Bryan Caplan  

Female Protectionism Redux

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Here's the latest paper on the puzzle of female protectionism - "Why are Women More Protectionist than Men?" by Eugene Beaulieu and Michael Napier.  (For earlier work, see here and here).  And here's Beaulieu and Napier's extremely frustrating closing paragraph:
Although there currently appears to be no evidence as to why this gender gap exists, a couple of theories are still outstanding. As aforementioned, women may simply be more sensitive to the framing of survey questions, causing them to answer more towards the bias, as in the question of interest in this study. This issue, however, cannot be addressed with the ISSP data sets. Also, are males or females more likely to lose their jobs due to increased trade liberalization? ...Lastly, although it is not likely that risk aversion will explain any of this gender gap; women are in general more risk averse. [sic?] However, risk aversion as a possible explanation for the gender gap cannot be estimated empirically with the ISSP data sets as they do not contain a proxy for risk.
What's so frustrating?  As far as I can tell, Beaulieu and Napier don't even consider the possibility that women simply know less about economics than men, even though there is overwhelming evidence that this is so.  As I originally showed in my "What Makes People Think Like Economists?" (2001, Journal of Law and Economics), being male has roughly as much effect on economic beliefs as 1.7 steps on a 6-point educational scale.  Why do economists have so much trouble taking the obvious explanation for female protectionism seriously?


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Zac writes:

So far as I know, having two of the same kind of sex chromosome doesn't make someone less economically literate. So, while it is true that women know less about economics than men, until they can say why they know less about it, they won't give that explanation.

Phrasing in a different way, saying women are more protectionist than men because they know less about economics is the equivalent of saying that men are worse at making blankets than women because they know less about knitting. You can't stop there, there's either more to the story, or you've just stated a truism.

Question-- are female economists more protectionist than male economists?

Jon writes:

"Using the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy (1996), this paper shows people think more like economists: if they are well-educated; if they are male; if their real income rose over the last five years; if they expect their real income to rise over the next five years; or if they have high degrees of job security. However, neither high income nor ideological conservatism have this effect."

Since economists tend to be both male and well-educated with rising incomes and job security (tenure), couldn't one restate this abstract as, People think more like economists if they are more like economists?

Among other things, this would imply that the gender gap in agreement with economists is due to the gender gap in the economics discipline.

Personally, I favor risk aversion as the preferred explanation for the gender gap in views on political economy.

rpl writes:
So far as I know, having two of the same kind of sex chromosome doesn't make someone less economically literate.
So? Having two of the same kind of sex chromosome probably doesn't make someone more likely to wear dresses or less likely to watch televised sports; yet, both seem to be true. I'd bet that very few of the observed differences between the sexes are caused directly by the sex chromosomes.

In any case, the question here wasn't about whether women know less about economics; it was about why they are more likely to favor a certain policy (protectionism). In light of that, the answer "because they know less about economics" (assuming it is in fact supported by the data) is not a truism, but a useful explanation because it allows you to discount other plausible explanations such as "more direct self-interest" or "greater risk aversion".

To look at it another way, it is useful to know whether the correlation between sex and favoring protectionism is mediated by (i.e., "sex and support for protection are conditionally independent given") level of economics knowledge. That information may raise secondary questions of why sex and economics knowledge are correlated, but it nevertheless represents an increase of our knowledge of the state of the world.

Zac writes:
Having two of the same kind of sex chromosome probably doesn't make someone more likely to wear dresses or less likely to watch televised sports; yet, both seem to be true. I'd bet that very few of the observed differences between the sexes are caused directly by the sex chromosomes. (rpl)
Which is exactly my point. You can't say women watch fewer televised sports than men because they care less about sports. Or that there are fewer women in scientific professions because they know less about science. It may be true but it is not a useful explanation.

I have to guess its common knowledge that economists (people who, presumably, know a lot about economics) favor protectionism much less than average. It is clear that the reason for this is that, by learning economics, they have come to see the value of free trade. The concept that trade is good, therefore, is economic knowledge, and it stands to reason that economists will be less protectionist than average because they understand how harmful it is (or, if you're a statist, you might say it is because they are a profession of corporate shills, but its economic knowledge nonetheless). So how is it meaningful to say that women are more protectionist than men because women know less about economics? I fail to understand how that differs substantially from extreme truisms like "women make more division errors than men because they know less about arithmetic."

Methinks writes:

"Using the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy (1996), this paper shows people think more like economists: if they are well-educated; if they are male; if their real income rose over the last five years; if they expect their real income to rise over the next five years; or if they have high degrees of job security. However, neither high income nor ideological conservatism have this effect."

