Bryan Caplan

Feminism and Just Price Theory

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Economists have spent the last couple centuries scoffing at "just price" theory. Almost everyone now admits that prices have to fluctuate in response to supply and demand; it's silly to insist, for example, that the "just price" of a loan is 0%. But there's one particularly stubborn hold-out: The "just price" theory of relationships. Even the wise Megan McArdle tells us:

[M]uch of the labor illegal immigrants provide substitutes for women's home labor. And I don't just mean nannies for rich women. I mean cleaning services, and food processing, and dry cleaning, and grocery delivery, and all the other things that make it possible for large numbers of women to work outside the home. In an ideal world, of course, women and men would take equal responsibility for the household.
The most obvious flaw in this familiar feminist norm is that it completely ignores comparative advantange. What if a man has a much higher wage than his wife, but can't clean, cook, or shop to save his life? Should he still do half the cleaning, cooking, and shopping? Wouldn't husband and wife alike be better off if he specialized in bringing home the bread, and she specialized in baking it?

Now perhaps Megan interprets "responsibility for the household" to encompass both earning income and doing housework. Correctly stated, the norm might be "A relationship should be 50/50 overall, not on any particular margin." But even this more sophisticated norm totally ignores market forces. What if there are two men for every woman? Men are naturally going to offer a better deal to potential spouses than they would if the gender balance were reversed. What's so bad about that?

In reality, the 50/50 norm is a source of much needless marital strife. The 50/50 norm urges people to ask whether they're getting 50%, and stand up for themselves if they think they aren't. That's a recipe for pointless conflict with the person you love. Who cares if you're getting 50%, if you're getting what you bargained for?

P.S. When was the last time the 50/50 norm was invoked to justify better treatment of a man? I sense a pattern.


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The author at indregard.no in a related article titled Homo economicus at home writes:
    I follow a blog called EconLog, written by economists Bryan Caplan and Arnold Kling. It’s mostly a “know thy enemy” kind of thing, albeit the clean rationalism prescribed by economists is refreshing in quite a few different areas of i... [Tracked on August 27, 2007 4:00 PM]
COMMENTS (32 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

I've noticed that any relationship that has tally sheets is doomed. If I'm in a loving relationship, then I want to do what I can for my wife -- and she will want to do what she can for me. To quote The Beatles "in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." You don't consider the day-by-day -- some years are better than others -- rather, you consider the lifetime you had together.

BTW, what housekeepers actually do is provide people who work with more leisure time together. And with a housekeeper, men still have to do men's chores, like mowing the grass and changing the oil in the car. Unless people are hired to do those things, too. But I find it funny how people rarely mention men's chores.

Telnar writes:

On the theme of Tyler's point, you're implicitly assuming an adversarial negotiating process. It may be that a couple who care about each other are interested in making interpersonal utility comparisons and trying to maximize some measure of combined happiness rather than each trying to maximize his or her own utility subject to the constraint of not being so lousy a spouse to harm his or her own utility indirectly (e.g. through divorce or weakening norms of cooperation).

8 writes:

Apply your logic to sex.

spencer writes:

When was the last time you had a society where the economic value of a woman in the marketplace approached that of a man? If a man is providing most of the couples income it seems logical that the woman would do most of the housework. but if the woman earns a salary similar to the man in the marketplace where is your comparative advantage.

This is what is happening in our society-economy -- it is becoming the norm that the man and woman in the marriage are becoming similar so in this case the principle of comparative advantage says they should split the housework.

So I will answer your question about using 50/50 to justify better treatment of a man when you show me an example of a society where men earned less than women.

Louise writes:

Bryan,

Comparative advantage doesn't cook the dinner or stack the dishwasher of the female investment banker married to the equivalently high earning lawyer. For high earning professional women your solutions appear to be particularly unattractive, either:
(1) find an even higher earning man and stop work to be a domestic goddess, or
(2) accept you have to do the washing, cooking and cleaning etc. because if you don't no man will want you because they will choose someone who will do these things.

