.
You could give credit to people who said that this is a canary in the coal mine and it's gonna get bigger. It doesn't mean people who just said it's already happened were right. But it does mean that they were pointing at it, perhaps they were prescient, or on the other hand, maybe they just got lucky. Never underestimate the power of a lucky forecast when someone just predicts DOOM all the time and then eventually DOOM happens and they say, “see, look at how right I was”. I was like, no, you were right finally. You're wrong those other times.
Are there any people who you think really were prescient on this issue, that you maybe dismissed them at the time, but you look back and you say well, actually, I think they pretty much called it.
Bryan Caplan 15:59
Hmmm. On wokeism generally, I think I will say that people who were very nervous before 2020, I consider them possibly prescient anyway, I guess I'll give it like 50% prescience, 50% broken clock always crying bloody murder in terms of my odds, but still on average, that is giving them some credit for seeing the future.
In terms of like the brainwashing factor of education, specifically, that's something that is quite a bit harder. It's just much easier to see that there has been a change than to pinpoint exactly why it happened.
The main smoking gun I would say is that there are certain odd pieces of jargon that started in academia and no one else on Earth would ever use them. And now they spread into the general population. So that's one where I would say alright, those it's pretty clear what the transmission mechanism was. No normal person comes up with intersectionality, for example, that obviously is the fruit of a academic type. And then it gets spread to the to the broader population. But on the other hand, for things like just thinking of sexism and racism as being really bad, that could have come from academia, but there's a lot of other places that could have come from actually.
So it seems like in the case of both education and parenting maybe your results applied to a particular observed domain, but there’s nothing in that evidence that precludes something far outside the domain from having an impact.
Bryan Caplan 17:29
And just to be fair to me, which people are really good at generally, and I'm no exception, these are all ones where I think I was careful to note early on, way back in 2015 when I started homeschooling my older kids… a lot of people might say this seems really inconsistent with your work on parenting. And then I'd be saying, well, for one thing, I think that that what I'm doing is so outside the norm that it's plausible that it would have a beneficial effect. So in general, if you see that something just doesn't seem to be working one possibility is that it just doesn't work at all, and another possibility is that the dose is generally too low and you’ve got to ramp up the dosage. Then the question is, how hard would it be to ramp up the dosage? To give one really good example, I have no doubt that it is possible to teach a child a foreign language. I also have no doubt that actual K-12 education has almost totally failed at teaching foreign languages. What this means is that to get kids to really learn foreign languages, you probably have to multiply the dose by a factor of at least 10, maybe 50. Then that comes down to the question of, what are we going to give up in order to go and ramp up their dose of foreign language by a factor of 50? Is it really worth it?
A lot of the evidence in that book comes from twin studies and comparing, like, twins raised apart by different adoptive parents that are not their biological parents. Do you think that misses any kind of important interaction effect? Maybe if you're raising your own kids with your own genetics, you might have greater ability to know how to benefit their life in the right way or parent them because you share those genetics?
Bryan Caplan 19:10
So actually, the most common kind of study I'm talking about is it compares identical fraternal twins that are raised by their biological parents. So here, the way that we're figuring out what's going on, it's not by putting people in a different family. It's by just looking at how similar are siblings that have 100% of their genes versus siblings that share 80% of their genes, even when they are raised together. So that's really what I'm going off of. If it were this interaction story then I think that should pick it up because basically then it would be, you know, some of the kids are having 50% of their genes, some having 100%.
There's also some studies where they look at say, half siblings raised together. So I think it's all pretty consistent with that work. So I mean, it is possible but I think if that were a big factor we would already know about it.
Couldn't there be some sort of interference from the mixed family or possibly like, as you said, peer effects can be important. And so maybe you adopt someone and they're more likely to cause the other kids to deviate from the optimal path?
Bryan Caplan 20:16
Right. So peer effects, at least the way that they normally work should be totally subsumed under family environment because think about this. Suppose you’re adopted by a rich family, this means that you're likely to have rich peers. And when we go and do the actual physical work, we wind up attributing the fact that one kid who was adopted by the rich family, one kid who was adopted by the poor family, or poorer anyway, and if that moves you to a poorer neighborhood then that will actually get statistically included in the fact that you were adopted by one family rather than another.
