Sexism in the economics profession

Jan 20 JDN 2458504

I mentioned in my previous post that the economics profession is currently coming to a reckoning with its own sexist biases. Today I’d like to get back to that in more detail.

I think I should include some kind of trigger warning here, because some of this sexism is pretty extreme. In particular, there are going to be references to anal sex, which certainly isn’t something I was expecting to find. I won’t quote anything highly explicit—but I assure you, it exists.

There is reason to believe that these biases are not as bad as they once were. If you compare the cohorts of new economics PhDs to those of the past, or to the professors who have been tenured for many years, the pattern is quite clear: The longer back you look, the fewer women (and racial minorities, and LGBT people) you see.

In part because of the #MeToo movement (which, I really would like to say, has done an excellent job of picking legitimate targets and not publicly shaming the wrong people, unlike almost every other attempt at public shaming via social media), the economics profession is also coming to terms with a related matter, which could be both cause and consequence of these gender disparities: Sexual harassment by economists of their students and junior faculty.

It wasn’t until last year that the AEA officially adopted a Code of Professional Conduct mandating equality of opportunity for women (and minorities, and LGBT people). Of course, sexual harassment has been illegal much longer than that—but it’s probably the most under-reported and under-prosecuted crime in existence. Last year’s AEA conference was the first to include panels specifically on gender and discrimination in economics, and this year’s conference had more.

Grad students have been a big part of this push; hundreds of econ grad students signed an open letter demanding that universities implement reporting and disciplinary systems to deal with sexual harassment in economics (one of the signatories is friend of mine from UCI, though strangely I don’t remember hearing about it, or I would have signed it too).

One of the most prominent economists accused of repeated sexual harassment unfortunately happens to be the youngest Black person ever to get tenured at Harvard. This would seem to create some tension between gender equality and racial equality. But of course this tension is illusory: There are plenty of other brilliant Black economists they could have hired who aren’t serial sexual harassers.

It’s still dicey for grad students and junior faculty to talk about these things, because of the very real power that senior faculty have over us as committees for dissertations, hiring, and tenure. Some economists who wrote papers about sexism in the profession have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Part of how this issue has finally gotten so much attention is by concerned economists actually showing it using the methods of social science. One of the most striking studies was a data analysis of the word usage on econjobrumors.com, a job discussion board for PhD grads and junior faculty in economics. (More detail on that study here and also here.)

I’ve bolded the terms that are sexual or suggest bias. I’ve italicized the terms that suggest something involving romantic or family relationships. I’ve underlined the terms actually relevant for economics.
These were the terms most commonly associated with women:

<quote>

hotter, lesbian, bb, sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute.

</quote>

These were the terms most commonly associated with men:

<quote>

juicy, keys, adviser, bully, prepare, fought, wharton, austrian, fieckers, homo, genes, e7ee, mathematician, advisor, burning, pricing, fully, band, kfc, nobel, cat, amusing, greatest, textbook, goals, irritate, roof, pointing, episode, and tries.

</quote>

I imagine the two lists more or less speak for themselves. I’m particularly shocked by the high prevalence of the word “anal”—the sixth-most common word used in threads involving women.

Who goes to an economics job forum and starts talking about anal sex?

I actually did a search on “anal” to see what sort of things were being discussed: This thread is apparently someone trying to decide where he should work based on “Girls of which country are easiest to get?”, so basically sex tourism as job market planning. Here’s another asking (perhaps legitimately) about the appropriate social norm for splitting vacation costs with a girlfriend, and someone down the thread recommends that in exchange for paying, he should expect her to provide him with anal sex. This one starts with a man lamenting that his girlfriend dumped him on his birthday (that’s a dick move by the way), but somehow veers off into a discussion of whether anal sex is overrated. And this one is just off the bat about frequency of sexual encounters.
So yeah, I’m really not surprised that there aren’t a lot of women on these so-called “job discussion boards”.