Comparative advantage explains gendered division of household labour when women earn little. It fails to explain why men who value the intelligence and earning power of professional women still expect them to pick up the man's dirty socks.

Michael Giesbrecht writes:

"Comparative advantage explains gendered division of household labour when women earn little. It fails to explain why men who value the intelligence and earning power of professional women still expect them to pick up the man's dirty socks."

When a successful, intelligent person with high earning power has come to expect something, it's usually because doing so is the reasonable thing to do. So the question becomes, why do intelligent, professional women with high earning power pick up men's dirty socks?

I don't really think intelligent, professional women with high earning power do much picking up of men's dirty socks. Who does?

Troy Camplin writes:

I love how people think rational decision making as developed (wrongly much of the time) by economic theory is involved in marriage. My guess is such people either aren't married or have had several failed ones.

Tom West writes:

Wouldn't husband and wife alike be better off if he specialized in bringing home the bread, and she specialized in baking it?

For most women, no. Generalizing here, the man gets a intellectually and personally rewarding job that also gains him monetary compensation and social approval. His job offers the possibility of personal and social growth. The woman gets to work... uncompensated, unsocially rewarded drudge work for the rest of her life.

As an added plus, by being the drudge, with every passing year she makes herself more and more personally economically unviable, giving herself fewer and fewer options and leaving the husband further in control.

This is some exaggeration for effect, but not a lot. Housework is, for the most part, not terribly rewarding. Unless the woman actually enjoys that sort of work (and some do, but not most), the "better off" argument is not about producing a happier household, but a way of justifying shoving all the unpleasant, uncompensated jobs on to the poor sucker who would earn less.

I repeat yet again, financially better off does not necessarily mean happier. Articles like this one that make it clear that (some) economists cannot grasp this fact do not improve people's trust in economist's policies. (See "Why aren't economists taken seriously?")

On a more positive note, "comparative advantage" also misses the entire connection between a married couple that is built from shared sacrifice. There are many unglamorous, unpaid types of jobs that need to be done in the household. By willingly sharing these jobs, you communicate your commitment to the couple's common goals.

Hi, Tom.

Just a minor observation on your otherwise good comment. You say:

On a more positive note, "comparative advantage" also misses the entire connection between a married couple that is built from shared sacrifice.

Actually, comparative advantage doesn't miss that connection at all. Comparative advantage points the way for a married couple to allocate between themselves all that drudgery. The dishes and the vacuuming both have to get done, but a couple that decides to share that dull work does best to allocate the chores according to their comparative advantage. (As a predictive theory, comparative advantage predicts that couples will tend to allocate chores, along with allocating their market opportunities such as jobs, according to their comparative advantage even if they've never heard of the term. You don't have to know economics in order to respond to the incentives. This is probably why men traditionally carry out the trash, even when they contribute nothing else to helping with household chores.)

You are quite right, though, that the family's choice may be to sacrifice some financial rewards in order to achieve a joyful and peaceful family life. Economists actually understand well that people maximize "utility" (as in "well-being" or "happiness"), not just income. It's just that we can measure and talk more easily about the income component of a family's values than about all the other things a family might value, such as educational quality for their children, a beautiful view out their living room window, religious experiences, love, fame, vacations, etc.

An econlib article on comparative advantage by Russ Roberts may be more illuminating than the one cited in Bryan's entry. There's also my explanation.

conchis writes:

glad to see this post getting the treatment it deserved.

"What if a man has a much higher wage than his wife, but can't clean, cook, or shop to save his life?"

Well, then we're not in an ideal world, are we?

The problem with just about all comparative advantage arguments is that they assume comparative advantage is static. As soon as you remove that arbitrary, and decidedly unrealistic constraint, the reasoning starts to crumble.

In short, learn to cook.

8 writes:

You're all ignoring preferences. Men have a higher dirt threshold.

Antonio writes:

In professional couples, do the women tend to earn as much as the men?

When we finish grad and professional school, I will earn more than my fiancee. Even now, I bring in most of our income. Do I sit back like these chumps and let my #1 control the relationship? No way! She knows I have the controlling share in this relationship. My compensation for bringing home the bacon is what most men would prefer; she turns a blind eye to the #2s that come along occasionally.

meep writes:

These are generalities, of course (like the generality that men are taller than women). There are plenty of outliers in these distributions.

