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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Paul Cézanne, Steinbruch Bibemus, 1900.

Paul Cézanne, Steinbruch Bibemus, 1900.

The best links of the week:

The rise and inglorious fall of Myspace.

How the political strategies of private prison companies promote ineffective incarceration policies.

Are journalism schools as bad as for-profit colleges?

How to avoid our own lost decade.

Marc Lynch defends the Libyan war.

Alpha Yaya Diallo – Badenmalu.

Ethnic Diversification of Disney Princesses

By Taylor Marvin

Is the increasing ethnic diversification of the Disney Princesses important?

Disney Princesses were uniformly white for most of Disney’s history. However, beginning in the early 1990s Disney began to feature non-white princesses, a trend that continued unbroken until 2010’s Tangled. Here’s a graph comparing the percentage of Disney Princess identified as white with the white percentage of the total US population:

X-axis scale not linear for clarity.

Source: US Census, 1790-1990, 2000, 2010.
Disney Princesses: Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), The Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010).

A few notes about the graph. I count Rapunzel from Tangled as a Disney Princess, even though she hasn’t officially been inducted into Disney royalty yet. Similarly, I count Ariel as white, though this is debatable, given that she isn’t technically human.

This is actually interesting, and unexpected – the Disney Princess pantheon is actually significantly more diverse than American society, and has been since the early 1990s. This isn’t to say that that deceptions of non-white Disney Princess have attempted to realistically portray non-white American narratives, but the growing diversity of the princesses is clearly a gain for American society. Similarly, it’s interesting that the only Disney Princess that’s actually a US citizen, The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana, is black. While the American film industry is often, and justifiably, criticized for presenting a view of the world that is too centered on the white experience (Blood Diamond, set in Africa but focused around white leading characters, is a good example of this), Disney has actually done a fairly good job at presenting leading characters that do resemble the ethnic mix of modern America. This is fairly superficial, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.

The gradual diversification of the Disney Princesses is an interesting example of progressive social goals aligning with businesses’ profit motives. Clearly, it’s socially beneficial that Disney provides a diverse enough group of characters that most young American girls can find one to identify with, and while ethnic affiliation isn’t strictly necessary for this type of identification, it is fairly common. People tend to identify with characters that look like them, a trait that seems more common in children than adults. Of course, it’s debatable whether the Disney Princesses are actually a good influence on young girls. They have bodies that are only attainable for a few percent of women, impossibly unlikely life stories, and the princesses of the older Disney movies live lives of royal entitlement and show few admirable traits like determination or sacrifice. However, Disney princesses have been a part of our culture for three quarters of a century, and are likely to remain in the public consciousness into the future. This makes their diversity important.

However, Disney didn’t begin to produce non-white princesses after 1990 because the company suddenly became more moral; they did because of the potentially rewarding profits of increased princess diversity. America has become much less white since Snow White was released in 1937, creating increasing profit gains for entertainment companies marketing non-white characters to children. If Disney had refused to create non-white princesses, it’s likely that another entertainment company would have. In a very real way the creation of non-white characters was vital to Disney’s continued survival, and it’s arguably not a coincidence that the move towards a more diverse collection of princesses in the 1990s coincided with the companies most productive period. Similarly, beginning in the 1990s globalization shifted the Disney market from the US to one that’s primarily based abroad. For films to be reliable earners in multiple countries, it’s important that their themes and characters are universal enough to translate well across different languages and cultures. This dynamic is partially responsible for the wide proliferation of comic-based action movies – unlike witty comedies or dramas action doesn’t rely on complex dialog that doesn’t translate well, and everyone likes explosions – and similarly creates a large profit incentive for non-white leading characters popular outside of America and Europe.

We can’t expect profit incentives to align with worthy social goals often, but it’s important to recognize that these alignments do happen and I’d argue that they are one of the most reliable sources of human welfare improvements. That’s one of the real positives of globalization – most corporations (with notable exceptions) are profitable when their markets are both happy and wealthy, and the integrating global economy widens the portion of human society corporations have an interest in seeing satisfied. Of course, in today’s world a distressing large proportion of humans are left out of this privileged common market, but this number is shrinking.

This also suggests an interesting hole is Disney’s logic. Hispanic and Latino Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the US, with a growth rate four times the overall national rate. This is a large and growing market, and it’s interesting that Disney hasn’t attempted to to take advantage of it.

FDA Unveils New Cigarette Warning Labels

By Taylor Marvin

Over at Megan McArdle’s blog, Courtney Knapp has an interesting post about the FDA’s gruesome new health warning for cigarette packs:

I largely agree with Knapp that these new warning labels are unlikely to significantly reduce the number of smokers. The adverse health impacts of smoking are widely known, and it’s unlikely that these warning labels will significantly reduce the perceived “glamor” of smoking. Speaking as a 22 year old American, I’d say that smoking generally is not seen as attractive by my age group, though of course this varies by subculture. In my experience, young Americans begin smoking for the stress-reduction of nicotine and because their friends do, not because it’s presented as attractive in the media. Unlike media presentations of smoking, these influencing factors are not likely to be responsive to FDA anti-tobacco efforts.