Really the only peer effect that we're not picking up is the idiosyncratic peer effect, where each kid chooses their own peers within the environment where they're raised. And that's one where, of course, it's hard to study. But it's like, well, if the fact that you grow up in Beverly Hills versus the rural south, we can't pick that up, what are the odds that this other stuff is really important? It just seems like it's hard to believe that all the stuff we can measure seems so unimportant. But then if there's some stuff that we don't measure that turns out coincidentally to be important, of course, we can't decisively disbelieve that. We don't know, by definition because if we don't measure it then we can't decisively say it's totally wrong.
But still, if none of the obvious things work, the idea that non-obvious things work is pretty far fetched, though not totally impossible.
It seems like a relatively marginal factor, perhaps. Okay, let's get back to Feminism.
So you don't set out to do this specifically, but several of your books sort of diminish areas of society where women have the most influence—education, politics, nurturing children in the home. Assuming that women are at parity with men now in terms of perceived value, would embracing the full bundle of your views make women substantially lower status than men?
Bryan Caplan 22:07
I don't see that women are special status in politics, I say it's the other way around. And men generally are running the show in politics. It's very unusual for politics to be feminized. And normally women are less interested in politics by all the data that I've seen.
But yeah, I mean, if we just put politics aside and talk about the other ones, let's see. So in terms of if people were to spend less time in school, would that lower the status of women? Hmmm so here’s the main thing…
Women are the vast majority of teachers, they're over represented on college campuses now…
Bryan Caplan 22:52
Women do definitely run K-12, especially. For college professorships, maybe they're getting up to parity, but I think it's still… I'm not sure where we stand on that.
Relative to the 1950s, women have made huge gains in both politics and education…
Bryan Caplan 23:14
Yes, but made gains is different from they are dominant. Figures saying that a field is overrated is really only bad for your group status if you're dominant in it, not merely if you're rising in it, right. So if we were to go and if for some reason, say NASCAR is less important than we thought, even though the share of women driving NASCAR is higher than it used to be still, like it would be devaluing something that men are predominantly doing.
So anyway, I think that if we were to cut back on education, it would mostly be at the level of higher education, so at least I don't think that is clearly lowering the status of women. For the case of parenting, that's one where it's complicated because I would say that you probably just lower the status of the tiger mom or the helicopter mom, and at the same time it raises the status of the mom that is trying to balance work and having kids and is not going and doing the tiger mom or the helicopter mom strategy. So I think I think it really is one where it's sort of shifting the status more among women than it is actually going and lowering it overall.
I mean, I guess I would say that if you just think about the title of the book, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”, it's raising the status of women who have a lot of kids relative to women who have fewer kids. That's not anything like the main point of the book, but if you do read it, definitely I have a lot of rhetoric to the effect of I'm super grateful to people who have a lot of kids and women generally seem to be more influential in what family size is. And while both paternal and maternal traits do seem to influence family size in terms of the sociology of it, still it looks like women's opinions matter more and men are just more flexible on family size, and women are more settled in their views for big or small families.
Maybe I can make it a little bit more concrete kind of what I had in mind.
So whenever I come across a woman who is say, a preschool teacher, she brings that up, and everyone is just overjoyed. Like that's the best possible thing that you could be doing with your time, you're a wonderful person, and that really takes priority over anyone else's career or accomplishments. And it seems like naturally if you just say that education actually should be a lot lower status than that, it has to lower women's status in some way.
Bryan Caplan 25:53
I mean, if you read the book, I actually did single out preschool teachers as my favorite educators, precisely because they are providing the unquestionably useful service of daycare rather than the debatable service of actually trying to go and put knowledge into kids’ heads.
I can see what you're saying, but I think the general tone tone of my work is so natalist and so favorable to people that are having kids and doing stuff for kids that I wouldn't think that would be a reasonable take on it. Someone could go and interpret it that way. I do know that once I gave a talk, and then someone came back and told me that a mom cried after hearing me talk. That was not what I had in mind at all! I'm really grateful to moms having kids. And I also want to encourage them to not feel bad about themselves when they have time for themselves and enjoying their own lives. And not feel like they're shortchanging their kid just because they go and have their own hobbies and activities. There are some people that will just take things the wrong way, and I do try hard to stop that. But it's not possible.