Just as my sisters-in-law are outliers in being 6 feet tall, my family is an outlier in that my husband is housekeeper/stay-at-home parent, and I am the sole income provider. It's totally a comparative advantage situation in that I've got the credentials the corporate world likes and I've got a higher tolerance for the corporate world; my husband is more picky about housekeeping, is a much better cook, and can do all sorts of maintenance (electrical work, carpentry, lawn-mowing) that I can't. Both of us are equally driven crazy by the kids, but he has lots more experience bringing up children. So it seemed a proper division of labor.

I see no problem when the division of labor cuts the other way, which is far more common. I think the main complaint is when the division of labor is arrived at by default and not by discussion. We agreed on our division of labor, and I do some of the housework on weekends to free him to do other home maintenance activities (like going up on the roof and checking for leaks). Many women are resentful that the explicitly negotiated arrangement was a certain concept of equal share, and then they find themselves doing the man's share. My husband has gotten snippy over me not doing some of the stuff I had originally agreed to, but we've resolved it by teaching the kids to do it. The great thing is they're too young to properly enter into household management negotiations (the oldest is 4) - obviously, their productivity and quality of work is not high, which is why we allocate the jobs that don't require much skill to do them (like picking up toys and shoving them in boxes).

aaron writes:

Actually, full time working women make more than their male equivalents, so the opposite is true. It makes more sense for the woman to bring home the dollars and the man to buy the bread.

Mary Jacobs writes:

The idea that men and women should always divide housework 50/50 is ridiculous. But I would posit that full-time homemakers are more economically vulnerable in some ways than ever. A woman who works outside the house would presumably acquire experience over time that makes her more employable and able to command a higher wage. Working in the home, the opposite is true. The older she gets, the less "marketable" a woman is, in terms of finding "employment" as a full-time homemaker. Women who left the workforce for long periods of time (because they assumed most of the childcare and housework to support a higher-wage earning husband) can find it very difficult to re-enter the workforce and to find jobs that pay well. So there's a hidden cost, in terms of the "career capital" that the full-time homemaker foregoes in assuming most of the housework and childcare. And there's little social stigma attached to divorce, which may have protected full-time homemakers at least somewhat in the past.

Heather writes:

I think the problem with the analysis is that many families want the incomes of both people, which means both people work full time jobs and have an equal amount of free time in which to accomplish house hold chores. Even if the woman earns less at her day job, she has the same amount of time left over and on a time basis, due to their joint decision to have both people work, the chores should be split 50/50. My guess is that the spouse making the arguement that their time is worth more so they should do fewer chores in their free time will cause resentment.

Karl Smith writes:

I think I can show the following argument but is just a sketch right now:

The issue that many couples face is on bargaining.
Suppose that there is a threshold point below which each person cannot tolerate the level of household mess. However, they have the same utility function beyond the threshold. I am thinking of perhaps Cobb-Douglas with subsistence constraints. Now suppose also that the man's threshold is less than the woman's in general.

Now of course there are couples that go the other way but because of biology and sorting the most common distribution is for the man's tolerance to dominate the womans.

Now, the man can threaten to move the household to a point below the woman's threshold unless she agrees to do most of the work. As long as the work he requires her to do is less than what she would have to do to move above her threshold herself, she must accept.

Yet, then the man earns rents on essentially all of the cleanliness between his threshold and the woman's threshold.

This would be viewed by the women as unfair because the man is using his bargaining position to extract more rent out of the household cleanliness program.

Basically what we have is free rider exacerbated by systematically different reservation utilities.

