Monday, March 30, 2009

Welmer on Marriage

The excellent blogger Welmer cogently reviews the purpose of marriage:

First, in all likelihood, to keep the peace. In the animal kingdom, ritualized violence is often an important aspect of sexual competition. Humans, however, are equipped with a far more deadly weapon — reason. The lower mammals may fight hard for female attention, but some genetic imperative prevents them from killing each other, whereas humans (as well as chimps — our closest cousins) discovered that murder is far more conclusive in settling the matter of which male gets the prize. Indeed, women have been taken as booty from the earliest days of tribal skirmishes with spears and clubs.

Old fashioned murder was not particularly different from the modern sort. It was often a group effort, which we know as “war.” Warfare over females is common in hunter gatherer societies, and serves as a check on population growth not only due to the murder of men but the associated killing of their children. Even the most primitive tribesmen must have known that when a man is deprived of female companionship, he becomes inclined to take a female by any practical means. Men with female sexual partners must have felt rather nervous about this, and so developed pacts with other men to protect their status with their women. Thus the concept of marriage developed as a mutual recognition between men of the legitimacy of the male/female reproductive partnership. As long as this recognition existed within a given tribe, peace would be easier to preserve, and both men and children were safer than otherwise.

However, guarantees within a tribe didn’t generally apply to outsiders, and raids for women characterize primitive societies both past and present. The easiest tribes to raid were certainly those that had no concept of marriage, because the males would not be inclined to defend other men who had no respect for their own status with women. Repeated over time, this guaranteed the eclipse of tribes without a clear concept of marriage by those that did.

He also summarizes the problems facing marriage:

Although the government still preserves some legal relics of the previous norm, including the recognition of marriage and certain tax categories, it is an undeniable fact that the family has taken a subordinate role in regards to the desires - however transient - of the individual. No fault divorce, decriminalization of adultery and skyrocketing illegitimacy rates bear this out. The law has changed to reflect the new state of affairs, treating marriage and its dissolution as economic transactions while ignoring the effects they have on social stability. This is justified on the dictate that individual freedoms and rights trump, or are in the interest of, the greater good. This may be true or false. There is no doubt that some highly collectivist societies (such as North Korea) can turn out very badly by a number of measures, but the philosophy of extreme individualism often masks collective efforts by one group to gain leverage over another.

And then . . . he throws it all away!

Whether the West’s extreme individualism is good or bad on the balance is of little concern in an effort to revive an institution that is on life support and in danger of catastrophic failure — there simply isn’t enough time to reevalute our civilization’s shibboleths to revive marriage as it was. Rather, we must work with what we have, which is a strong focus on civil rights and freedoms. From that perspective, it can be argued that the traditional concept of marriage is a fundamentally unjust institution that privileges some people at the expense of others, and in fact unreasonably restricts the rights of those who enter into it. Therefore, the abolition of marriage must be considered to achieve a greater degree of freedom and justice in society. States may retain civil partnerships entered into under contractual agreements, but these must be little different from corporations or partnerships entered into for business purposes.

Would that marriage was "little different from corporations or partnerships entered into for buisness purposes"; these, at least, cannot be unilaterally dissolved, but as in any contract they "restrict the rights of those who enter into it," unreasonably or no. I don't really have a problem with thinking of marriage as a sacralized contract, but Welmer, at least here, seems not to understand that contracts, while voluntarily entered, bind the parties to certain future courses of action. And if the marriage contract means anything, then sexual exclusivity is the fundamental provision of that contract.

More generally, while Welmer correctly apprehends the manner in which communally enforced marital rights and obligations enabled social cooperation, especially among men, he doesn't address the dynamic of conquest that made such cooperation necessary. Does he think that such cooperation is no longer necessary? What happens when we have a conflict with a people who have not discarded it? Sure, we have our technology, but what of the political will to use it? And what of our own internal divisions?

To be fair, Welmer appreciates the importance of monogamy, and specifically denies the intent to discard it. But can it survive legal protection? Roissy is on his blogroll, so I would think he understands what the weakened state of monogamy looks like. I don't see that state improving by abolishing what remains of its legal status.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Price Transparency in Medicine

From the AP story this morning:

More than 70 percent of workers who get health care through their employers are enrolled in plans that allow them to go out of network, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Typically, those plans will pay a set percentage, say 70 percent, for an out-of-network visit.