I will definitely say that I have at this point had at least 200 people claim that I have talked them successfully into having an additional child. So I'd say that is, to my mind, the overwhelmingly clear effect of the book. And if you use an economist standard value of life of ten million dollars, then I've written a book that's created billions of dollars worth of value. I think that's got to be much greater than any very slight tendency to devalue the role of some female dominated occupations, if that even happened. So overall, I feel really good about that.
Honestly, that's the one book where I can say, I definitely did something good for the world. All the other stuff, you know, there's no sign that policymakers are listening. So it's a great intellectual exercise, I really like crafting good arguments. But still, at the end it’s like alright, so you crafted a beautiful argument. Now, what does it do? Well it just sits there, and people who appreciate good arguments can look at it and marvel at its wonder, but alright, great.
Well, I can vouch for the book. Actually the first time I had dinner with my wife, we talked about some of the themes in that book. And we had a really good conversation.
Bryan Caplan 28:16
Well, I'm glad to hear that well for you. Normally it is considered unwise to discuss children on a first date, but glad that you're an exception to that!
Depends on what you're looking for, I guess.
Bryan Caplan 28:40
What did you talk about exactly?
I think the main thing I brought up was, you have a really cool point in that book where you say that when people make choices about family, they optimize too much for the short term. And that oftentimes, when people reach the end of their life, they wish that they would have had more kids. And the point of that is not to say you should optimize according to your preferences as a grandparent in the future, but you should at least take it into account. Maybe average those preferences.
Bryan Caplan 29:10
Yeah, yeah. Deathbed preferences are not the only preferences that count, but don't put it to zero! Right.
And it's generally not at death that people primarily are regretting not having more kids, it's when your last kid moves out. That's when people usually say, “huh, things would have been different if we had one more kid.” Maybe that would be nice.
I think another thing I made references to was how you actually wrote an inscription in the cover of the book. I had just met you before we went on our first date, and…
Bryan Caplan 29:45
With your wife?
Yeah, I met my wife, like a week or two after you and I met for lunch. And there's an inscription that you wrote that says, “The world needs more people like you.” And so I thought that was really cool. And I agree.
Bryan Caplan 30:00
Let them blanket the Earth!
To be fair to you as well, looking at the full portfolio of what you've written, I think “Open Borders” goes a long way toward increasing the global status of women because women are free to flee environments where they're genuinely mistreated.
Bryan Caplan 30:15
Yeah. Of course, men too.
Right, but arguably women maybe have more freedom to flee some of the worst environments. Like in your book, you say that in the refugee crisis in Ukraine, hardly any men have been able to leave, whereas lots of women and children have.
Bryan Caplan 30:46
Right, that being a case where their own government is preventing them from leaving. So that's worth pointing out.
In terms of which gender would be more likely to take advantage of migration opportunities under open borders? It's not clear. I think as long as it's illegal, then it tends to be more men, because men are more willing to take the risk of illegality than women are. So yeah, here's something that I would think would be better for women.
Of course, it's true there are some countries that really do treat women terribly. Saudi Arabia, most obviously. In the essay I also just talk about the high likelihood of a lot of Chinese and Indian infanticide. Open borders does not help for infanticide really, right. But for repression of adult women in Saudi Arabia then open borders is an escape route for them. Not of course if their own government doesn't let them leave or travel independently. Saudi Arabia might be so oppressive that it doesn't really help but for Iran, say, they let women leave.
I feel like even infanticide might plausibly be improved. If enough people leave then that puts pressure on the people who remain to change culturally over time and in the short-term governments are pressured to change policies…
Bryan Caplan 32:05
Maybe, it seems at least to me not clear. The obvious thing is under open borders, people would go to richer countries where they wouldn't feel the same kind of pressure to commit infanticide. Plus, you go to jail for that stuff here, although of course not for selective abortion. Really the main issue with China and India is it's hard to know what share of it is gender-based selective abortion and what share is actual infanticide.
