Elaine Liu from University of Houston presented a paper "Fertility and Divorce Responses of Local Women Due to Influx of Foreign Brides."
It sounds neutral enough, and her game theoretical approach was interesting, but the subject is an apparent phenomenon in wealthy south Asian countries where men use brokers to find wives from developing countries. According to the NYTimes, an article which she referenced, this trend is apparently due to "a surplus of bachelors, a lack of marriageable Korean partners and the rising social status of women [which] have combined to shrink the domestic market for the marriage-minded male."
Here's Frustration Number Two.
Although the focus of the paper wasn't at all about the rights or welfare of foreign brides, I was immediately repulsed by the talk due to the ease with which the author casually discussed her exogenous variable: "Taiwanese men buying themselves a foreign wife, guaranteed virgin." She did review the surprising trend and unique dataset on marriages, but somewhere between the hypothesis slide and the flowchart on expected payoffs, she seemed to have skipped over the fact that actually owning another human beings is usually considered slavery.
Of course this is an economics conference, so the focus of her talk should be on the economics of this issue, but it blows my mind that we can talk about this pattern in a presentation without at least mentioning the much bigger problems, consequences and context. For example, the realities of human trafficking, domestic violence and the apparent cause of all this, sex-selective abortions (although sex-selection is mentioned in her paper).
There is just clearly so much more going on here and the failure to address the major issues of a bizarre sexist practice but rather jump straight to the economics of the influx of foreign (purchased) brides seems both insensitive and myopic. Inherent to studying development is the fact that we study some difficult and sensitive topics (a good friend upholds a strict ratio of debriefing funny TV shows to every day spent analyzing gruesome sexual violence data). Poverty isn't ever really easy to talk about, and to some degree, we're always dealing with sensitive topics, so attaching emotional weight to a particular topic may not be the most efficient way of critically researching solutions. Ignoring the context completely makes my stomach roll with callousness, but more, it drives away collaborators from other disciplines, loses sight of the importance of the research, and calls into question the external validity of her results. Without drawing in the larger context and causes of this trend, any results specific to this particular scenario are somewhat futile to conclusively inform public policy, whether it be related to maternal health, immigration, or women's rights.
Stay tuned for frustration number three: The elusive quest for exogeneity.
Hat tips: TW, BLK, AP