But unknown to many consumers, when patients go out of network, their plan doesn't actually pay 70 percent of the doctor's visit cost. It pays 70 percent of what it determines is the "usual, customary and reasonable" cost for the procedure or doctor's visit in question.

Insurance companies determine that cost themselves, and there's scant regulation or oversight of how they do it.

In the case of UnitedHealth and Ingenix, they were allegedly manipulating claims data so that the "usual, customary and reasonable" costs they used were lower than they should have been, leaving patients to pay more. [State Attorney General Andrew] Cuomo's office said Ingenix was understating the market rate for doctor's visits across New York state by 10 percent to 28 percent.

It occurs to me, on reading this story, that one of the big problems with "health care" is that the pricing is almost never made available to the consumer until after the services are delivered. Sometimes well after. This is a problem almost unique to medical services. If I go to a store, the cost of the items on the shelves are right there. If I call a plumber, he'll almost certainly provide an estimate of what it will cost to fix whatever problem he's facing. But if I visit a doctor, the prices are never advertised. Dentistry is a partial exception to this generalization, but doctors tend to do what they do, and the patient doesn't find out what the price is until he gets the bill. This makes price competition in the medical business difficult, which probably increases prices.

And while I'm at it, why is it that doctor's warrant their work. If I purchase something that doesn't perform it's advertised function, I can almost always take it back for an exchange or a refund. But try asking a doctor the terms of his warranty and see what reaction you get.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Final Reflections on BSG

Okay, so Hera turns out to be the mitochondrial ancestor of the modern human race. Of course, that kind of means that, for the other 38,000-odd survivors of the Twelve Colonies, the whole let's-abandon-technology-and-become-hunter-gatherers thing . . . didn't work out so well.

I suppose that with all the talk among the various survivors about farming, somebody should have told the writers that agriculture wasn't invented until the upper neolithic, not circa 150,000 BC . . . but then, the whole episode was as shamelessly a patched-up effort to integrate BSG into our own history as it was to tie up its own loose ends. But why not have the Colonists arrive about the time of the actual homo-sapien diaspora (50,000 years ago)?

I could do this all night, but my bottom line is that the final two seasons haven't been worthy of the first two. I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Eye Contact on King of the Hill

Last Sunday's episode of King of the Hill, which either hasn't shown up yet on IMDB or is an old rerun [update: the episode is up on], featured Bobby attending a Cotillion class, wherein the participants learn formal manners when interacting with members of the opposite sex. At one point, while teaching the young men how to help remove a woman's coat, the matronly instructor reminds the young ladies, "eye contact!" By which she means that they should maintain it.

Assuming that this particular aspect of Cotillion was well-researched, Mike Judge illuminated something I've been saying for a while: eye contact doesn't come naturally to young women. Which was why, in a more civilized age, it was taught to them as an element of good manners.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cultural Question

For those of you who caught last Wednesday's South Park episode on the Jonas Brothers, I have a question: what's with the references to Grey's Anatomy? The implication on South Park was that it had some kind of Christian morality stink on it. I've only caught fleeting glimses of the show, but that was never my impression.

Friday, March 13, 2009

How Accurately Do Women Assess the Attractiveness of Other Women?

Via Roissy, the answer appears to be: poorly.

[W]omen of childbearing age rate other attractive women consistently lower than women who have entered menopause, according to a new study.

This also works in reverse: women can overrate the attractiveness of a not-quite-beautiful woman as well.

I noticed this when my wife sought to match-make her male cousin with a female friend from our church. Unfortunately, I didn't mentally grasp her intentions until it was too late. I could have told her it wouldn't go well.

"Why don't men think that [female friend X] is attractive?" she asked me later.

Let's count the reasons.

  1. 1. She's well into her 30s, and this fact is starting to show around the edges.

  2. 2. While she's not fat, she's not Hollywood thin either.

  3. 3. These two facts are not sufficiently compensated for by other aspects of her appearance.