Similarly, positive portrayals of smoking are fairly rare in modern mainstream American media. When smoking is referenced as glamourous it’s most commonly in a joking manner, as in the trailer for the upcoming Will Ferrell film Casa de mi Padre (trailer slightly NSFW):

While this trailer superficially depicts smoking as glamorous, it’s in a completely joking way. Serious depictions of smoking as glamorous or cool are so rare that media representation is likely not an important modern determinant of youth smoking rates.

However, just because these new labels are likely to be ineffective doesn’t mean that they’re worthless. Warning labels are inexpensive, and likely do reduce smoking level by some amount. Similarly, they’re likely one of the last public policy tools left to deter smoking. The health risks of smoking are likely as widely known as is possible, and as Knapp notes the fact that smoking rates have been flat for the last decade is good evidence that the remaining demand for cigarettes is inelastic enough that higher cigarette taxes are unlikely to lead to significant falls in the number of American smokers. The diminishing returns of anti-tabacco public health efforts is clearly illustrated in this interesting chart from Cancer Research UK:

While depicted data is from the UK, the situation is similar in the US – most of the people who smoke today are unlikely to be influenced by public health policymakers to quit. This suggests that any future increases in cigarette taxes would be a net social loss and should be avoided: they would be unlikely to significantly reduce smoking rates, and because cigarette taxes are highly regressive would penalize the poor without any clear social gains. This doesn’t mean FDA warning labels types of public health social engineering efforts are worthless, but we should have realistic expectation about their effectiveness.

Happiness and National Temperature

By Taylor Marvin

A few months ago I linked to this fascinating graphic from The New York Times comparing national well-being levels to per capita GDP:

At the time I speculated that temperature appeared to be positively correlated with national happiness – better weather, happier people. However, I didn’t look further into this idea at the time. Let’s take a closer look.

Here’s a scatterplot comparing national average temperature in 2010 with the results of national reported happiness surveys from 2000-2010, compiled by the World Database of Happiness at the Erasmus University Rotterdam:

Graphic by author, based on Tyndall Centre for Climate Research data. Happiness scored on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 highest reported well-being.

Interesting. National happiness here is negatively correlated with national mean temperature, in contrast to the popular stereotype of the carefree tropics. However, this comparison doesn’t correct for different income levels, which we’ve established have a strong effect on national happiness:

Graphic by author, based on World Bank 2009 PPP income data.

How does this relate to the fact that colder countries tend to be much happier than tropical ones? On second thought this relationship should be clear – on average colder countries are much, much richer than hotter ones:

Graphic by author, based on World Bank 2009 PPP income and Tyndall Centre for Climate Research data.

Graphic by author, based on World Bank 2009 PPP income and Tyndall Centre for Climate Research data.

Correcting for colder countries’ higher average income, the relationship between mean temperature and national happiness largely disappears. However, the strong relationship between geographic factors like mean temperature and national income is mostly under-appreciated in public discussion, though it’s been extensively explored in academic literature. This effect is likely due to numerous factors: tropical countries are home to more infectious diseases, which severely retard economic development and the emergence of stable societies; natural disasters like strong storms, floods, and droughts are more common in the tropics; and common cash crops are generally more suited to hot climates, encouraging warm countries to adopt unsustainable export-focused cash crop economies. Additionally, the sheer size of the globe placed warm countries at a further disadvantage: the distance between equatorial warm countries and richer ones at northern latitudes placed them at an economic disadvantage by removing them from developed world markets, a hindrance even more important before the development of inexpensive transportation technologies.

The main lesson here is that while national happiness is hugely influenced by public policy choices, it’s also determined by geographic factors policymakers have little influence over. This is important because national happiness, rather than income, is the developmental metric we should focus on maximizing. While rising consumption is an important factor in raising reported well-being it isn’t everything, and ultimately a just society is a happy one. As the world becomes richer it’s important to remember that some countries will always be at a geographic disadvantage, and these disadvantages affect happiness as well as more obvious measures like income.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Giorgio de Chirico, Love Song, 1914.

Giorgio de Chirico, Love Song, 1914.

The best links of the week:

Creating a Meaningful College Experience in an Era of Streamlining.

Perverted Justice: Sex offender laws represent the triumph of outrage over reason.

The Drawdown Debate.

China’s Approach to Economic Development and Industrial Policy.

David Nevue- The Night Season.

The Dystopia of Inception

By Taylor Marvin


Last week I rewatched Inception. It’s an engaging film, but I think what’s really interesting about Inception isn’t its layers upon layers of dreams but the bizarre society hinted at in the film.