This problem could be solved by setting a set fraction of the work done by each person and then negotiating about the level of cleanliness which would be obtained.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

show me an example of a society where men earned less than women.

women from 21 to 30 living in New York City and working full time made 117% of men's wages, and even more in Dallas, at 120%.

http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=156&id=1224762007

As for me, I recognize my wife's comparative advantage at hand washing fine items, and she recognizes my comparative advantage of changing light bulbs, and we both recognize the comparative advantage of our housekeeper at cleaning up in general.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Tom,
Where can I find one of these intellectually and personally rewarding jobs? I do the work that I do to earn money. 80% of the time it is drudgery that pays well. My wife does a lot of work at home that could be considered drudgery that doesn't pay at all. But it allows her to have a part time job that she does find rewarding. She wouldn't do it for free, but she likes the job. And if we weren't married, she would have to find a full-time job. Chances are, the full-time job would be drudgery that paid well.
Mary Jacobs is correct. This arrangement does make the person who is outside the full-time workforce more economically vulnerable. That's why we should have alimony for divorced women (or men) who gave up full-time work to stay at home and take care of home and children.

Troy Camplin writes:

I love how people are still continuing to ignore the fact that the rational actors simply is not at play in a real marriage, that the rational actor is an economic ideal that was never even all that true to begin with, but worked as an ideal model for certain scenarios, to help us understand certain aspects of economy. But all he ever was was a model, and only applicable to understanding certain things in certain ways. The feminists have tried to apply the rational actor to male-female relationships -- disasterously -- and everyone is buying into it.

liberty writes:

Here I am only speaking to the question of one spouse earning more for the same job, same number of hours etc - not in the case where one spouse is more skilled.

If - as in some societies still today and this country until a few decades ago - one gender is able to earn more than the other for doing the same work, this may confer a comparative advantage to that spouse, on strictly financial grounds, within that marriage.

However, if it is only societal norm that has created this wage differential, and because the two genders offer equal work the lower supply of the lower paid gender in effect keeps that gender's wages low rather than driving them up, then it might be in the best interest of that spouse to work and try to impact this social rule.

Of course, if you believe that people are rationally ignorant, lazy and apathetic you may disagree - but if you believe that people can affect change within their lifetime, whether in politics or in social norms - then you would clearly see that it would be a comparative advantage for the lower earner (the 1970 woman doing the same job as her husband would but for less and marching in the streets about it) to work, because two goals would be accomplished: earning money for today, and investing for the future by helping to increase combined household earning power and flexibility.

Then, when the women's revolution comes to completion in 1990, the combined income is greater and there is a new ability for either spouse to take time off and still have the full one-earner income.

Was it worth the lost income, over the years? Only to those who care about human rights (for both genders). Would the revolution happen in a free market, on its own? Everything requires human behavioral response. If within a marriage people follow your rule of comparative advantage without thinking of affecting future earnings and choices, the change could not happen. So long as women let the men work, women could not demand higher pay: it was unusual for women to enter the workforce in many industries and they were treated accordingly.

If you want change, you have to step up; not act "rationally" in your "own self-interest" to stay barefoot in the kitchen, while your husband uses his "comparative advantage". The only advantage he has in that scenario is society's bias-- a bias which would keep both of you down.

Troy Camplin writes:

I am in favor of much that the feminists did, especially early on. And I do think that free markets were what helped things along in he healthiest manner -- though I think if we had even more of a free market, it would have happened in an even healthier way than it did.

Do I think people act in their own rational self interest? Rational -- no. I think people are far more emotional than rational. Which makes it even more imperative that we have a free market rather than any sort of planning -- socialist, welfare, or otherwise. And as for self interest . . . Well, it depends on how extended a "self" we are talking about. If self includes family, especially offspring, and self includes one's spouse, and self includes those who believe the same things I believe, then I would certainly agree that people act in their own self interest. But I do not think that most people act in their own selfish, self-centered interest. That goes against everything we know about human nature. We are social mammals -- we are not lone tigers, as those who believe in homo economus would have us be, any more than we are social insects, as the socialists would have us be.

Tom West writes:

Lauren, you are, of course, correct when you talk about comparative advantage. Unfortunately, where marriage is concerned, I have often see it used (or mis-used) in a strictly financial sense to justify shifting just about all the housework and child-rearing duties to the wife.

