Back to Becker

Two weeks ago, this blog got more hits in a day that it had during the entirety of its existence (~8 months). It wasn’t a big number relative to other blogs, for sure, but it was really exciting for me. Thanks for stopping by and reading and a particular thanks to Modeled Behavior and Brad DeLong and others for tweeting that post.

While it’s still hard to know exactly who is reading this (hi, Mom!), wordpress does give me an idea of where the clicks are coming from. One source that seemed to pop up a lot after the big day was the blog of a New Zealander who took issue with my characterization of Becker. He essentially argues that painting Becker’s ideas as antiquated can be quickly undone by releasing the gender constraints from the model. Let men do the laundry, essentially, and let women do waged work.

It’s a compelling proposition, but I believe the problems with applying Becker’s model go much deeper than the gender role issue. Changes in marriage and the resulting decrease in the usefulness of Becker’s models are a result of rather significant demographic and policy shifts. While there are certainly families who continue to operate under a strict separation of labor that leads to one partner earning wages and one staying at home, this is a rapidly diminishing proportion of American families, regardless of there is a male or female partner performing a particular gender role. Simply, fewer people are getting married, more and more women are having children out of wedlock, and divorce rates remain very high.

Specialization on the home/waged work divide is really only beneficial to both parties when the time horizon is unlimited, i.e., a marriage lasts a long time; or there’s so much inequality in the match that the low-earner has a high probability of being sufficiently taken care of if the match ends. It’s particularly damaging when partnerships end and the one who has foregone market labor is suddenly without compensation for household work in a world that (in almost all circumstances) demands at least some level of capital. Marriages, these days, don’t last that long, at least on average. This makes the risks of specialization much higher, particularly for one performing the unwaged work.

If you want to claim that “modern couples” specialize on a lesser level–say one does the laundry and one does the cooking–as a result of comparative advantage, you don’t reap the gains from complete specialization that are what make the Becker model tick. And, correct me if I’m wrong as I’m not a trade economist, but hasn’t the comparative advantage model pretty much been debunked?

Outsourcing is a solution, yes, when the two parties in a marriage have similar levels of human capital, similar desires to work, or face constraints such that raising a one-income family is impossible. But that doesn’t exist in Becker’s framework and I don’t think it jibes with the idea of domestic production. Once you add in a third person whose primary purpose is domestic production (child-rearing, cleaning, cooking, etc), the two-person model of production then becomes a model of consumption. The couple use their earnings to buy childcare, housecleaning, meals made, etc, in exchange for more leisure.

Interestingly, Justin Wolfers on Monday on twitter claimed himself as an exception to a recent paper claiming that male academics did less parenting than their female partners. While I applaud him for taking control of his parenting, he has a third person in the mix. He and his partner employ a nanny full-time to take care of their child. I don’t doubt that he’s presenting himself honestly, but I wonder how much of the equal parenting is a result of having a nanny, and how it might change if he didn’t. He says himself in the NYT profile that having the nanny allows him and his partner to do fun things with their daughter, like coloring, instead of fighting over getting dressed. Again, it comes down to shared consumption, rather than shared production.

So no, I don’t think you can generalize Becker, or bring him into the 21st century, by taking out the gender component. There’s just much more to it than that.


On E-Universities

Megan McArdle tackles the future of society and universities in a recent article at The Atlantic. In response to a post on the future of universities by Stephen Gordon at the Boston Globe, she enumerates her predictions for how societies will change if universities change to a totally online model.

Both McArdle and Gordon place great emphasis on cost, and perhaps not wrongly. Gordon claims that because they can hire an MITx credentialed student for cheaper than a regular university grad due to lack of student loans, the MITx model win win. McArdle says that the economies-of-scale that result will make us all go to the cheaper option and she thinks that’s good. But there are a couple of assumptions that are implicit in the analysis that I find incredibly disturbing. And not just because it would likely put me out of a job.