The only bias-related word associated with men was “homo”—so it’s actually a homophobic bias, itself indicative of sexism and a profession dominated by cisgender straight White men. I’m not entirely sure that “juicy” was intended to be sexualized (one could also speak of “juicy ideas”), but I’ll assume it was just to conservatively estimate the gender disparity.

Also of special note are “fieckers” and “e7ee”, which refer to specific users, who, despite being presumably economists, caused a great deal of damage to the discussion boards. “fieckers” was an idiosyncratic word that one user used in a variety of sexist and homophobic troll posts, while “e7ee” is the hexadecimal code for one of the former moderators, who apparently uilaterally deleted and moved threads in order to tilt the entire discussion board toward right-wing laissez-faire economics.

Of course, that one discussion board isn’t representative of the entire profession. As anyone who has ever visited 4chan knows, discussion boards can be some of the darkest places on the Internet.

Clearer evidence of discrimination where it counts can be found in citation studies, which have found that papers published by women in top economics journals are more highly cited than papers published by men in the same journals.

What does that mean? Well, it’s the same reason that female stock brokers outperform male brokers and firms with more female executives are more profitable. Women are held to a higher standard than men, so in order to simply get in, women have to be more competent and produce higher-quality output.

Admittedly, citation count is far from a perfect measure of research quality (and for that matter profit is far from a perfect measure of a well-run corporation). But this is very clear evidence of actual discrimination. Not innate differences in preferences, not differences in talent—actual discrimination. It’s less clear where and how the discrimination is happening. Are journals simply not accepting good papers if they see female authors? (This is possible, because most top journals in economics don’t use double-blind peer review anymore—for quite flimsy reasons, in my opinion). Are there not enough mentors for women in academia? Are women moving to more accepting fields before they even enter grad school? Are they being pushed out by harassment as grad students? Likely all of these are part of the story.

There’s reason to think that economic ideology has contributed to this problem. If you think of the world in neoclassical laissez-faire terms, where markets are perfect and always lead to the best outcome, then you are likely to be blind to bias and discrimination, because a perfect market would obviously eliminate such things. This is why the recognition of bias has largely come from empirical studies of labor markets, and to a lesser extent from experiments and more left-wing theorists. If you assert that markets are perfectly efficient, labor economists are likely to laugh in your face, while a surprising number of macro theorists will nod and ask you to continue.

Interestingly, recent field experiments on bias in hiring of new faculty did not find any bias against women in economics (and found biases toward women in several other fields). Of course, that doesn’t mean there never was such bias; but perhaps we’ve actually managed to remove it. So that’s one major avenue of discrimination we maybe finally have under control. Only several dozen left to go?

Belief in belief, and why it’s important

Oct 30, JDN 2457692

In my previous post on ridiculous beliefs, I passed briefly over this sentence:

“People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.”

Today I’d like to talk about the fact that “to profess” is a very important phrase in that sentence. Part of understanding ridiculous beliefs, I think, is understanding that many, if not most, of them are not actually proper beliefs. They are what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”, and has elsewhere been referred to as “anomalous belief”. They are not beliefs in the ordinary sense that we would line up with the other beliefs in our worldview and use them to anticipate experiences and motivate actions. They are something else, lone islands of belief that are not weaved into our worldview. But all the same they are invested with importance, often moral or even ultimate importance; this one belief may not make any sense with everyone else, but you must believe it, because it is a vital part of your identity and your tribe. To abandon it would not simply be mistaken; it would be heresy, it would be treason.

How do I know this? Mainly because nobody has tried to stone me to death lately.

The Bible is quite explicit about at least a dozen reasons I am supposed to be executed forthwith; you likely share many of them: Heresy, apostasy, blasphemy, nonbelief, sodomy, fornication, covetousness, taking God’s name in vain, eating shellfish (though I don’t anymore!), wearing mixed fiber, shaving, working on the Sabbath, making images of things, and my personal favorite, not stoning other people for committing such crimes (as we call it in game theory, a second-order punishment).