I admit I may have been a bit harsher than I ought to have been, but Bryan's post-script about how men are hard done by after an article justifying giving the drudge work to married women got my goat.

Also, personal observation makes me perhaps over-sensitive to the tendency of those who argue well to sometimes use "logic" to try to bully people into getting what they want (although they often don't see it as such). I've seen too many cases where one partner (usually the woman) feels a certain way but is pushed into acquiescence simply because she feels sensible people don't argue against economic logic.

Where can I find one of these intellectually and personally rewarding jobs?

Of course, there's no guarantee of such rewarding jobs, but I'd say it's pretty common for most jobs to be considered more rewarding than housework. However, it *was* a generality.

conchis writes:

Troy, you do realise that the fact that people are irrational is irrelevant to Bryan's point, don't you? He's arguing that it makes sense for couples to do X. Whether or not couples actually do X, or do X, but for entirely irrational reasons doesn't matter to his argument. Now, I think his argument is wrong, but it's not wrong because people are irrational.

Troy Camplin writes:

All this talk of comparative advantage does presume that economic man, the rational actor, is in play. But please note, I never used the term "irrational." Emotions are not irrational. They are arational. And they are always involved in our decision-making processes. And they are ignored all too often in these kinds of discussions.

All this comparative advantage and "just price" theory stuff too is simply more of feminists trying to masculenize women. Which is why there's been a backlash against feminism, since it saw everything feminine as weak and tried to stomp it out. That made women unhappy. And it's a false assumption that just because something is different, that it is bad. What it is is complementary.

Right now my wife and I both work, but I don't know that anybody would say that the house qork is "evenly" divided. I cook and she cleans the dishes, but I spend a lot of time doing my scholarly work while my wife cleans house. And, even though I do help with our baby and would love to do more, my wife typically doesn't met me do more -- she wants to take care of the baby more than me. Further, if we could afford it, my wife, who has a MA in Organizational Development, would quite in a minute and be a stay-at-home mom (I see all the feminists shuddering at the thought). We are both constantly busy -- so if that constitutes 50-50, then perhaps that's what we have. But neither one of us is tallying up what the other does. We'd rather love each other than keep score.

Sam Evans writes:

It fails to explain why men who value the intelligence and earning power of professional women still expect them to pick up the man's dirty socks.

Louise:

They don't. It's just that the men don't care if the dirty socks spend a few days hanging around on the floor before they get gathered up for washing. Women tend, on average, to be more fastidious about household tidiness. The average man will look at a room and see something reasonably tidy; the woman beside him won't understand why he didn't just put the socks in the washing basket.

This leads directly, as mentioned by Karl Smith, to the woman doing all the housework.

A possible alternative solution for her is to use the fact that, although many men don't mind living in relative slobbishness, they don't want their mothers to think that they are slobs. This suggests that aggrieved wives caught in the housework trap should instead invite their mothers-in-law around for dinner on a regular basis.

Troy Camplin writes:

Sam is so right it's frightening. It's not that men often don't want to do something, they just haven't gotten around to it, the woman gets annoyed, and ends up doing it herself. Or he doesn't do it "right," and she ends up doing it herself from now on. Women who accept that the man's way is just his way, and that what matters is that it gets done find their husbands doing a great deal more work around the house than those who don't.

conchis writes:

"All this talk of comparative advantage does presume that economic man, the rational actor, is in play."

No it doesn't. It assumes it should be. Those are entirely distinct propositions.

conchis writes:

P.S. Yes, emotions per se are neither rational nor irrational. But decision-processes must be one or the other, so I don't think you can wiggle out by claiming that you never used the word "irrational".

P.P.S. Your apparent definition of what counts as feminism is way too narrow.

A decision process can be rational, arational, or irrational. If I make a decision based on my "gut" feeling, does that necessarily make it irrational? It may just be arational. It may, in fact, be a better decision than one rationally arrived at.

But you are right, it all the talk assumes it should be.

