Uncommon knowledge

Sexism? Blame it on the plough.

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
December 12, 2010

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As economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, we are ultimately “the slaves of some defunct economist.” However, according to a new study by modern-day economists, we — especially women — are the slaves of ancient agriculture. In some areas of the world, agriculture depended on the plough, which demanded brute strength, while in other areas, agriculture was more friendly to routine labor. Obviously, men were more suited to the former, and women to the latter. That was then, but what about now? The authors found that historic reliance on the plough for a particular country, region, or ethnic group continues to be associated with fewer women in the workforce, male-dominant attitudes, and a male-biased population ratio. Moreover, in families that recently immigrated to the United States, women are less likely to be in the workforce if their ancestors lived in plough-intensive areas.

Alesina, A. et al., “The Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough,” Harvard University (October 2010).

An argument against profiling One of the hot topics this holiday season has been airport security. Many people are not happy with the increased physical scrutiny and wonder why we aren’t relying more on terrorist (a.k.a., racial) profiling. So, here’s an answer from one expert in statistics who also happens to be a trustee of the Institute for Defense Analyses and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. If we focus our (limited) screening resources on people in proportion to how much they look like a terrorist, we don’t gain any advantage in the likelihood of identifying an actual terrorist. It turns out that the attention paid to the most-suspicious-looking individuals gives terrorists with a less-suspicious profile an advantage.

Press, W., “To Catch a Terrorist: Can Ethnic Profiling Work?” Significance (December 2010).

More money, just as bankrupt The “welfare check” has been a powerful icon in political debate for the past several decades. Many conservatives claim that giving money to poor people encourages complacency and may not even improve their lives. On the other hand, many liberals point out that poor people are often just down on their luck and could use a little help to make ends meet. Sorry liberals, but a recent study finds in favor of conservatives, at least when it comes to cutting big checks. Specifically, researchers looked at whether winning the lottery in Florida prevented people from going bankrupt. Although winning big ($50,000 to $150,000) helped stave off bankruptcy in the first couple years, the odds of declaring bankruptcy jumped back up three to five years after winning. And it’s not like the winners accumulated lots of assets. Instead, their bankruptcy filings suggest they simply blew through the money.

Hankins, S. et al., “The Ticket to Easy Street? The Financial Consequences of Winning the Lottery,” Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming).

Gun shows and crime Federal law requires a background check to buy a gun, but there is one notable exception, the so-called gun show loophole. Given that hundreds of gun shows take place around the country every year, gun-control advocates are understandably nervous that this provides felons or mentally disturbed individuals with an easy way to get guns. A recent study may allay some of this fear. In one analysis, the authors looked at homicide and suicide rates during the weeks, and in the area, around gun shows in Texas and California from 1994 to 2004. Gun shows had no significant effect in either state, even in Texas where gun shows are minimally regulated. Another analysis looked at the relationship between the location of gun shows and crime in Houston during the same period and also found no effect.

Duggan, M. et al., “The Short-Term and Localized Effect of Gun Shows: Evidence from California and Texas,” Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming).

Does violence stop abortions? For antiabortion extremists, the use of violence against abortion providers may seem justified, but is it actually effective? That is, does the violence prevent abortions? The answer is not really, according to two economists. Attacks generally have a modest effect — around a 10 percent reduction in the number of providers and abortions in the affected area for several years — though lethal attacks, which are relatively rare, have a larger effect. Meanwhile, most of this reduction in the affected area is made up for by an increase in abortions in neighboring counties, suggesting that women respond by driving a little further.

Jacobson, M. & Royer, H., “Aftershocks: The Impact of Clinic Violence on Abortion Services,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at