Yet I have met many people who profess to be “Bible-believing Christians”, and even may oppose some of these activities (chiefly sodomy, blasphemy, and nonbelief) on the grounds that they are against what the Bible says—and yet not one has tried to arrange my execution, nor have I ever seriously feared that they might.

Is this because we live in a secular society? Well, yes—but not simply that. It isn’t just that these people are afraid of being punished by our secular government should they murder me for my sins; they believe that it is morally wrong to murder me, and would rarely even consider the option. Someone could point them to the passage in Leviticus (20:16, as it turns out) that explicitly says I should be executed, and it would not change their behavior toward me.

On first glance this is quite baffling. If I thought you were about to drink a glass of water that contained cyanide, I would stop you, by force if necessary. So if they truly believe that I am going to be sent to Hell—infinitely worse than cyanide—then shouldn’t they be willing to use any means necessary to stop that from happening? And wouldn’t this be all the more true if they believe that they themselves will go to Hell should they fail to punish me?

If these “Bible-believing Christians” truly believed in Hell the way that I believe in cyanide—that is, as proper beliefs which anticipate experience and motivate action—then they would in fact try to force my conversion or execute me, and in doing so would believe that they are doing right. This used to be quite common in many Christian societies (most infamously in the Salem Witch Trials), and still is disturbingly common in many Muslim societies—ISIS doesn’t just throw gay men off rooftops and stone them as a weird idiosyncrasy; it is written in the Hadith that they’re supposed to. Nor is this sort of thing confined to terrorist groups; the “legitimate” government of Saudi Arabia routinely beheads atheists or imprisons homosexuals (though has a very capricious enforcement system, likely so that the monarchy can trump up charges to justify executing whomever they choose). Beheading people because the book said so is what your behavior would look like if you honestly believed, as a proper belief, that the Qur’an or the Bible or whatever holy book actually contained the ultimate truth of the universe. The great irony of calling religion people’s “deeply-held belief” is that it is in almost all circumstances the exact opposite—it is their most weakly held belief, the one that they could most easily sacrifice without changing their behavior.

Yet perhaps we can’t even say that to people, because they will get equally defensive and insist that they really do hold this very important anomalous belief, and how dare you accuse them otherwise. Because one of the beliefs they really do hold, as a proper belief, and a rather deeply-held one, is that you must always profess to believe your religion and defend your belief in it, and if anyone catches you not believing it that’s a horrible, horrible thing. So even though it’s obvious to everyone—probably even to you—that your behavior looks nothing like what it would if you actually believed in this book, you must say that you do, scream that you do if necessary, for no one must ever, ever find out that it is not a proper belief.

Another common trick is to try to convince people that their beliefs do affect their behavior, even when they plainly don’t. We typically use the words “religious” and “moral” almost interchangeably, when they are at best orthogonal and arguably even opposed. Part of why so many people seem to hold so rigidly to their belief-in-belief is that they think that morality cannot be justified without recourse to religion; so even though on some level they know religion doesn’t make sense, they are afraid to admit it, because they think that means admitting that morality doesn’t make sense. If you are even tempted by this inference, I present to you the entire history of ethical philosophy. Divine Command theory has been a minority view among philosophers for centuries.

Indeed, it is precisely because your moral beliefs are not based on your religion that you feel a need to resort to that defense of your religion. If you simply believed religion as a proper belief, you would base your moral beliefs on your religion, sure enough; but you’d also defend your religion in a fundamentally different way, not as something you’re supposed to believe, not as a belief that makes you a good person, but as something that is just actually true. (And indeed, many fanatics actually do defend their beliefs in those terms.) No one ever uses the argument that if we stop believing in chairs we’ll all become murderers, because chairs are actually there. We don’t believe in belief in chairs; we believe in chairs.

And really, if such a belief were completely isolated, it would not be a problem; it would just be this weird thing you say you believe that everyone really knows you don’t and it doesn’t affect how you behave, but okay, whatever. The problem is that it’s never quite isolated from your proper beliefs; it does affect some things—and in particular it can offer a kind of “support” for other real, proper beliefs that you do have, support which is now immune to rational criticism.