Hey! I'm that man. Except I'm a woman - obviously atypical as I'm neither protectionist nor risk averse.

I think IN GENERAL men know more about economics than women. Men don't have to bear children and are free to take riskier, more demanding jobs where they learn first hand the effects of protectionism, high taxes and regulation. Women tend to make less demanding career choices which allow them to have more time for family - teaching, for example. Those professions also tend to be dominated by unions and anti-capitalist propaganda. Anecdotaly, I find that women who work in the family's small business or choose jobs that have traditionally been dominated by men tend to be far less protectionist. I think the differences between men and women as regards opinions about economics might have a lot to do with the different experiences that (largely) their biology provides them.

rpl writes:

Zac,

Your analogies are flawed. A better one would be:

Suppose that a study found that people who are more knowledgeable about sports tended to favor a playoff system for college football, and another study found that women are generally less knowledgeable about sports than men. Then, if one found that women tended not to favor a playoff system, an explanation for that observation might be that the observed correlation is simply a function of their lower level of sports knowledge. "Might" be because it's possible that there is some other reason that better explains the correlation; we would have to do further analysis (e.g. controlling for economic literacy) to figure that out.

Notice the difference between what you said ("women watch fewer televised sports than men because they care less about sports"), which is a tautology, and the hypothetical ("women have certain opinions about an issue in sports because they care less about sports"). The latter is a closer analogy to what Bryan is saying.

If the lower average knowledge of economics among women is sufficient to explain their support for protectionism, then we can discount other explanations. This is useful to know if only because, if it is true, then you needn't be puzzled (as the authors seem to be) that no other explanation seems to work.


Jim Glass writes:

As far as I can tell, Beaulieu and Napier don't even consider the possibility that women simply know less about economics than men

My wife has a masters degree in economics, and some of the protectionist statements that come out of her mouth simply stagger me -- when we're in public, they literally leave me speechless (I dare not say anything to contradict her) and my friends know that takes a lot (of fear).

But it depends on how one engages her on the subject. When speaking analytically of the world economy or whatever she's all for free trade and dismissive of protectionism, she knows comparative advantage full well.

OTOH, if she's engaged via a personal story, somebody losing a job, oh golly gee, it's all "why do we let them keep taking all our jobs?? how long before we have nothing left??"

It seems to depend on which lobe of her brain is doing the thinking.

So my vote, purely on the basis of this anecdotal experience, is that "framing" and empathy via the female hard wiring for lateral socialization makes a meaningful difference for women -- while men are more calculating, hard-hearted, hierarchally-oriented bastards, which as to the appreciation of free trade is a good thing.

Richard writes:

I'm sure that women are more protectionist because only 25% of them are Thinkers according to the Myers-Briggs test, while 75% of men are Thinkers. Why that difference exists of course is debatable but it would be crazy to deny a basic role for genetics. In this sense, Zac's comment about having "two of the same kind of sex chromosome" is almost certainly wrong. (As stated it also is a nice bit of sophistry, since no one thinks that a person with two Y chromosomes would be the same as someone with two X chromosomes.)

frankcross writes:

Very interesting, but I bet it comes down to simple risk aversion. Men will take a risk for a great reward. Women are less likely to take a risk in these circumstances. And that may be genetic, risk aversion may be evolutionary in mothers, while risk-taking is evolutionary in fathers.

El Presidente writes:

Zac,

"The concept that trade is good, therefore, is economic knowledge, and it stands to reason that economists will be less protectionist than average because they understand how harmful it is (or, if you're a statist, you might say it is because they are a profession of corporate shills, but its economic knowledge nonetheless)."

The concept that trade is good is DOGMA, except when it is backed up by theory and/or observation. When either contradict your assertion, then trade is either deceptively good or not really good at all. To suggest that trade is good no matter what, or as a rule, ignores questions that are relevant in such a normative conclusion: How good is trade, at what terms, of what goods/services, compared to what, and in which cases? To dismiss trade-moderating sentiment without understanding the reasoning behind it is as foolish as blindly embracing "trade is good", which many men and economists are apparently all too comfortable doing. Decisions are made at the margins, at least by economically rational individuals. Thus, assuming for a moment that even women are economically rational (why did this one elude us?), it may very well be a disagreement about where to draw the line rather than whether there ought to be a line at all. That is, it might be a dispute over properly pricing the value of trade.

