Birth tourism and base rates

South Orange County social media has been blowing up over a recent report of arrests of proprietors of “birth tourism” businesses, who accepted money from pregnant women, mostly Chinese, in exchange for airplane tickets, lodging, coaching on evading detection, and presumably lamaze classes, in an effort to have their babies become Americans via birthright citizenship. There are plenty of scandalous details in the indictments which seem designed to boil the blood of the still-common OC Republicans, but the rage-sieve that is social media has boiled the situation down to “I KNEW the Asian moms at the Spectrum were suspicious” and “China is playing us for chumps #MAGA”. I thought I would do a bit of simple math to see exactly how likely my neighbors are to be bigots.

My favorite book ever makes two points of relevance for this story: One, that memorable cases are likely to have their prevalences overestimated; and two, that base rates are often ignored when determining the degree of surprise in any given observation. In this case, the valences of the story (foreigners disregarding US immigration law, newcomers refusing to assimilate, Chinese economic exploitation) made it a particularly strong mindworm for OC conservatives, reactivated whenever an Asian woman blocks the aisle at Sprouts with a $2,000 stroller. The neglected base rates arise when every pregnant Asian woman becomes Exhibit A, despite the city having a large resident Asian population, many of whom are pregnant for non-criminal reasons.

Irvine is home to 277,453 people, and 41.2% are of Asian descent. That makes approximately 114,310 Asians. Assuming that the national average of 50.9% female holds true as well, that makes about 58,184 female Asian residents (pace non-binary Asian residents, I am rounding up). Assuming again (probably unreasonably this time) that the age composition of the female Asian population in Irvine is also the same as the US overall, 36.5%, or 21,237, are between the ages of 18 and 44. Using an Internet rando’s back-of-the-envelope calculation, and also assuming that the rates of pregnancy among Irvine residents are the same as the national average, 3.4%, or 722, are pregnant at any given time. Again, out of Irvine’s 277,453 residents, about 722 are pregnant Asian women between 18 and 44. I will guess, not unreasonably, that anti-immigrant conservatives will have some difficulty in distinguishing Chinese and Chinese-American residents from the other Asian ethnic groups that call Irvine home.

The news stories on the recent arrests do not make clear how many of the mothers resided in Irvine. The OC Register says the birth tourism companies has as clients “thousands” of women, and OC Weekly has one LA-based company accused of serving 8,000 over 20 years. An earlier article says the 2015 raid which yielded the evidence for the arrests was of “three dozen” homes, and one wonders what the maximum throughput of clients could have been for that space. For the purposes of this post I will assume 400 clients of these services per year reside in Irvine. This is almost certainly a high estimate, since it comes from dividing Star Baby Care’s 8,000 total clients evenly across the 20 years that they were in business and assuming that they all lived (and continue to live at the same rate even post-raid) in Irvine. Nonetheless, it yields a workable figure of 100 clients in Irvine at any given time after dividing a year by the 3 months that clients apparently stay/stayed before giving birth and returning to China.

So, assuming that 100 Chinese mothers-to-be in Irvine are here after misrepresenting their intentions to customs agents, and 722 Asian mothers-to-be are just minding their own business, you have 87.8% odds of getting it wrong when accusing random Asian women of being a part of this criminal conspiracy. As it turns out, in a city where almost half of the population is Asian, it shouldn’t necessarily arouse suspicion to see pregnant Asian women in public.

A chunky good man

My first instinct when confronted with a hot political controversy is to go over the language used to express it with a fine-toothed comb*. It is in this spirit that I noticed the great frequency with which the chunk “a good man” being thrown about in reference to the recent Kavanaugh hearings, either for Kavanaugh himself or good men in the abstract.

Example courtesy of Lindsay Graham:

This good man should not be destroyed. If you legitimize this process by one vote short, woe be unto the next person.

My first thought was that if they had nominated a woman like Amy Coney Barrett instead, and she had had similar alleged incidents in her past, this rhetorical nugget would be unavailable for her defense. No phrase of similar cultural heft exists for women, although the phrase “a good woman” is just as grammatically possible as “a good man”. My guess as to why is that while the image that the phrase “good man” conjures up in people’s minds is an archetype of competence, dependability, and bonhomie (emphasis on the homme), “good woman” only vaguely summons the idea of something like a loyal wife. Woe be unto any woman nominated for a high position who needs her character defended with reference to implicit cultural norms.

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PIctured: The tool of a good man, not a good woman. Photo by Pixabay on

I did a quick search of BYU’s corpora to see if the linguistic record backs up my instincts.

The string “a good man” gets 12372 hits on iWeb and 1643 on COCA.

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I’ll leave it to you to dig into the contexts.

Meanwhile, “a good woman” gets 1807 on iWeb and 262 on COCA.

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That’s almost 7x the frequency on iWeb (the larger of the two corpora) and more than 6x in the other.

COCA, unlike iWeb, allows you to separate hits by their source (magazines, academic journals, spoken, etc.), yielding a bit more information of what kinds of contexts “a good man” and “a good woman” are typically uttered in.

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Within that about 6x overall on COCA, “a good man” is used about 10x as often in spoken contexts, 5x in fiction, 5x in magazines, 8x in newspapers, and almost 4x in academic writing. For some reason, Bush’s first term in particular also sees a spike in use of “a good man” – perhaps this relates to the politics of that time, including the 2004 election, where adherence to certain conceptions of manhood were a subtext for the Kerry and Bush campaigns.

For comparison, “man” and “men” occur a total of 582,307 times in COCA vs. 483,248 times for “woman” and “women”. This means that “a good man” does indeed occur much more often relative to “a good woman” than one would predict if the phrase were simply a matter of combining parts of speech according to the rules of grammar. “A good man” is a chunk bordering on an idiomatic expression for a certain, known, type of person, like a “people person” or a “person of faith”. This particular type of person’s goodness seems to depend on their not being a woman.

(* The iWeb Corpus lists “fine tooth comb” as about 3x as frequent as “fine toothed comb”, neither with a hyphen. This makes my usage rather pedantic to the point of being functionally incorrect.)