For example, as I already mentioned: Most of these “Bible-believing Christians” do, in fact, morally oppose homosexuality, and say that their reason for doing so is based on the Bible. This cannot literally be true, because if they actually believed the Bible they wouldn’t want gay marriage taken off the books, they’d want a mass pogrom of 4-10% of the population (depending how you count), on a par with the Holocaust. Fortunately their proper belief that genocide is wrong is overriding. But they have no such overriding belief supporting the moral permissibility of homosexuality or the personal liberty of marriage rights, so the very tenuous link to their belief-in-belief in the Bible is sufficient to tilt their actual behavior.

Similarly, if the people I meet who say they think maybe 9/11 was an inside job by our government really believed that, they would most likely be trying to organize a violent revolution; any government willing to murder 3,000 of its own citizens in a false flag operation is one that must be overturned and can probably only be overturned by force. At the very least, they would flee the country. If they lived in a country where the government is actually like that, like Zimbabwe or North Korea, they wouldn’t fear being dismissed as conspiracy theorists, they’d fear being captured and executed. The very fact that you live within the United States and exercise your free speech rights here says pretty strongly that you don’t actually believe our government is that evil. But they wouldn’t be so outspoken about their conspiracy theories if they didn’t at least believe in believing them.

I also have to wonder how many of our politicians who lean on the Constitution as their source of authority have actually read the Constitution, as it says a number of rather explicit things against, oh, say, the establishment of religion (First Amendment) or searches and arrests without warrants (Fourth Amendment) that they don’t much seem to care about. Some are better about this than others; Rand Paul, for instance, actually takes the Constitution pretty seriously (and is frequently found arguing against things like warrantless searches as a result!), but Ted Cruz for example says he has spent decades “defending the Constitution”, despite saying things like “America is a Christian nation” that directly violate the First Amendment. Cruz doesn’t really seem to believe in the Constitution; but maybe he believes in believing the Constitution. (It’s also quite possible he’s just lying to manipulate voters.)

 

Zootopia taught us constructive responses to bigotry

Sep 10, JDN 2457642

Zootopia wasn’t just a good movie; Zootopia was a great movie. I’m not just talking about its grosses (over $1 billion worldwide), or its ratings, 8.1 on IMDB, 98% from critics and 93% from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, 78 from critics and 8.8 from users on Metacritic. No, I’m talking about its impact on the world. This movie isn’t just a fun and adorable children’s movie (though it is that). This movie is a work of art that could have profound positive effects on our society.

Why? Because Zootopia is about bigotry—and more than that, it doesn’t just say “bigotry is bad, bigots are bad”; it provides us with a constructive response to bigotry, and forces us to confront the possibility that sometimes the bigots are us.

Indeed, it may be no exaggeration (though I’m sure I’ll get heat on the Internet for suggesting it) to say that Zootopia has done more to fight bigotry than most social justice activists will achieve in their entire lives. Don’t get me wrong, some social justice activists have done great things; and indeed, I may have to count myself in this “most activists” category, since I can’t point to any major accomplishments I’ve yet made in social justice.

But one of the biggest problems I see in the social justice community is the tendency to exclude and denigrate (in sociology jargon, “other” as a verb) people for acts of bigotry, even quite mild ones. Make one vaguely sexist joke, and you may as well be a rapist. Use racially insensitive language by accident, and clearly you are a KKK member. Say something ignorant about homosexuality, and you may as well be Rick Santorum. It becomes less about actually moving the world forward, and more about reaffirming our tribal unity as social justice activists. We are the pure ones. We never do wrong. All the rest of you are broken, and the only way to fix yourself is to become one of us in every way.

In the process of fighting tribal bigotry, we form our own tribe and become our own bigots.

Zootopia offers us another way. If you haven’t seen it, go rent it on DVD or stream it on Netflix right now. Seriously, this blog post will be here when you get back. I’m not going to play any more games with “spoilers!” though. It is definitely worth seeing, and from this point forward I’m going to presume you have.

