Monday, 26 October 2009

Harassment in Egypt: An Economic Model minimizing negative externalities

Last weekend I came across another “Egypt wins the Noble prize for works in the field of Harassment” article on the bbc website. This particular article was about men harassing women on their mobile phones, sometimes in quite aggressive and unpleasant ways. After spending two years in the epicentre of harassment (a.k.a. Cairo), such stories do not surprise me at all… the only surprise is how quickly women get used to such verbal pollution. 

Yes, even shy young 21 year old Laura learnt how to walk down the street completely oblivious to men and boys yelling at her at all hours of day and night. She was once followed home by half a dozen policemen and then chased by a man in a trench coat on a deserted beach at night. She won't mention the taxi driver incident because that was really quite unscrupulous (and arguably the worst commute in the history of commutes). Recently, a friend told me she got harassed eight times while crossing a street (the Egyptians really want to keep that noble prize). 

In the end, you build up this toughness inside of you that allows you to get through the day. You are an island of Zen in a sea full of sleaze and you imprint a stiff upper lip upon your mouth that cannot be shaken by catcalls.

*It must also be said that Cairo is a beautiful, interesting, exciting city and I wouldn’t have lived there if I did not enjoy the place and the people and learn so SO much* 

But when I go back to Cairo on holiday that I realize how much tougher I was back then. Sudan has weakened my defences and has made me forget how to be mean. But there is one trick I still remember and I want to share it with any girls who might still have to put up with this ****.

It is called applying economic principles to men… specifically sleazy men.

Lesson One: The internalization of externalities.

We might like to think of the harassment as a form of pollution. It has a social cost that is not born by the emitter (the boy in the tight t-shirt on the corner giving you the eye, is a kind of factory, a factory of sleaze, if you may). 

Please refer to the graph below, on which we have the X axis with the quantity of harassment and the Y axis with the price or cost of harassment.

We also have a demand curve. Although it is actually a little more complicated than that because we are dealing with a delusional demand curve- i.e., the harasser thinks that the service he is providing is desirable to consumers or “ladyfoxes” but he is in fact delusional and therefore produces a very rare form of demand curve that is usually found in only extremely command controlled economies in which the planner has no grasp on reality at all. This is why we can never eliminate harassment completely because it is based on non-rational human behaviour. We must abide by an equilibrium of sorts. If these men were utility maximizing individuals (with more profitable ways of spending their time) they would pursue other ventures. But given the state of Egypt’s economic, political and legal policies (which are conveniently out of the confines of this model), we must move on to the two supply curves…

Like a factory producing a toxic gas, there is both a private and public price/cost of harassment. The private cost, or price reflects the harasser’s own costs: his need to preen himself in the morning, watch American movies with pen poised in hand, perhaps spend hours in front of the mirror perfecting his delusional behavior and then finally the effort it takes him to leave his house, acquire ladies' phone numbers and loiter on the street aimlessly. If we consider his opportunity costs, this private price of harassment might be extremely high (especially if he has enough wasta to get a job). These private costs produce the supply curve on the right and we find the equilibrium level of harassment at Qp and Pp.

However, this is not where the story ends… for there is also a public cost, the shared frustration of Cairene womankind: their reluctance to leave their houses when grumpy, the added noise and environmental costs of travelling on public transportation, the costs of occasional humiliation and perpetual aggravation, the costs of having their supposed FRIENDS hit on them unexpectedly and unscrupulously, using lines from Saved by the Bell and Top Gun… I don’t need to carry on here, right, ladies? So there is this whole other set of costs that the delusional emitter is not considering. He is operating at a level of harassment way above equilibrium! Bad harasser; one must abide by the iron rules of economics!

This is why we must internalize his externality…

There are many ways of internalizing pubic costs to the polluter. In environmental economics you can do this with pigovian taxes, credit schemes, industry agreements/bench-marking standards and finally civil tort law when it gets really bad. But in this case, we need to introduce the principal that the polluter pays… because, let's face it, he is the delusional one. 

So how do we do this with annoying men calling you at all hours of the day?

It is very simple. You make him pay for the call.

When an annoying boy calls you, you answer the phone and put it down on the table in front of you. He can listen to whatever ambient noise is in the vicinity of your phone. He can listen to your flatmates discussing who was the last person to take out the rubbish. He can listen to your cat hunting flies. He can listen to people on the bus silently filling out questionnaires. He can listen to the judges on ‘So you think you can dance’ give their verdicts. He can even listen to Arabic classes if he likes… But he will pay for the call and he won’t get to talk to you.

The polluter PAYS!

Importantly, there should be no verbal exchange. Answer, place phone on table, ignore. Eventually he will internalize this public cost as his credit slowly trickles away and he will lose interest in the failing enterprise. 

It is a great way of internalizing the cost of harassment and it works extremely well. It might even help to diminish the original delusional demand curve slightly, which is something the model cannot quite explain (I really wonder if there is a researcher working on the economics of harassment. I’d like to see his models). 

And boy do I wish there was a way to internalize those street costs. Any ideas people?

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