We know there's a gender imbalance that looks really weird, but as to what exactly is going on, it's hard to say. If you are 100% pro-choice then you can say it doesn't really matter whether you kill a fetus or for whatever reason you kill a fetus. If you are at least less clear on that, then you could easily say this is a kind of unfairness against women, even if they are unborn and their status as humans is debatable. If it's debatable, rather than definitely zero, it matters.
Many economists seem to disagree with you about how much discrimination contributes to wage disparities, largely on the basis of randomized control trials and “natural experiments”. Yet you mostly omit these types of studies from your labor market research. Why is that?
Bryan Caplan 33:16
Yeah, so here's the thing, just to step back. The kind of evidence that we've had for a long time is where we actually go and see, if we have men and women with identical traits, how much money do they make? And we've gone a long way towards trying to equalize those traits, although even there we haven't done a full job. But I think this does give us a very fair idea about how the market is rewarding men versus women.
There are other methods that do tend to give larger effects. As to way as to what's going on, I'm not sure. At least for some of them, I do just doubt the methods, like ones where they say “we train men and women to try to present themselves as equally qualified in order to go measure discrimination”. That's one where I think that probably you just didn't try that hard, and you're going and making some effort but still if you tried hard enough, then you would get the wrong answer and you wouldn’t like that.
The ones where they are just resume studies, where all you do is keep the resume the same, and then you vary the gender, those I’m less clear on, I would just say that I think that we should put a lot more weight on evidence of what actually happens in markets. It might be that there's some discrimination in interviews, but it doesn't wind up actually mattering for people's career prospects. So that is one way of resolving the evidence. I would just say that the standard method to me seems to be getting at the most important question.
Now, of course, another way of reading this is that there's statistical discrimination with employers just being nervous about hiring women because they think for example, that they're more likely to waste valuable job training by accepting it and then getting pregnant. This is something that would be picked up in regular low income regressions as well though, and we generally don't see much there. So, I guess that's the main thing that I would think there.
On the other side, I would also say that I think that the wage and income regressions that we have probably even still overstate the gender gap because they just don't have nearly all the measures that they should. Almost never do the have a measure of college major, and yet we know that men are much more likely to go into high earning majors like STEM. There is a book that I really like called “Why Men Earn More”, where it just gives 25 different traits of jobs that men tend to do relative to women, and almost none of this stuff is really incorporated even now into regular rage regressions. There are ones where we just put in like industry controls or occupation controls, but still probably we just need to do a better job. And at least the author of that book, Warren Farrell, he said that it just seems like people that are collecting these data are just not trying that hard to get the data that would confirm that discrimination is really low.
And so you see that there are things that we're measuring really intently things and things that we're not, and it just seems like there's just not a lot of pressure among people involved in the statistics creation to go and get the data that would seem really on point. And plausibly because they're worried about what they would find.
The same goes obviously, for racial discrimination, I put a lot more weight on the actual wage and income regressions that we've got versus the resume studies that some people have done. And I would also just say that some of the results from those racial discrimination regressions are so strong in particular, every time that I've seen the return to education by race, it confirms that blacks especially get a much higher return to education in percentage terms than whites. Whereas in the resume study, sometimes they're saying that isn't true, but it's like, look, we got a lot of evidence that blacks are getting 50% more pay off per year of education than whites. I just don't see how we're going to go in and ignore that in favor of this resume study, which again could just show that there's some discrimination in the interview process, but other than that it doesn't wind up mattering in the end.
Right, I agree with you about audit studies. I think they're not really getting at what you ultimately care about, because in that sample of firms, maybe the average firm could have some bias even, but really it's the marginal firm that matters. If I draw an analogy with the stock market, it doesn't matter that most stockbrokers are men and maybe they're going to overlook the value of female related companies, because it only takes one person to basically just bid away the entire mispricing. And in the labor market, theoretically Jeff Bezos could just hire every single person who is somewhat undervalued, right?