The brilliance of Zootopia lies in the fact that it made bigotry what it is—not some evil force that infests us from outside, nor something that only cruel, evil individuals would ever partake in, but thoughts and attitudes that we all may have from time to time, that come naturally, and even in some cases might be based on a kernel of statistical truth. Judy Hopps is prey, she grew up in a rural town surrounded by others of her own species (with a population the size of New York City according to the sign, because this is still sometimes a silly Disney movie). She only knew a handful of predators growing up, yet when she moves to Zootopia suddenly she’s confronted with thousands of them, all around her. She doesn’t know what most predators are like, or how best to deal with them.

What she does know is that her ancestors were terrorized, murdered, and quite literally eaten by the ancestors of predators. Her instinctual fear of predators isn’t something utterly arbitrary; it was written into the fabric of her DNA by her ancestral struggle for survival. She has a reason to hate and fear predators that, on its face, actually seems to make sense.

And when there is a spree of murders, all committed by predators, it feels natural to us that Judy would fall back on her old prejudices; indeed, the brilliance of it is that they don’t immediately feel like prejudices. It takes us a moment to let her off-the-cuff comments at the press conference sink in (and Nick’s shocked reaction surely helps), before we realize that was really bigoted. Our adorable, innocent, idealistic, beloved protagonist is a bigot!

Or rather, she has done something bigoted. Because she is such a sympathetic character, we avoid the implication that she is a bigot, that this is something permanent and irredeemable about her. We have already seen the good in her, so we know that this bigotry isn’t what defines who she is. And in the end, she realizes where she went wrong and learns to do better. Indeed, it is ultimately revealed that the murders were orchestrated by someone whose goal was specifically to trigger those ancient ancestral feuds, and Judy reveals that plot and ultimately ends up falling in love with a predator herself.

What Zootopia is really trying to tell us is that we are all Judy Hopps. Every one of us most likely harbors some prejudiced attitude toward someone. If it’s not Black people or women or Muslims or gays, well, how about rednecks? Or Republicans? Or (perhaps the hardest for me) Trump supporters? If you are honest with yourself, there is probably some group of people on this planet that you harbor attitudes of disdain or hatred toward that nonetheless contains a great many good people who do not deserve your disdain.

And conversely, all bigots are Judy Hopps too, or at least the vast majority of them. People don’t wake up in the morning concocting evil schemes for the sake of being evil like cartoon supervillains. (Indeed, perhaps the greatest thing about Zootopia is that it is a cartoon in the sense of being animated, but it is not a cartoon in the sense of being morally simplistic. Compare Captain Planet, wherein polluters aren’t hardworking coal miners with no better options or even corrupt CEOs out to make an extra dollar to go with their other billion; no, they pollute on purpose, for no reason, because they are simply evil. Now that is a cartoon.) Normal human beings don’t plan to make the world a worse place. A handful of psychopaths might, but even then I think it’s more that they don’t care; they aren’t trying to make the world worse, they just don’t particularly mind if they do, as long as they get what they want. Robert Mugabe and Kim-Jong Un are despicable human beings with the blood of millions on their hands, but even they aren’t trying to make the world worse.

And thus, if your theory of bigotry requires that bigots are inhuman monsters who harm others by their sheer sadistic evil, that theory is plainly wrong. Actually I think when stated outright, hardly anyone would agree with that theory; but the important thing is that we often act as if we do. When someone does something bigoted, we shun them, deride them, push them as far as we can to the fringes of our own social group or even our whole society. We don’t say that your statement was racist; we say you are racist. We don’t say your joke was sexist; we say you are sexist. We don’t say your decision was homophobic; we say you are homophobic. We define bigotry as part of your identity, something as innate and ineradicable as your race or sex or sexual orientation itself.

I think I know why we do this: It is to protect ourselves from the possibility that we ourselves might sometimes do bigoted things. Because only bigots do bigoted things, and we know that we are not bigots.