If trade is a universal good, why would we do anything for ourselves? Why would you bathe yourself when somebody else could do it for you? Why would you tie your own shoes? Why would you write your own blog post? Furthermore, why not consume only foreign products, or better still only those produced on different continents? That would cause more trade, right? Trade is not a universal good, but is good, in economic terms, only to the extent it enhances our material wellbeing, and material wellbeing is not the whole of wellbeing. Setting aside for the moment that trade does not always do this, and frequently does otherwise, to consider somebody ignorant or irrational for tending to be more influenced by the times in which trade is suboptimal, or the particular connotation of "free trade" that resonates most with them, borders on achieving a thoroughly useless conclusion and affirms our unfortunate professional reputation. Hooray for economists!

Perhaps the study shows that women are more deliberative and require a stronger demonstration of value before surrendering things like control, security, and stability. Perhaps a more intelligent insight is that women care less about formal economics than men and thus place a different premium on "economic knowledge". As sovereign pricers, independent value-estimators, they are certainly free to do so, right? Or, perhaps we're just pulling things out of thin air to answer a question with which more experienced researchers would have greater tolerance for uncertainty.

El Presidente writes:

Jim Glass,

"It seems to depend on which lobe of her brain is doing the thinking."

Even in the crudest economic reasoning, two is better than one, right?

Jacob Oost writes:

El Presidente, no offense, but you strike me as one of those persons who has learned all they know about economics from non-economists and unorthodox sources (Naomi Klein, John Kenneth Galbraith, etc.). Methinks you could use a better, more orthodox grounding, so at least you fully understand what you criticize. I, after all, read textbooks from a Keynesian perspective and it has helped me enormously.

So let me help you out. In economics, as in most things, something is rarely categorically good or bad, it's good to the point that the benefits outweigh the costs. This decides prices, what things we decide to buy, how labor is divided up, etc.

The reason I don't pay somebody to bathe me, even though I think trade is good, is because the costs outweigh the benefits, thus the trade isn't worth it. Let me leave you with a word from Amartya Sen, who himself is no libertarian economist:

"To be generically against markets would be as odd as being generically against conversations between people (even though some conversations are clearly foul and cause problems for others—or even for the conversationalists themselves.) The freedom to exchange words, goods or gifts doesn’t need defensive justification in terms of their favorable but distant effects; they are a part of the way human beings in society live and interact with each other (unless stopped by regulation or fiat)."

El Presidente writes:

Jacob Oost,

"The reason I don't pay somebody to bathe me, even though I think trade is good, is because the costs outweigh the benefits, thus the trade isn't worth it"

This was precisely my point. Forgive my Socratic style. It's awfully generous of you to try to help me, but I don't see why you find it necessary to cast aspersions on my academic pedigree before you reiterate the point I was making. That said, suit yourself.

In response to the quote, I am not generically against markets, and the study does not indicate the respondents are either. So, what's your point? Did you read what I wrote?

People usually trade for profit which is not always the same as benefit to their whole wellbeing or the wellbeing of others. The ability to externalize costs allows people to change the balance of material benefits and costs in their favor when it would not be otherwise. Thus, trade based on externalizing costs may be profitable to the transacting parties and yet suboptimal. If trade is suboptimal in any instance, then no-trade becomes a viable though not necessarily superior alternative. This is not a difficult point to comprehend, and I suspect many of the respondents to the study have some inkling of this notion in mind when they respond in a protectionist manner. That doesn't mean they are correct or have reasoned their position through, but it's possible. Furthermore, trade that is profitable in the short run may be very unprofitable in the long run (i.e. tragedy of the commons). It is rather presumptuous to start from a first principle that trade is good and then to pompously wonder aloud why one gender just doesn't get it allowing for only one conclusion: they must be ignorant. This is substituting a normative principle (trade is good) for an empirical observation (trade is beneficial). I don't see the value in that whether you study Keynes, Galbraith, Ricardo, Marx, Friedman, or whomever.

You may cringe at the name but, if you haven't already, look up Krugman's paper that employs a utility function for change in output (Thinking About the Liquidity Trap, December 1999). Unorthodox? Perhaps. If people price growth differently, and we have no reason to believe they shouldn't since it will affect them differently, then the utility of growth varies from person to person in accordance with their preferences. It is not reasonable to assume that we all might have individual opportunity costs for a cup of frozen yogurt or a pair of athletic shoes, but that somehow we all share a single opportunity cost for growth in output, regardless of income distribution, that is lower than the costs of all other alternatives. To the extent that trade facilitates growth in output and affects the pattern of distribution of income, it should not surprise us that individuals have different reservation prices for policies that either facilitate or inhibit it. They may be expressing bounded rationality in doing so. I challenge you to demonstrate otherwise without presuming to price things for them by substituting your preferences for theirs.