Bryan Caplan 37:54
Yeah. And I actually probably should have said on top of everything else that I said that we should just be very skeptical at a theoretical level of claims of very large gender pay gaps because it really does mean that there is a super intellectually simple way to make piles of money, which is just to replace all men with equally qualified women at lower wages. It should be legally safe, you just have low pay for everyone and then women will take the jobs and men won't. And if the view that the gender gap in pay is really real, then you should be fabulously profitable just doing that. This seems like such a simple trick that if it worked, it would have been done long ago. And so this is one where I say that we should be very skeptical. Even in a world where we have no data, no computers, if someone says that one group is being paid 20 or 30% less than another group that is equally qualified, this is where we should say, yeah, that just doesn't really sound likely to be true.
One of the experiences that really turned me off to the gender pay gap, I was sitting in on a seminar in a pretty prestigious place and this person shows the pay gap by different industries. And they're like, “so as you can see the pay gap varies a lot by industry, and finance has the biggest gap and construction has the lowest gap”. And I'm like… construction is the least biased against women? Like there's no sexism in construction? It seems kind of hard to believe that’s really what's going on here.
More generally though, you seem to not draw on a lot of natural experiment evidence in really anything that you study. Do you just have a broader skepticism of those methods that goes beyond the topic of discrimination?
Bryan Caplan 39:50
I tend to think that with natural experiments, people focus on what they can study instead of the more interesting questions. So there's a tendency, instead of answering the question that people have been wondering about for decades or centuries to say, “what question can we answer with the natural experiment?” and then publish that. It’s sort of a bait and switch where you just answer a different question because you've got better evidence on the question that isn't as important.
In terms of general skepticism on the returns of education, that's definitely one where I have spent a lot of time going over the natural experimental evidence. And in my book, I just say that it's greatly overvalued for almost every one of the natural experiment methods that has been used widely on the returns to education. After it's gone on for a while, then there have been quite devastating criticisms that were published. So in the book, I cite what those are and it just seemed more like it's a mythologically driven thing where they would rather go and do it this way because it's harder, sort of a labor theory of value. But also because doing it the standard way gives the wrong answer, which is that education is overrated. So I think there's also a fairly desperate desperate effort to not conclude that education is overrated.
That's my view there. I don't have any general philosophical objection to that stuff other than to say you can come up with new kinds of evidence, but it doesn't mean that the earlier evidence is worthless. I think that this is a general attitude in social science that, basically, we're only going to believe the latest stuff, and everything else counts for little or nothing. Like why? Well because we found flaws in the older stuff. Yeah, well guess what? In a few years, we're going to find some flaws in the stuff you're doing. So why don't we just realize that nothing's perfect and the stuff where people have criticized it for 20 years, probably we found all the problems with it at least. Whereas this stuff it's new. So don't just say, Oh this is so cool and cutting edge, it was so hard to do, and it took some really smart people years to do it. Those are all basically measures of effort, not a measure of quality.
Now in terms of the academic rat race, you can see why it's generally considered important for something to be hard to do. Because if it was easy to do, then we would just wind up giving credit to everybody. And we don't want to do that, we want to go and ration the status. So again, it doesn't mean that there aren't some good natural experiments done. But yeah, I think they're pretty overrated and overrated in terms of how they generally turn out to have a lot of problems. Overrated in terms of they're just changing questions and overrated in terms of they're just not that much better than the earlier stuff. Or often I think they're just worse. Which doesn't mean zero. You can add some evidence but not be worthless.
External validity is often an issue too.
Bryan Caplan 42:34
Hell yeah, external validity. You've got something that's really certain about a question that's not that important.
How important is “feminization” as a theory of societal change? That's something you don't really touch on in the book.
Bryan Caplan 42:52
Yeah, that's true… I mean, I think if anything there's something to it. You can think of feminization two ways. You can think of it as just society is becoming more feminine. Or you could actually think of it as Feminism is gaining importance. In terms of Feminism gaining importance, I think that's definitely true. And I think that it's had overall bad effects.
In terms of the idea of women in general becoming more important or having their views more heard, that I’m less clear on because I think a lot of what Feminism does is trying to silence traditional feminine views and attitudes. So as to what's really going on it’s complicated. Of course few Feminists would admit it, but clearly in their eyes traditional women have low status, and so they're devaluing that kind of woman. So as to what's going on overall at least, I would say that I don't have a good sense of that.