We laugh at this when someone else does it: “But some of my best friends are Black!” “Happy #CincoDeMayo; I love Hispanics!” But that is the very same psychological defense mechanism we’re using ourselves, albeit in a more extreme application. When we commit an act that is accused of being bigoted, we begin searching for contextual evidence outside that act to show that we are not bigoted. The truth we must ultimately confront is that this is irrelevant: The act can still be bigoted even if we are not overall bigots—for we are all Judy Hopps.

This seems like terrible news, even when delivered by animated animals (or fuzzy muppets in Avenue Q), because we tend to hear it as “We are all bigots.” We hear this as saying that bigotry is inevitable, inescapable, literally written into the fabric of our DNA. At that point, we may as well give up, right? It’s hopeless!

But that much we know can’t be true. It could be (indeed, likely is) true that some amount of bigotry is inevitable, just as no country has ever managed to reach zero homicide or zero disease. But just as rates of homicide and disease have precipitously declined with the advancement of human civilization (starting around industrial capitalism, as I pointed out in a previous post!), so indeed have rates of bigotry, at least in recent times.

For goodness’ sake, it used to be a legal, regulated industry to buy and sell other human beings in the United States! This was seen as normal; indeed many argued that it was economically indispensable.

Is 1865 too far back for you? How about racially segregated schools, which were only eliminated from US law in 1954, a time where my parents were both alive? (To be fair, only barely; my father was a month old.) Yes, even today the racial composition of our schools is far from evenly mixed; but it used to be a matter of law that Black children could not go to school with White children.

Women were only granted the right to vote in the US in 1920. My parents weren’t alive yet, but there definitely are people still alive today who were children when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

Same-sex marriage was not legalized across the United States until last year. My own life plans were suddenly and directly affected by this change.

We have made enormous progress against bigotry, in a remarkably short period of time. It has been argued that social change progresses by the death of previous generations; but that simply can’t be true, because we are moving much too fast for that! Attitudes toward LGBT people have improved dramatically in just the last decade.

Instead, it must be that we are actually changing people’s minds. Not everyone’s, to be sure; and often not as quickly as we’d like. But bit by bit, we tear bigotry down, like people tearing off tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It is important to understand what we are doing here. We are not getting rid of bigots; we are getting rid of bigotry. We want to convince people, “convert” them if you like, not shun them or eradicate them. And we want to strive to improve our own behavior, because we know it will not always be perfect. By forgiving others for their mistakes, we can learn to forgive ourselves for our own.

It is only by talking about bigoted actions and bigoted ideas, rather than bigoted people, that we can hope to make this progress. Someone can’t change who they are, but they can change what they believe and what they do. And along those same lines, it’s important to be clear about detailed, specific actions that people can take to make themselves and the world better.

Don’t just say “Check your privilege!” which at this point is basically a meaningless Applause Light. Instead say “Here are some articles I think you should read on police brutality, including this one from The American Conservative. And there’s a Black Lives Matter protest next weekend, would you like to join me there to see what we do?” Don’t just say “Stop being so racist toward immigrants!”; say “Did you know that about a third of undocumented immigrants are college students on overstayed visas? If we deport all these people, won’t that break up families?” Don’t try to score points. Don’t try to show that you’re the better person. Try to understand, inform, and persuade. You are talking to Judy Hopps, for we are all Judy Hopps.

And when you find false beliefs or bigoted attitudes in yourself, don’t deny them, don’t suppress them, don’t make excuses for them—but also don’t hate yourself for having them. Forgive yourself for your mistake, and then endeavor to correct it. For we are all Judy Hopps.

Oppression is quantitative.

JDN 2457082 EDT 11:15.

Economists are often accused of assigning dollar values to everything, of being Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And there is more than a little truth to this, particularly among neoclassical economists; I was alarmed a few days ago to receive an email response from an economist that included the word ‘altruism’ in scare quotes as though this were somehow a problematic or unrealistic concept. (Actually, altruism is already formally modeled by biologists, and my claim that human beings are altruistic would be so uncontroversial among evolutionary biologists as to be considered trivial.)