The first is that it’s valuable to have everyone learn the same thing. I find this horrifying. Yes, it’s useful if everyone used the same computer programming language, but if they did, then things wouldn’t progress. They become entrenched, like the QWERTY keyboard, which we all know is inefficient, and yet we learn and use it anyway. I think it’s great that most economists use Stata, but I also think it’s great that some use SAS, so that if I needed something done in SAS–which handles large datasets much better, while Stata is perhaps simpler to learn–I could get it done.

I want to know people who have read different books and studied different thinkers and learned different ways of studying or learning about the world. I think life would be incredibly boring otherwise.

Secondly, though McArdle mentions it, I think both authors severely underestimate the networking effect of college. McArdle says that we’ll need to find a different way to essentially make friends, but I think it’s more than that.

People I know from college represent not only many of my close friends, but also collaborators, colleagues, coauthors, references, providers of services, and directors of charities I support. If I wanted to go into investment banking or consulting or medicine or some other field, I have a list of people I would call for advice and to let them know what I was hoping to find, work-wise. I’d imagine that at least one Duke alum, if not many, would aid in my career change or become a client down the line.

This is not unique to Duke. If I’d gone to CU or Stanford or UVA or Metropolitan State, those networks would still be important. And important to my employer, not just to me. I think employers recognize this. Education signalling is not just about quality (regardless of noise levels), there’s also an assumption that who you know might matter at some point, as well.

Besides, what the heck are journalists going to cover if researchers aren’t putting out papers and books?

Wow, just wow

Another paper for my to-read list. From Christina Lindblad at Business Week:

The writers, Steven Rhoads of the University of Virginia and his son, Christopher Rhoads, of the University of Connecticut, studied a sample of 181 married, heterosexual, tenure-track professors all of whom had children under two and taught at schools with parental-leave policies. While 69 percent of the women in the sample took post-birth parental leave, only 12 percent of the men took advantage of the available leave—even though it was paid. They also learned that the male professors who did so performed significantly less child care relative to their spouses. Worse yet, they report that male tenure-track professors may be abusing paternity leave by using the time to complete research or publish papers, an activity that enhances their careers while putting their female colleagues at a disadvantage. One female participant quoted in the study put it this way: “If women and men are both granted parental leaves and women recover/nurse/do primary care and men do some care and finish articles, there’s a problem.”

Without reading, I’d really like to know how big this effect is. If so few men are taking paternity leave, how big is the problem (not that is lessens the problem for those affected, I’m just wondering if we can quantify it). In addition, is there a way to change the parenting men do without getting rid of paternity leave, i.e., can we shame men into doing it differently?

On Shared Consumption

Last week, I wrote about the economics profession’s new “power couple”, Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, and mentioned the idea of shared consumption driving marriage rather than shared production. In the comments, Katina asked me to explain shared consumption a bit more in depth and I promised her a longer post on the matter. I’m a little late, but here it is. I haven’t formally modeled any of this, and so I’ll say it’s not very clearly thought out, but in the name of elucidating the inner workings of this economist’s mind, I figured I’d at least outline my thoughts here.

One of the perhaps more complicated ways to define shared consumption comes from the study of public goods. Public goods are things like national defense or clean air. They constitute things that are non-excludable and non-rivalrous in consumption. There’s a lot of buzz words in that sentence, but just think about things that you can enjoy (or gain utility from) without diminishing someone else’ enjoyment (this is the non-rivalrous part) and things that, once they are in existence, no one can easily prevent someone else from enjoying it, say through an entrance fee (this is the non-excludable part).

Shared consumption goods are a little less strict than this, however. The idea of shared consumption lets us take what we would normally call “private” goods (non-public, like shoes–we both can’t wear the same pair of shoes) and give them some public (or sharing) aspects within a marriage or partnership.

A big shift in family economics has been to examine children as a public good. See, for instance, Chiappori, Iyigun and Weiss. The idea is that two people investing in a child reap benefits from both their own investment and the other’s investment. But this is a little convoluted for a non-economist, maybe.

Perhaps even simpler is when we take children out of the equation. Many couples these days marry without any intention of having children, even if though it might mean paying more in taxes. Two-earner households aren’t specializing in household production by one staying at home to cook and clean while the other works, but rather enter into a marriage for the purpose of keeping each other company.

