Sunday, 29 December 2013

27/12 Discrimination: the ugly truth by A Creighton

Discrimination: the ugly truth


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APPOINTMENT of a beauty rather than a freedom commissioner to the Human Rights Commission might have been a better idea for the new government.
Attacks on freedom of expression are far less pervasive and damaging than the relentless, unjustified and growing discrimination meted out daily to less good-looking Australians.
Hourly wages of good-looking men are 7 per cent above the average while those rated "below average" are 13 per cent lower. And because handsome men can marry wealthier or higher-earning women, the disparity of household income is even bigger: 15 per cent above the Australian average for the good-looking ones and 25 per cent below for the appearance-challenged, a difference of about $25,000 a year for a typical Australian family.
Andrew Leigh and Jeff Borland, former and current economics professors, have run a sharp statistical comb through the results of two face-to-face surveys of more than 2700 people -- conducted in 1984 and 2009 -- where interviewers rated respondents' looks and noted a host of other characteristics.
For a given society at a given time, beauty is, by and large, not in the eye of the beholder, they reason.
The data also show that relatively unattractive women are up to 18 per cent less likely to get jobs, holding age and education constant, than their prettier peers. The degree of discrimination appears to be stronger in 2009 than it was 25 years earlier, perhaps because a greater share of married women mull whether to join the workforce these days.
"Beauty is likely to increase the returns to work more than the returns to home activity, and therefore females in the workforce are disproportionately likely to have above-average beauty," the authors posit in their paper, published recently in Economic Record, the country's pre-eminent economics journal.
The results are less surprising in the marriage market. Not only are better-looking men and women likelier to marry, but the husbands of attractive women earn about one-fifth more than those of their less comely colleagues. In a similar way, plain-looking men are less likely to end up with high-powered women.
Perhaps the most galling finding is that attractive women -- already earning more and married to better-looking blokes -- knock off work earlier. Yes, while good-looking men typically endure longer hours at work, winsome women work fewer; and it has nothing to do with whether they are married. "Why are attractive men chained to the desk, while attractive women are among the first out the door?" the authors ask, puzzled.
Australians are not unique. Researchers from London to Shanghai have demonstrated that better-looking people are happier, do better on television game shows, steal less and (perhaps less surprisingly) earn more as prostitutes. The Chinese are ruthlessly "lookist" by one study, marking down the incomes of their below-average compatriots by about 30 per cent.
Yet despite such rampant unfairness, governments here and elsewhere are doing nothing. Where is the publicly funded 1300 NOT HOT telephone line, and the campaigns to raise awareness about lookism? Indeed, the problem is growing: more than twice as many women and seven times as many men were rated "below average" by interviewers in 2009 compared with 1984.
Leigh and Borland's study is fascinating and rigorous. But the truth is that legislation to help ugly people would be no less ridiculous than the quagmire of confusing and overlapping state and federal laws that outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex, race, disability, age and so on. Indeed, we have more substantive statistical evidence that fat people are discriminated against unfairly than, say, Asians or gays.
Existing anti-discrimination legislation is understandable only through the trite, vapid, neo-Marxist notion that old white men (even the ugly ones) are intent on exploiting everyone else. Australian culture is founded on "mateship", yet these laws, to be at all justified, assume the bulk of us are nasty and stupid.
One might laugh them off if they had little real consequence, but they create a significant economic burden, and one that almost certainly outweighs any poor behaviour they curb. Businesses face ongoing compliance costs and fight off frivolous legal actions. Meanwhile, the people the laws are ostensibly trying to help are damaged to the extent firms find excuses to avoid them in the first place.
Even more troubling, these laws come with no criteria for objective success, no sunset clause. We are stuck with a list of stifling regulation that grows with every new aggrieved interest group.
Isolated meanness will always exist, but in a free-market economy anyone unfairly spurned can seek employment elsewhere. In the same way an unattractive woman cannot sue a man who discriminates against her for a better-looking wife, employees should not be able to force employers to make contracts they do not want.
Businesses that do baselessly shun certain workers will be at a disadvantage against those that don't.
As the brilliant US law professor Richard Epstein argued more than two decades ago, a genuinely free society should "allow all persons to do business with whomever they please for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all".

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