But sometimes this accusation is based upon things economists do that is actually tremendously useful, even necessary to good policymaking: We make everything quantitative. Nothing is ever “yes” or “no” to an economist (sometimes even when it probably should be; the debate among economists in the 1960s over whether slavery is economically efficient does seem rather beside the point), but always more or less; never good or bad but always better or worse. For example, as I discussed in my post on minimum wage, the mainstream position among economists is not that minimum wage is always harmful nor that minimum wage is always beneficial, but that minimum wage is a policy with costs and benefits that on average neither increases nor decreases unemployment. The mainstream position among economists about climate policy is that we should institute either a high carbon tax or a system of cap-and-trade permits; no economist I know wants us to either do nothing and let the market decide (a position most Republicans currently seem to take) or suddenly ban coal and oil (the latter is a strawman position I’ve heard environmentalists accused of, but I’ve never actually heard advocated; even Greenpeace wants to ban offshore drilling, not oil in general.).

This makes people uncomfortable, I think, because they want moral issues to be simple. They want “good guys” who are always right and “bad guys” who are always wrong. (Speaking of strawman environmentalism, a good example of this is Captain Planet, in which no one ever seems to pollute the environment in order to help people or even in order to make money; no, they simply do it because the hate clean water and baby animals.) They don’t want to talk about options that are more good or less bad; they want one option that is good and all other options that are bad.

This attitude tends to become infused with righteousness, such that anyone who disagrees is an agent of the enemy. Politics is the mind-killer, after all. If you acknowledge that there might be some downside to a policy you agree with, that’s like betraying your team.

But in reality, the failure to acknowledge downsides can lead to disaster. Problems that could have been prevented are instead ignored and denied. Getting the other side to recognize the downsides of their own policies might actually help you persuade them to your way of thinking. And appreciating that there is a continuum of possibilities that are better and worse in various ways to various degrees is what allows us to make the world a better place even as we know that it will never be perfect.

There is a common refrain you’ll hear from a lot of social justice activists which sounds really nice and egalitarian, but actually has the potential to completely undermine the entire project of social justice.

This is the idea that oppression can’t be measured quantitatively, and we shouldn’t try to compare different levels of oppression. The notion that some people are more oppressed than others is often derided as the Oppression Olympics. (Some use this term more narrowly to mean when a discussion is derailed by debate over who has it worse—but then the problem is really discussions being derailed, isn’t it?)

This sounds nice, because it means we don’t have to ask hard questions like, “Which is worse, sexism or racism?” or “Who is worse off, people with cancer or people with diabetes?” These are very difficult questions, and maybe they aren’t the right ones to ask—after all, there’s no reason to think that fighting racism and fighting sexism are mutually exclusive; they can in fact be complementary. Research into cancer only prevents us from doing research into diabetes if our total research budget is fixed—this is more than anything else an argument for increasing research budgets.

But we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Oppression is quantitative. Some kinds of oppression are clearly worse than others.

Why is this important? Because otherwise you can’t measure progress. If you have a strictly qualitative notion of oppression where it’s black-and-white, on-or-off, oppressed-or-not, then we haven’t made any progress on just about any kind of oppression. There is still racism, there is still sexism, there is still homophobia, there is still religious discrimination. Maybe these things will always exist to some extent. This makes the fight for social justice a hopeless Sisyphean task.

But in fact, that’s not true at all. We’ve made enormous progress. Unbelievably fast progress. Mind-boggling progress. For hundreds of millennia humanity made almost no progress at all, and then in the last few centuries we have suddenly leapt toward justice.

Sexism used to mean that women couldn’t own property, they couldn’t vote, they could be abused and raped with impunity—or even beaten or killed for being raped (which Saudi Arabia still does by the way). Now sexism just means that women aren’t paid as well, are underrepresented in positions of power like Congress and Fortune 500 CEOs, and they are still sometimes sexually harassed or raped—but when men are caught doing this they go to prison for years. This change happened in only about 100 years. That’s fantastic.

