Bryan Caplan  

Miscommunication with Megan

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I Have Conditions... The Real Dependency Ratio...

Megan McArdle's not happy with my defense of men against the charge of shirking on housework. If I held the view she ascribes to me - "that the partner in a marriage who cares less about something should always win" - she'd be right to call me "daft."

But that's not my view at all. My point was that men who do little housework are very frequently misjudged by their spouses. What women see as male shirking is usually something much more benign: lower standards.

What difference does it make? Well, if your spouse shirks, you have a decent reason to get angry. But if your spouse merely has lower standards, the wise path is amicable bargaining. The end result of amicable bargaining is certainly not going to be that "whoever cares less wins." But it will often mean that whoever cares less does less work.

Megan is quick to object that "Coasean reasoning only holds if you believe that marriage somehow eliminates all transaction costs." This is way too strong. Coasean reasoning only holds perfectly with zero transactions costs. But the Coasean insight that creative bargaining is a very good way to resolve conflict holds even when transactions costs are substantial.

Peace, Megan. :-)


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
David N. Welton writes:

I'm going with Bryan's view on this one (but I guess I would, being a guy). My wife doesn't complain that I don't help (I do, quite a bit, actually), but that I don't "notice things and take the initiative" when it comes to cleaning. She's right... she notices stuff way before it comes up on my radar.

frankcross writes:

While she's not perfectly clear about this, she seems to presume that the female standard of cleanliness is the a priori correct one. One could assume the contrary and complain that women were wasting resources through inefficiently excessive cleaning. I'm not sure I see the inherent basis for either position, which only furthers the case for a bargained solution.

AMW writes:

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patrick writes:

I remember reading something by Philippe Van Parijs where he adresses a similar question :

"Some years ago, I spent a few months with my family in a house we were sharing with my father-in-law.
Very soon, one feature of our daily routine started disturbing me greatly. I noticed that my father-in-law was quite sensitive to the floor getting dirty, far more sensitive at any rate that I was myself. As soon as dust started covering the lounge floor, he would take out the vacuum cleaner and deal with it, long before I would start thinking it was necessary. The result, of course, was that the floor was tidied up for me beyond my wishes, without my doing anything for it. This bothered me because I could not help feeling it was unfair."

http://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/etes/documents/1996h.Free_riding__rent_sharing.pdf

bt writes:

Beg for peace Bryan, it the only hope you have. My wife would have shot me by now, I hope your wife has not found out about your blogging misadventures. If she has and forgiven you, consider it proof of God's existence.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Surrender, Bryan. Ain't no way anybody not of the male gender is going to think that you are anything but a m@#* c^%$#)+&#* p@! Do not even try any further; all hope is lost... (!!!)

larry writes:

Barkley Rosser is absolutely right that the best course is to surrender (and, I might add, recant and apologize profusely); almost all females will react badly to your argument, even though it seems reasonable to me.

I've noticed the phenomenon David Welton mentioned above: that wives are upset when you their husbands don't -

"notice things and take the initiative"

I suppose it goes back to Tyler's idea that the most important thing to do here is to send a signal to your wife that she is so important to you that you will go to any length to make her happy.

Lise writes:

I'm a married female and I find Bryan's argument to be perfectly reasonable. Before my husband and I got married, we agreed on which household chores he would perform and which ones would be my responsibility (he does the manly chores which require heavy lifting). I have no problem with this arrangement and cannot accuse him of shirking for not assisting me with the wifely chores.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Lise,

Of course having an open negotiation and discussion and agreement prior to marriage regarding these matters, with all parties keeping their sides of the agreement, is clearly optimal in the grand scheme of things. Needless to say, your case is the exception rather than the rule, for better or for worse...

Horatio writes:

"...the best course is to surrender ..all females will react badly to your argument..."

Prof. Caplan may not be the type of guy it works for, but most women are attracted to the "bad boy" type. Nice guys finish last. The guy who cleans up as much as women want him to, watches any chick flick, showers his love with attention etc. is often passed up for the jerk who won't give girls the time of day. Even with #1, your girlfriend, or your wife, you have to set boundaries on how much you will give in for her. If you don't roll over all the time, she feels much better when you actually do. That uncertainty makes you more valuable to her. Remember, we were animals on the edge of survival for most of our evolution. The most desirable men back then made women feel safe under dangerous and uncertain conditions, had control over his relationship and probably behaved like he could have any women he wanted because of the high mortality rate for young men.