To back me up, the New York Times published a piece outlining a significant demographic shift in parenthood over the past few years. Namely, more than half of children born to mothers under 30 are born to single mothers. If that’s not a refutation of shared production, I don’t know what is. This is a theme that is also prominent in my new favorite ethnography (not so new, really, but if you ever want to see me get really excited, ask me about Promises I Can Keep).

In addition, I’m currently reading Is Marriage for White People? by Ralph Richard Banks of Stanford Law. Early on, he cites a Pew study that says shared religious beliefs, shared interests, a healthy, happy sexual relationship and even sharing household chores were more important for a happy marriage than children. We’re not getting married to have children, necessarily, anymore, and when we are, we’re not convinced that specializing in raising the child is the best thing for one parent to do.

As pertaining to children, there’s a fine line between what constitutes consumption and production, but I think it’s safe to say that most matches aren’t happening with the primary purpose of building a home with a white picket fence in the suburbs and raising a couple of kids who go on to do the same. Americans are marrying to make themselves better off still, just not in the way that our parents and grandparents did.

Why we educate women

The World Bank’s Development Impact Blog has recently been hosting guest posts from job market candidates in economics and a few days ago, Berk Ozler, a regular contributor, decided to synthesize some of the lessons from their papers and one by Rob Jensen (forthcoming in the QJE). With a brief mention of the fact that some are working papers, and certainly subject to change, Ozler concludes that we’ve been going about increasing women’s educational attainment in the developing world in the wrong way. Backward, he calls it. Instead of making it easier for women to go to school by providing school uniforms or scholarships or meals, we should be concentrating on changing women’s opportunities to work. If women see the possibility of work or higher wages or more openings, then they will likely demand more education for themselves or for their female children.

From a purely incentive-based approach, it makes perfect sense. If female children are likely to bring in earnings, particularly if they might be comparable to or even higher than their brothers, then parents have an incentive to educate female children. Higher earnings perhaps mean better marriage matches, but most certainly mean better insurance for parents as they age. Women with their own incomes can choose to take care of their parents.

From a feminist perspective, however, it’s a bit problematic. Such analysis implicitly values waged work over non-waged work, a problem inherent in many economics questions, most apparent in how we measure GDP. We know that increasing women’s education levels is valuable in and of itself, regardless of whether those women go on to work. More education for women means later marriage, lower fertility, reduced HIV/AIDS transmission, reduced FGM, and more.

It’s reasonable to think that regardless of how we set up the incentives–either by showcasing opportunity or reducing the immediate costs of schooling–all of these things will happen. And certainly job creation and the encouragement of seeking new opportunities to work is desirable. But if we choose to focus all of our resources on showcasing opportunity (particularly when it may set up unrealistic or very difficult to achieve expectations. note I haven’t read the Jensen paper yet), then we reinforce the idea that “women’s work”, or work in the home, is worth less than waged work.

In a world where a woman becomes educated in hopes of finding work, but doesn’t, how does that affect her ability to make household decisions? To leave an abusive spouse? To educate her own children, male and female, equally? Jensen’s paper seems to imply the very promise of women’s wages is enough to change bargaining power, but I wonder if that will stick. Does failure to find work, for whatever reason when it is understood to be the sole goal of attaining more schooling, affect women’s status?

For Valentine’s Day, on love and marriage and economics

Perhaps I’m hyper aware of things going on in both media and social media these days, but it seems that UPenn economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson are everywhere these days. They’re all over my twitter feed for one. Then, today this came out in the Washington Post, and over the weekend, out came a profile in the NYT. The Times article describes them as a ‘power couple’ of economics. Which is pretty funny if you know any economist couples.

Though our research hasn’t come head to head yet, Justin and Betsey do a lot of work in family economics, much like I do. So, their meteoric rise to national prominence (at least among the WaPo-, NYT-reading set, is of interest to me. In particular, someone mentioned a quote from Betsey Stevenson saying that the household problem (as we so lovingly call it in economics) had turned from one of shared production to shared consumption.