Racism used to mean that Black people were literally property to be bought and sold. They were slaves. They had no rights at all, they were treated like animals. They were frequently beaten to death. Now they can vote, hold office—one is President!—and racism means that our culture systematically discriminates against them, particularly in the legal system. Racism used to mean you could be lynched; now it just means that it’s a bit harder to get a job and the cops will sometimes harass you. This took only about 200 years. That’s amazing.

Homophobia used to mean that gay people were criminals. We could be sent to prison or even executed for the crime of making love in the wrong way. If we were beaten or murdered, it was our fault for being faggots. Now, homophobia means that we can’t get married in some states (and fewer all the time!), we’re depicted on TV in embarrassing stereotypes, and a lot of people say bigoted things about us. This has only taken about 50 years! That’s astonishing.

And above all, the most extreme example: Religious discrimination used to mean you could be burned at the stake for not being Catholic. It used to mean—and in some countries still does mean—that it’s illegal to believe in certain religions. Now, it means that Muslims are stereotyped because, well, to be frank, there are some really scary things about Muslim culture and some really scary people who are Muslim leaders. (Personally, I think Muslims should be more upset about Ahmadinejad and Al Qaeda than they are about being profiled in airports.) It means that we atheists are annoyed by “In God We Trust”, but we’re no longer burned at the stake. This has taken longer, more like 500 years. But even though it took a long time, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this progress is wonderful.

Obviously, there’s a lot more progress remaining to be made on all these issues, and others—like economic inequality, ableism, nationalism, and animal rights—but the point is that we have made a lot of progress already. Things are better than they used to be—a lot betterand keeping this in mind will help us preserve the hope and dedication necessary to make things even better still.

If you think that oppression is either-or, on-or-off, you can’t celebrate this progress, and as a result the whole fight seems hopeless. Why bother, when it’s always been on, and will probably never be off? But we started with oppression that was absolutely horrific, and now it’s considerably milder. That’s real progress. At least within the First World we have gone from 90% oppressed to 25% oppressed, and we can bring it down to 10% or 1% or 0.1% or even 0.01%. Those aren’t just numbers, those are the lives of millions of people. As democracy spreads worldwide and poverty is eradicated, oppression declines. Step by step, social changes are made, whether by protest marches or forward-thinking politicians or even by lawyers and lobbyists (they aren’t all corrupt).

And indeed, a four-year-old Black girl with a mental disability living in Ghana whose entire family’s income is $3 a day is more oppressed than I am, and not only do I have no qualms about saying that, it would feel deeply unseemly to deny it. I am not totally unoppressed—I am a bisexual atheist with chronic migraines and depression in a country that is suspicious of atheists, systematically discriminates against LGBT people, and does not make proper accommodations for chronic disorders, particularly mental ones. But I am far less oppressed, and that little girl (she does exist, though I know not her name) could be made much less oppressed than she is even by relatively simple interventions (like a basic income). In order to make her fully and totally unoppressed, we would need such a radical restructuring of human society that I honestly can’t really imagine what it would look like. Maybe something like The Culture? Even then as Iain Banks imagines it, there is inequality between those within The Culture and those outside it, and there have been wars like the Idiran-Culture War which killed billions, and among those trillions of people on thousands of vast orbital habitats someone, somewhere is probably making a speciesist remark. Yet I can state unequivocally that life in The Culture would be better than my life here now, which is better than the life of that poor disabled girl in Ghana.

To be fair, we can’t actually put a precise number on it—though many economists try, and one of my goals is to convince them to improve their methods so that they stop using willingness-to-pay and instead try to actually measure utility by something like QALY. A precise number would help, actually—it would allow us to do cost-benefit analyses to decide where to focus our efforts. But while we don’t need a precise number to tell when we are making progress, we do need to acknowledge that there are degrees of oppression, some worse than others.

Oppression is quantitative. And our goal should be minimizing that quantity.