As for my definition of feminism -- it is quite broad. I would, in fact, consider myself a feminist in many ways -- if, by feminist, we mean "the radical proposition that women are people too," as I heard it wonderfully put once. There are certain feminist ideas, though -- something there from the beginning, it seems, though there has been some needed correction of late in the direction I suggested -- that assumed that men were the norm, and that for women to get equality, they had to become more like men. And that's the way it played out in the West, especially in the 20th century. A few generations of women and their happiness was sacrificed to that idea. Perhaps needfully. But the correction is overdue. The feminism that is arising (with a lot of resistance from certain kinds of old school feminism, which emulated that which it hated most) is one that accepts that women and men have different natures, and that a woman's nature is not better or worse than a man's -- just different. And that each is complementary to the other. This will result in a much healthier society, as it more accurately reflects reality.

Tracy W writes:

The most obvious flaw in this familiar feminist norm is that it completely ignores comparative advantange. What if a man has a much higher wage than his wife, but can't clean, cook, or shop to save his life? Should he still do half the cleaning, cooking, and shopping? Wouldn't husband and wife alike be better off if he specialized in bringing home the bread, and she specialized in baking it?

As others have said, this assumes that housework is an undefined lump of a good. It ain't. There's more to housework than cleaning, cooking and shopping. I manage my husband and my financial affairs, he does all the lifting of things down from high places and shopping for appliances. We both cook. Neither of us have a comparative advantage at vaccum cleaning or washing dishes.

Also, your analysis ignores the role of insurance. What happens to the husband who has specialised in bringing home the bread and can't clean, cook or shop if his wife breaks an ankle and can't do those jobs either? Or if she goes away for a conference? Or develops Alzheimer's? Any able-bodied adult should be able to do housework (and unable-bodied ones should be able to do it to the extent possible). An adult who can't take care of the tasks of daily living not because they're physically or mentally disqualified but because they've just never learnt to do them is pathetic.

Carla Smith writes:

I couldn’t agree with Mr. Caplan more. Especially with what he said on www.economist.com specifically directed from “a pattern” at the end of his blog above. Society has placed such a strain on men and their capabilities now that the feminist movement has ever so wrongly changed its course although they probably began as truly trying to support women in the efforts, to now their only efforts are to crush men where they stand, especially in the work place. It’s even come to the point where now men feel discriminated against when they apply for a job since a woman (who in some cases, is less qualified than the man applying for the same position) will in most cases get the job because now many companies feel the pressure from the feminists that they would be sued or worse if they “discriminated” against the woman!

What about the man? Now who defends him when he is in the same position the women supposedly used to be in? Where are the men’s movements to defend men’s rights? It has even gotten to the point where men are afraid to hold open doors for women these days! What happened to common courtesy? If I saw a man coming up behind me as I walked into a door, I’d hold it open for him! Yet these days, even if a woman is carrying something heavy, some men will sometimes not even hold the door open for the woman! This is said from personal experience.

However, to respond to this blog directly, and in terms of economics, it is silly for anyone to think other than what Mr. Caplan stated above. The “feminist norm” that he quotes is indeed obviously flawed. A man and a woman in a relationship do share many commonalities, otherwise they would not be in the relationship if there were not some chemistry and similar likes and dislikes. However, when it comes to what each party is or is not capable of, it’s ridiculous to even think that a relationship, especially a marriage, would be “ideal” if each individual would partake in 50% of the household duties.

This is ridiculous in more than one way. First, the Law of Demand clearly states that “price and quantity” or in this case “men and women” have an “inverse” relationship that when one goes down, the other goes up and vice versa. I have experienced this personally in my own marriage and anyone in a marriage would be wise to heed and understand these words and not be “offended” by them: a man’s strengths can easily be a woman’s weakness and vice versa! This is what constitutes a marriage and makes it work: when the parties involved finally realize and admit this!

Second and lastly, even the Law of Supply where “prices and quantities” (or in our case again, “men and women”) have a direct relationship, there are still shortages and surplus which cause for the two to find some happy medium or “equilibrium.” Just keep in mind that all of this is being said by a woman who has been in and out of the military and is not a quiet, submissive wife, but one who proudly admits that there are just some things I cannot do and that I’d be happy to ask my husband to do for me!

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