Enjoy your orthodoxy.

Jacob Oost writes:

Well I'm pretty sure every kind of economist outside the anarcho-capitalist school is in favor of using government to correct for external costs, so that negates that concern. But I don't think external costs is what many non-economists have in mind when they pooh-pooh markets.

And yes, people value economic growth differently. Just look at the Amish. Of course, the economy can keep growing and growing without imposing any loss of existing assets on the person who abhors growth. And I'm not sure why you are challenging me.

I brought up the Sen quote because I thought you yourself were questioning trade in categorical terms, and I actually thought the quote was about "trade" not "markets," but I decided to quote it anyway just cuz.

And you are right in saying that it is a normative statement to say trade is good. It's often treated as an almost positive statement because there is virtually unanimous agreement across the political spectrum that economic growth, plentiful food and clothing and shelter, and generally raising standards of living, etc. are good things. It's such a universal conceit that economists rarely add "...if you want a raising standard of material living, etc. etc."

For most people who "don't think like economists" though, I think that what is at work is NOT a denial of mainstream normative economics but rather a Ptolemaic view of things. I talk to people about economics a lot, even when they say I'm boring and they want me to change subjects, and what I've learned is that most people fit Bryan Kaplan's model of the irrational voter pretty well. They like shiny cars and cheap groceries and DVD players and Wiis, and they like for people to have proper health care and insurance and so forth, but their grasp of how these things are produced and bought and sold in a market economy is usually very poor, as is their understanding of how individuals make decisions in an economy. For example, a psychologist once told me that he thought doctors needed to be licensed because otherwise "you'd have doctors that couldn't read." As if.

El Presidente writes:

Jacob Oost,

First, I'm not challenging you. I'm challenging certain ideas. If you assert them then I will direct the challenge to you. The quote you offered suggested there was no need for defensive justification of conversation, right?

Second, this gets to the heart of my concern with regard to growth, gender associated views on trade aside.

"It's often treated as an almost positive statement because there is virtually unanimous agreement across the political spectrum that economic growth, plentiful food and clothing and shelter, and generally raising standards of living, etc. are good things."

If growth was certain to bring this about, then I would agree to a certain extent. But, there is no guarantee that growth in output will translate into higher standards of living for everyone, much less greater wellbeing. What's more, a higher standard of living is of diminished importance when one is losing ground to their fellow citizens or close competitors for things of social value. Being richer than a Somali doesn't necessarily do me much good if I desire an American bride. Can you imagine an American husband responding to his wife's disappointment with their meager 300 series bimmer by saying that other wives have to walk several miles every day to get water? Her likely reply: "Why didn't you marry one of them?" We judge ourselves and each other relative to one another. I am captive labor, and I am socially captive as well (although I am not yet maritally captive).

Our geographical and social captivity are real and are not generally taken into account in the broad brush strokes of "trade is good" and "growth is good". I would say instead that trade and growth have great potential to bring about good. Remember that Ricardo didn't advocate free trade simply so that the average material standard of living would rise. He advocated it because it was economically efficient and because in it's absence richer people were taking advantage of poorer people. That's why he was considered a traitor to his class. The details and the contemporary context matter when considering his arguments.

If you want a familiar anecdotal proof, consider the common sentiment that "free trade" means "exporting jobs". While you and I understand that what it really means is a reordering of production activities, a change in jobs, the average displaced person knows only that they lost something they relied upon and it will not be replaced equally or quickly. They bear sacrifice for the sake of improving the _average_ standard of living. Not their personal standard of living, not even the median, but rather the average. This means that they are worse off relative to those in their own society who have profited first from the realignment. The displaced will be negotiating with these individuals for wages and for social status with less leverage than they had before.

This is why Pareto optimality generally doesn't quite feel like justice. If we evaluate it with relative measures, it ceases to exist or becomes something entirely different. I would hope that we would at least consider the relative alongside the absolute and be a little more diligent about qualifying our normative assertions. As it relates to opinions on trade, I think the prevalence and persistence of the anecdotal example should give us room to speculate that it might reasonably have affected the responses. This is my biggest gripe with the Solow model; it only deals in absolutes when they are half of the story, at best. Why is it that we should use such a half-truth as the cornerstone of our discipline? It is valuable, but it is not comprehensive.

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