Doesn't it seem… I mean to me at least it's pretty compelling just based on population differences between men and women, on average, that if you have a lot more women in an institution that that's going to have some effect. It's probably going to be potentially pretty large.
Bryan Caplan 44:05
Yeah. So the K-12. I'm pretty sure the male share of teachers has risen somewhat steadily, especially for later grades. For administration though you're definitely right, and you might think the administrators matter more. Yeah So I think I think there probably is something. Those areas where they've had a large rise in the female share, it's possible that that matters. Again, that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with it.
Right, right of course. I mean, it could even be a positive.
Bryan Caplan 44:35
Or in general, it could be there actually is a battle of the sexes. And when the female share in an occupation rises, it becomes less pleasant for men and more pleasant for women. And it's like, well it's the same for a whole lot of areas.
To say that the whole world revolves around me is a classic example of a very unfair view of the world and of course, the world shouldn’t revolve around me. Like if you're running a business, it makes sense to go and to cater to the typical person that is there rather than to any particular person. Right?
The same with customers, of course. It's not just fairness, it's also good business. So it makes sense, for example, that there's a changing attitude in terms of what kind of a calendar is okay to put on the wall at work. When there's only men there, there's going to be a different norm about that. And it makes sense to that it would be. And if I were the boss, I would have changed along with it and said well, when it was all guys I had one view and now that it's not I've got a different view because I've got a different set of employees to keep happy.
So what do you make of some of the… some people make really big claims. Tyler has said, for example, that a lot of the reason why the world is more peaceful now and there's less war and less violence is because of feminization. And on the other side, Arnold Kling thinks that institutions support free speech less than they used to because there are a lot more women. Those seem like much bigger impacts than what you're talking about.
Bryan Caplan 46:04
Maybe. So in the case of war, I really think that it's much more likely to be rising income and just rising value of life. I'm not sure about that. So like Tyler could be right, I just don't know. For Arnold Kling’s one, I think that it is true that women generally have more… well, let me see, socially conservative isn't quite the right word, but what you could say is less pro-freedom views on both social and economic questions. It's a marginal difference, but it is something, so there it is plausible. Again, as to how big the effect is and how much of it is other stuff I'm less clear on, but I'm very open to that.
I'd like to close with a couple of questions about your intellectual style.
You have a gift for speaking candidly and openly about even some pretty controversial beliefs relative to the mainstream. I really like that about you, but it also seems like there are some potential drawbacks.
Especially as you go more viral, it seems like people who have a similar style to you, they either have to moderate a lot or they just end up in some pretty unpleasant situations. So what do you think is the optimal level of fame for you personally, and how might you handle the blowback that would follow from that level of exposure?
Bryan Caplan 47:31
Let's see. I mean, honestly for me the more the better. I am well aware that could eventually cause some problems for me. But still, I consider turning that dial up to the highest possible level to be overall what I would like to do. And I remember that when “The Case Against Education” came out, I had a tweet saying that I want this to be the next Bell Curve. And Charles Murray just said, you know, “be careful what you wish for, you might get it”. But I wrote back and said, look I understand what happened to you, Charles, and that you're fame has not been an unmixed blessing for you. But still, you've had enormous intellectual influence, you've changed the terms of the conversation, you made a pile of money, and you've made a ton of great friends. So I'm willing to go and have my name dragged through the mud in order to get all those good things at the same time.
In terms of what advice I would give to other people about being controversial, what I try to go for is to be super friendly to people while speaking my mind candidly. So some people think that I'm trying to make other people angry. I'm totally not. In fact, nothing would make me happier than for me to go and say stuff and people to say, “oh, I never thought about it the way before, but you're right.” That's awesome. I am not trying to upset anyone. People that you might think of as my mortal enemies, I still say “Oh look, if I could change that person's mind, that would be a huge win.” I want to do that. And my best bet of doing that is to treat them like a human being, not to go and talk down at them or get angry at them. Of course, you know you might say that's easier said than done. But I try pretty hard on this. And this is would be my advice to almost anyone, meaning generally people say to me “how can we improve our arguments?” Look, the arguments are probably already really good, improve your attitude. I just try to be super friendly to people.
