David R. Henderson  

What Does Tyler Cowen Mean by Freely?

The Slippery Slope Not Taken... Which direction for macro?...

In an otherwise good analysis of the split between work and leisure, Tyler Cowen writes:

Women are working far more than they once did, and probably more than they would choose to do, if they were able to balance their work and family lives freely.

He makes his point that women are working more. He doesn't explain what he means by "freely." Remember that he's talking about American women here, not about women in Saudi Arabia. They enter relationships freely. How is their choice not a free choice?

HT2 Mark Thoma.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Lupis42 writes:

One possible explanation: if they were able to choose on a continuum, they would favor shorter workweeks and more vacation time, but the US labor market hasn't yet adjusted to make use of high skill labor in less than full time positions.

Thomas Sewell writes:

He does explain what he means, just later in the piece:

With many workplace barriers falling, unequal bargaining power within families remains a problem for some women, who end up with a work-leisure balance that is not what they would ideally choose.

Which is ridiculous to anyone who has a decent sized sample of marriage relationships to examine. This is a popular example of a major philosophical trend.

You could make a good argument that "unequal bargaining power outside family relationships remains a problem for some women" by discussing the effects of single women, baby-daddies, etc... but once married, women appear to have significant bargaining power to define their relationships and roles.

Labor force participation rates of women with children (2015 BLS):
All: 69.9%
Married: 67.4%
Unmarried: 74.8%

Unless he's suggesting children under 18 are "bargaining" with their mother to make her work more, "bargaining power" in families seems to currently be on the side of women not needing to participate in the work force as much as they otherwise would, absent the family relationship.

James writes:

Maybe Tyler means freely in the sense of being without costs or constraints of any kind.

David R. Henderson writes:

That would be a strange use of the word “freely,” especially for an economist. It would be like saying that if I could choose freely, I would have my own jet.

John Alcorn writes:

Prof. Cowen adds (in the same NYTimes article):

"unequal bargaining power within families remains a problem for some women, who end up with a work-leisure balance that is not what they would ideally choose."
Prof. Cowen's implicit premise, it seems, is that exchange is not truly free in contexts (e.g. a subset of households) where one party (e.g., a subset of men) have and press an unfair advantage in alternatives to agreement. Compare Guzmán & Munger's analysis of truly voluntary exchange here. Note, however, that Guzmán & Munger's examples are instances of extreme disparity in bargaining power, and/or dire necessity by one party. The conceptual and empirical issues are, What are the nature and scope of coercion by circumstance?

John Alcorn writes:


What are some modern causes of relatively low bargaining power of large subsets of women in family contexts? Here are two:

a) The collapse of the social norm of shotgun marriage, and the resultant increase in out-of-wedlock births and in households headed by unmarried mothers. Akerlof & Yellen explain that the collapse of the norm of shotgun marriage was caused, paradoxically, by the advent of new technologies for birth control (legal, safe abortion and the pill). The availability of these technologies caused a widespread change in beliefs, about responsibility for pregnancy. The new belief, that women have control over pregnancy through the pill and abortion, let men off the hook, and decreased the power of women who would not or did not use the new technologies. See Akerlof & Yellen's classic article here.

b) The change of the decision rule in child-custody cases, from "maternal presumption" to "the best interest of the child." An empirical premise is that women are more likely than men truly to want custody, and to fear the uncertainty of the "best interest of the child" rule if the case goes before a judge, but that men often can credibly feign desire for custody as a bargaining tactic. In such circumstances, women accept unfavorable alimony terms in negotiated settlements in order to avoid the uncertainty of a custody trial. Jon Elster provides a sharp overview and analysis here.

Yaakov writes:

It seems to me clear that what he means by freely is if the family income did not depend on women working. That was the situation in the past, and women complained that the fact that they do not work puts them in a disadvantage within the family. Women succeeded getting into the work force, but now they work much more than they want to, because the cost of living is much higher and the family income depends on women working.

Tim Worstall writes:

"Women are working far more than they once did"

But, but, but.....that's not true!

Market production hours are up, household production hours are down, total leisure hours are up. That's working less.

Benjamin Cole writes:

Are American women allowed to engage and push-cart vending? Of course not, in every American city that I know of.

Are women allowed to sell goods anywhere except on land that it zoned retail in most American cities? Of course not. Gee, who owns expensive retail land?

Set up your own speakeasy? Is prostituion legal?

So again we see that American women who might wish self-employment are instead relegated to a labor market which is itself highly regulated.

Because the supply of housing is artificially constrained by those people who already own housing, a woman may be somewhat forced to live far away from a job.

David Henderson: keep your eyes open. We do not have free markets in America.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Benjamin Cole,
My eyes are open and those are all good questions.
Maybe Tyler means what you mean, but I still wonder.

Kolya writes:

Consider a Scientologist who wishes to abandon the 'Church'. Your family and friends and everyone you have ever known will disown you. The 'Church' will hire private eyes to stalk you. Confessions you have made to your auditor about your private life and sexual weaknesses will be used against you. If you worked for the 'Church', you have no savings, no resume or references for future employers. You may have signed a 'freeloader tab', a promise to repay many thousands of dollars (you might hire a lawyer to annul it, but Scientology has deep pockets).

Now, in a narrow legal sense you are 'free', but almost all non-economists would describe your situation as 'not free'. And any dictionary would side with Cowen rather than Henderson - legal freedom is not the only definition given.

David R. Henderson writes:

Since you’re convinced that "any dictionary would side with Cowen rather than Henderson” on the meaning of the word freedom, perhaps you can then answer the question I asked in the title of this post.

John Alcorn writes:

@ David R. Henderson,

See the quotation, which Thomas Sewell and I posted in the comments above, from Tyler Cowen's article. It seems that Prof. Cowen believes that bargaining power is necessary for economic freedom, and that (a significant subset of) women have little bargaining power (at least within the household) when making choices about the balance of work and leisure. The thought is that freedom (in an economics sense) is a function of bargaining power. Prof. Cowen is not alone among economists there.

Reasonable people may differ about the contours of freedom, and about the empirics of bargaining power for women in the USA. Prof. Cowen's ideal of economic freedom might be utopian, but it is neither unintelligible nor highly idiosyncratic.

Floccina writes:

My wife's employer seems crazy to me in this area. They push her to come to work when she has a cold or flue which can spread, rather than hiring more workers and there are a lot of unemployed people who do her job.

Do benefits and the overhead to hiring encourage employers to require full time workers? Skills might be a factor, it might be hard to keep your skills up working part time.

BTW Women and men probably work less than ever but women work more in the taxed economy and less for in home consumption. I always like to remind people of that.

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