To push those same buttons now. Take her to a theme park with scary rides, because it feels dangerous but she knows it's safe and her brain attributes the safety to you. Afterwards, make her think you'll be too busy to see her for a while and when you finally take her out again, she'll think she's in love with you.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Too bad that Coasean bargaining only guarantees efficiency. Not who does the work so it would do absolutely nothing to fix the work load imbalance. Furthermore, like all economic theories, it assumes rationality which does not always hold.

Snark writes:
Take her to a theme park with scary rides, because it feels dangerous but she knows it's safe and her brain attributes the safety to you. Afterwards, make her think you'll be too busy to see her for a while and when you finally take her out again, she'll think she's in love with you.

You may be on to something here, Horatio! A one-sided, game theoretic model of incomplete information with no bargaining required. SWEET!

[Pause for reflection] Do you think this type of unilateral arrangement will hold up in the long run, or could it possibly represent a short-term equilibrium state of temporary insanity on the part of the female?

Barkley Rosser writes:

Horatio,

This "girls like bad guys" argument holds more for lovers, not for husbands and only for certain aspects. This housework argument is one place where it really does not fly at all, at least not for husbands. Forget it. Bryan should still just give up and surrender, at least on this one. He can go be a bad boy in some other area.

Horatio writes:

"Do you think this type of unilateral arrangement will hold up in the long run, or could it possibly represent a short-term equilibrium state of temporary insanity on the part of the female?"

It really depends on the female, but many will put up with an uncertain relationship for years in hopes the man will propose. It's a delicate balancing act. Too little uncertainty and she'll get bored, too much and you'll push her away. I never put them through this for more than a few months. I always give her a bit too much so that she'll be ready for the end when it comes.


"This "girls like bad guys" argument holds more for lovers, not for husbands and only for certain aspects. This housework argument is one place where it really does not fly at all, at least not for husbands. Forget it. Bryan should still just give up and surrender, at least on this one. He can go be a bad boy in some other area."

They probably don't like bad boys in this situation, but husbands still need to know when to hold out. Making his concessions scarce will increase their value in her eyes.
As for the lovers vs. husbands. Women would really like to have both, but they tend to fall in love under uncertain conditions. I am a well educated man from a good family and with a bright future. I love children and I am very romantic with the right women. When I met my girlfriend, I was all these things, but I also had much mystery surrounding me, danger in my life and I was forbidden to her. She told me these are the things that got her to fall in love with me. She fell in love with the bad boy, not the good potential husband.

Justin Bowen writes:

How, if at all, do the longer hours of men at work (in a workplace) come into play here? Using a 2005 UPenn study (Knowles), men have consistently done more work than women when market work is taken into account. For the covered years of the study (1965-2003) the ratio of time-worked for women to men was 0.93:1.

Would it be acceptable to argue that women should quit whining and be grateful for the fact that, on average, they don't have to sit as long in traffic and put up with bosses and coworkers that they don't like and for the fact that they have more free-time? Or, are there too many other factors at play here?

Getting to your argument, at what point should women (and men for that matter) take accountability for the bad choices that they make? If a man is a slob before he gets married (it seems absurd, to me, that a man and woman wouldn't live together for a period of time before marriage to find out if they can stand each-other or not), what right does a woman have to complain that he is a slob after they get married? It would seem to me that two people who shared similar views and who discussed who was going to do what during the marriage would have a much better marriage (which would certainly explain why I am perpetually single). I certainly agree that the woman would have a valid gripe if the two had come to an agreement on who would do what and the man reneged on that agreement, but how many times is that the case in situations where the woman does more housework than the man? I don't think a woman or man has the right to expect their spouse to change simply because they're living together and having sex (which the numbers clearly show doesn't happen). I'm of the opinion that you should accept the good and the bad of a person or simply not get involved with them.

rmark writes:

Why is housework defined as inside the house? As the husband of the family I seem to spend time digging postholes, sharpening mower blades, and repairing water leaks - all work around the home which seems to be left out of the housework definition.

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