In the case of “Don't Be a Feminist”, there were a lot of people who just said, “look at minimum change the title, you're just going out of your way to antagonize others.” And my reaction was maybe you’re right, and I did think about it for a bit. And then I decided that I think as long as people see the book cover, they will realize it is not intended to be in any way an angry book or a trolling book. The cover just shows me going and teaching my daughter some economics and giving her homeschooling lessons. I think that you'd have to be pretty weird to go and look at that and think something negative about my character. So of course it doesn't mean that nobody will, but I think that if you juxtapose the title with the cover and the images, then I think that you'll get the right attitude.
I think the main thing is I just couldn't think of another title that was candid and was any less inflammatory. And I could have made it into “Should You Be a Feminist?” with a question mark. But since the whole point of the essay just begins with I’ve got the answer here, that seemed kind of dishonest, and I didn't want to do it that way.
Another rationale you give for being super candid and expressing the full extent of your views is that even if it doesn't bring people particularly close to where you're at, it's at least going to move them in the right direction, it's going to expand the Overton window. Do you ever worry about that strategy backfiring in a significant way?
I remember I saw you on NPR, and there was this panel where they had you on as a very strong, kind of extreme pro capitalism person. And then they had an extreme Marxist on the other side.
Bryan Caplan 50:58
Two actually, they were both extreme.
One was maybe slightly more moderate.
Bryan Caplan 51:08
I don't know which one was the bigger socialist, actually. I mean, I talked to them and I read the transcript later.
So as someone who's sympathetic to your views, I was listening to that kind of wishing that Arthur Brooks was there instead, or like someone who's just a more moderate version of a pro market argument. Because it seemed like it was really hard for you to get any kind of persuasive traction there, at least from my vantage point.
Bryan Caplan 51:44
Yeah in that particular case, I think you're probably right. There was a reason they picked me out, they wanted to get an extreme person. I definitely don't want to in any way impugn my reputation for candor. So if someone comes and brings me on, and as the as the guest, that I am going to just be straightforward with them. I mean, in terms of like, is there a possibility for antagonizing people by doing being too extreme? Yeah, absolutely. So it's just a fact that you can that that is a possible outcome. I think that the general result of me being me is that it moves people in the right direction. Although not every time, especially when debating immigration.
My often opponent Mark Krikorian, he has repeatedly joked, “I want my donors to fund you, Bryan, because you just discredit the whole point of view of people that want to liberalize immigration”. And I'm not sure that he's wrong. I do think that I have overall pushed the window in favor of more open immigration, and I think I’ve raised the intellectual credibility of the open borders position, but not every time I defended it. Sometimes I just didn't do a very good job. Other times, it was just sort of built into the format that was really hard to do a better job.
What your question makes me think about is I could have actually declined and said, “Why not do Arthur Brooks?”. So I could have done that. Probably that's a case where I think they just would have not listened to me and tried to find some other extreme person, although maybe they would have. So honestly, it's one where mostly you focus on just trying to keep your eye on the ball and do a good job as best as you can and just be candid. But also being aware that maybe that will backfire, and you just can't know that for sure.
Wonderful. Well I know that, at least for me, your arguments have changed my mind about a lot of things on the margin. And I'm really grateful for all that you do. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Bryan Caplan 53:48
I totally appreciate that, and like, this is what I'm working for. I just want to go and at least make a difference in the lives of some smart people who care about the arguments, and if it has some broader effect that'd be great. If I wind up causing an additional child to come into existence, I'm super happy. I'm sure you’ll keep me up to date on that, right?
Bryan Caplan 54:15
All right. And if you have a little girl, tell her “Don't be a Feminist.”
I'll point her to your essay. And I believe everyone can get it for $9.99 on Kindle, your latest book?
Bryan Caplan 54:25
Yep. We're about $12 on paperback if you'd like physical books.
Inflation keeps on going but the price stays the same.
Bryan Caplan 54:33
That is correct, for the time being! We'll see how bad it has to get. All right, so fantastic to talk to you, and I hope to be talking to you again some time.
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