  4. 4. While someone like Φ would be drawn to her maternal qualities should, God forbid, he need to replace his daughters' mother, [male cousin]'s priorities are probably like those of most men in his position.

  5. 5. [Male cousin], by Φ's estimation, has both the moxie and the patience to get most of what he wants in this regard.

The surprising thing was that Mrs. Φ didn't perceive all this ahead of time. In contrast to the competitive situation the article describes, I don't see what Mrs. Φ would gain by bad faith, and the fact that she asked me about it later makes it seem like she really didn't understand it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Φ's Morality

Any excuse to post that picture!

Many of you may remember Jonathan Haidt's revelation last year that conservatives evenly distribute their ethics among five dimensions -- care, reciprocity, loyalty, authority, and purity -- while liberals conern themselves only with the first two of these. Haidt's morality test, and much else, is now online.

Here are my results compared with liberals and conservatives:


Holy moly! Φ is even more right wing than the right wing! Indeed, he is the moral inverse of liberals: neglecting the first two categories in favor of the last three.

And yet . . . consider some of the questions, wherein we are asked to express our level of agreement with the following statements:

One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal. [Emphasis added here and elsewhere.]

Uh . . . no? I would say one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless human being. Sure, we shouldn't cause animal suffering for no good purpose, and a sadistic delight in the suffering of an animal is likely a leading indicator of some deep psychological problems. On the other hand, the little boys who throw rocks at squirrels have committed something less than a war crime.

Respect for authority is something all children need to learn.

Is there really any debate about this? I'm guessing the only people who answer NO have never spent any time in the company of children. Which may, come to think of it, describe most liberals.

It can never be right to kill a human being.

I doubt anyone really thinks this. I suspect the people answering YES suffer from a momentary poverty of imagination. I know for a fact that many good liberals, confronted by someone harming a child, would in fact be willing to push the button on him.

Chastity is an important and valuable virtue.

Again, does anyone really doubt this? Granted, the short-term opportunity costs of chastity, particularly for men, may be higher than most people are prepared to pay. Granted as well that we think differently of what chastity means for the young versus the old, for men versus women, for those who choose it versus those who have it thrust upon them. But again I would argue that anyone who doesn't think it "valuable and important" is either morally insensate or has never had a teenage daughter.

But notice the asymmetry in the questions. To get a "conservative" score, the test-taker has only to acknowledge that purity, authority, and loyalty are, in fact, virtues at all. To get a "liberal" score, in contrast, the test-taker must elevate harm and reciprocity to paramount status. Notice the absolutist words like never and worst in the "liberal" questions, and their absence in the "conservative" ones.

Sad. Given this imbalance, I would have expected that more conservatives would have scores like mine, and the liberals to have more evenly distributed scores. The fact that they are not says something disappointing about conservatives and liberals both.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Highlight of the Trip

After standing in line so my daughters could get their picture taken with Pocahontas, I decided, what the hell.

"What's your name?" she asked. I hadn't expected that.

"John Rolfe," I replied.*

I have to hand it to those character actresses. I didn't really expect her to be visibly creeped out, but I did expect that she would show some sign of ironic self-awareness. But no: she played the whole 20 second interaction straight up, in character, didn't miss a beat.

*Are you kidding? That's the kind of answer that only occurs to me a day later.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Forgive the light posting. I attended a conference last week in, um, central Florida.

Twinkerbell. You've come a long way, baby!


The clerk at the rental car agency where I picked up my rental car was wearing a nametag that said, "Nada". "Do you know what 'Nada' means in Portuguese?" I asked.

"Yeah, the same thing it does in Spanish," she replied, "but in Arabic it means 'Morning Dew', which is way cooler."

"You're Arabic?"

"I'm from Morocco."

"What brought you to the U.S.?" I asked.

"School. I have a master's degree in computer science. Unfortunately, all the jobs require a security clearance, which in turn requires citizenship. But my citizenship should be approved in a few months."


Actually, it's amazing the extent to which the vacation industry in Florida is staffed by ESL types, especially by the region's largest employer. And not just Mexicans; their domination of the nation's housekeeping industry is hardly worth remarking on anymore. But there were an extraordinary number of Asians and East Europeans working the parks, which, to be fair, largely reflected their clientele.