When the movie premiered last summer there were some interesting reactions to the politics implied in Inception. Matt Yglesias had an interesting read of the film’s bizarre political economy:

“It’s clear that Saito really wants to see that competing conglomerate broken up. The events depicted in the film are not cheap. Instead of investing all that time, energy, and money in a longshot cinematic dream-busting effort, wouldn’t it make more sense to just launch a PR and lobbying campaign to get anti-trust authorities (or other regulators) to do the job? That’s all even perfectly legal. And the film makes it clear that Saito has a fair amount of political pull as is.”

I’d go farther. At the film’s close, Saito is able to make Cobb’s murder charge go away with one phone call. It’s amazing how much political influence Saito has – one call, and twenty minutes later Cobb is able to pass through US customs. This implies that the American judicial system has become much, much corrupt in the near future setting of Inception. While the modern US judicial system clearly has its faults, it’s inconceivable that even an extremely wealthy and powerful foreign business executive would able to instantly overturn a years-old murder charge today. That Saito is able to do so is a strong insinuation that the American government in the Inception universe has decayed into a plutocratic dystopia far more corrupt than in our world.

This theme goes deeper. Yglesias makes a point to wonder why Saito doesn’t attempt to break up Fischer’s energy monopoly with legal public relations and lobbying efforts. However, there’s good reason to doubt that these legal means would be effective in the world of Inception. We’ve already established that in this future powerful businessmen essentially have unlimited influence over the US judicial system. Similarly, the movie also depicts a world where corporations are able to essentially hunt and murder at will, and where government regulatory oversight is so restricted that Saito is able to purchase a foreign airline in days. This lack of government power extends to law enforcement as well – despite his highly public stature, Saito is able to spend months in close contact with wanted criminals without anyone noticing. Essentially, the world of Inception is a future where governments are feeble and corrupt and most real power is held by unsupervised large international conglomerates. While this background isn’t essential to the plot of the film, it is interesting that few reviewers noted Inception’s dystopian elements, which is interesting because these themes are actually fairly obvious – a reality where industrial spies freely steal secrets through dreams while being hunted by armed thugs isn’t possible in a well governed world.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Giuseppe Castiglione, The Qianlong Emperor, 18th century.

Giuseppe Castiglione, The Qianlong Emperor, 18th century.

The best links of the week:

Privilege and Exploitation in the Intern Nation.

Imprisonment and the Lash.

Military Small Arms & Libya: Security Puzzles, and Profiteers.

On the ground with critics—and supporters—of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Why GM is no Apple.

The Great (Male) Stagnation.

Pinback- Devil You Know.

US Pollution Taxes and Israel

By Taylor Marvin

Via Brad Plumer, here’s a graph from a new IMF paper illustrating how low US revenue from environmental taxation is compared to other OECD economies:

I imagine this is a bit of an intellectual contradiction for congressional Republicans. On the one hand, any potential increase in US environmental taxation would be horrible policy that, like any tax increases in any circumstances, would necessarily reduce growth and lower total government revenue. However, Israeli environmental taxation as a percent of total revenue is one of the highest in the OECD, and to most Republicans the Israeli government is beyond criticism. I wonder if congressional Republicans see Israel’s fiscal policies as infallible as its foreign policy.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Gustave Moreau, Head of Orpheus, 1865.

Gustave Moreau, Head of Orpheus, 1865.

The best links of the week:

Heartbreaking photos of self-immolated Afghan brides.

Relax: China’s first aircraft carrier is a piece of junk.

Similarities and differences between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Middle East in 2011.

Is World War II still ‘the good war?’

Employment data may be key to the President’s job.

A reactionary defense of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Cat Power- Free.

Fun With Graphs – UCSD Ethnic Underrepresentation Edition

By Taylor Marvin

Here’s an interesting graphical representation of the huge disparity between UCSD’s ethnic makeup and that of California overall:

California data source: CA Census 2010 Profile.
UCSD data source: UC San Diego Undergraduate Enrollment Statistics.
“Asian” category includes self-identified Filipino-Americans for simplicity.
Percentages do not sum to 100 due to rounding, double counting of multiple ethnic affiliations, deletion of certain ethnic affiliations (multiracial, declined to report).

Clearly there’s an enormous gap between ethnic representation in overall Californian society and UCSD enrollment. However, this data isn’t that informative, because it reports demographics for all age groups. We know that California’s changing demographic trends, most notably the rapid growth of Hispanic and Latino populations, are skewing the ethnic makeup of the state’s student-age population away from that of Californian society overall. Here’s the same graph as above, but instead of overall California demographics let’s look at the ethnic makeup of California public school students:

California school data source: CA Department of Education.
UCSD data source: UC San Diego Undergraduate Enrollment Statistics.

Interesting. White students are close to proportional representation, while Asia-Americans are more dramatically over represented and Hispanic or Latino students further underrepresented. There is a bias in the data though — because the available data only reports public school students, it likely undercounts whites and especially Asians, both who enjoy above average incomes and are proportionally more likely to send their children to private schools.

Despite these bias problems this is still an informative visual representation, and it is interesting that the student body at one of California’s premiere institutes of public education doesn’t look anything like the society it serves.

Update: Minor correction for clarity.