Much of the dominant thinking in family and household economics has roots in Gary Becker’s A Treatise on the Family. It rests on ideas that can only politely be called antiquated. Women are in charge of domestic production (cleaning, child-rearing, cooking, laundry, etc) and men are in charge of bringing home the bacon. It’s specialization at the household level. Very economist-y. On some level, it probably made a lot of sense to think about marriage in this manner, particularly when women’s wages were much, much lower than men’s. In fact, it made so much sense that it partly earned Becker a Nobel Prize in Economics.

At some point during my fourth year of graduate school, I ordered my own copy. It was a simple (though really expensive!) purchase. A paperback, just a book, but a book that essentially formed much of the dominant thinking in my field. Even then, I knew its time in the spotlight was waning. I’ve still never read the whole thing. Despite knowing it was a classic, I can still only look up passages when I think they’re relevant. Reading more than a few pages makes the feminist in me absolutely boil.

But someone else recently said that, as economists, we should hope that our research becomes irrelevant, because that means that society has changed or that we’ve developed policy solutions for those questions and problems. And that’s probably what is happening here.

The world is changing; marriage is changing, love is changing. Household production is definitely changing. And perhaps all of this is about household consumption (enjoying kids and raising them together) rather than household production (raising kids, a public good). I’m unsure whether this is true at every socio-economic level, or whether it’s a privilege of high-earners, but it’s certainly an interesting way to frame and model marriage in economic terms.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Food Aid and Conflict

As a researcher I’m incredibly interested in conflict, its causes, and its effects. It may have started with “how do I get my brother not to get mad at me?” and continues with “how do we get people to not beat up their loved ones?” Though I heard someone mention the other day that the world has less conflict now than ever, it’s still worth looking into the causes of it.

In that vein, Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian have a new NBER working paper examining how food aid causes conflict. In a earlier paper, they presented some relatively straightforward relationships between food aid and need. Essentially, we send food where it is needed, but donor countries respond more to internal shocks than shocks in the recipient country. So, we send food where it’s needed, but mostly only if we have extra. The follow-up paper, or how that food aid contributes to civil war, is the one whose abstract is here.

This paper examines the effect of U.S. food aid on conflict in recipient countries. To establish a causal relationship, we exploit time variation in food aid caused by fluctuations in U.S. wheat production together with cross-sectional variation in a country’s tendency to receive any food aid from the United States. Our estimates show that an increase in U.S. food aid increases the incidence, onset and duration of civil conflicts in recipient countries. Our results suggest that the effects are larger for smaller scale civil conflicts. No effect is found on interstate warfare.

There are plenty of questions about this, but my first thought is why we don’t see an effect on interstate warfare? Particularly in places where tribal allegiances or religious allegiances are more salient than national ones, what makes food aid have a differential effect on different types of conflict? Is there some sort of endogeneity in the places we send food aid based on their form of war? It seems like we might restrict food aid to places who are violating borders, which would pose a problem for their identification strategy.

See also Marc Bellemare for his two cents.

Nunn, Nathan and Qian, Nancy. “Aiding Conflict: The Impact of U.S. Food Aid on Civil War” (January 2012). NBER Working Paper No. w17794.

Nunn, Nathan and Qian, Nancy. “The Determinants of Food Aid Provisions to Africa and the Developing World” (December 2010). NBER Working Paper No. w16610.

Elsevier boycott update

Here is the list of academics who’ve signed on to the Elsevier boycott. I found it today after re-reading something that @LSEImpactBlog had re-tweeted (I hate it when an outlet changes the name of something and I re-read and don’t realize it). But I was also curious about the number of economists who have signed on.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the absolute number is very small. While mathematicians–of whose one own started the call for the boycott–and physicists are signing on in large numbers, only 41 economists have signed it. This represents less than 1% of the 4676 signers. I don’t have numbers, but economics is a pretty large field. I’m fairly certain we represent more than 1% of academics.

The only field with fewer signers is Statistics, with 29.

I’m curious, naturally, about why this is. Are economists worried that a boycott might hurt them more and more risk-averse and thus not signing on? Are we by nature less likely to participate in boycotts? Are we just not paying attention? Is there a belief that the boycott will be unsuccessful? Are we free-riding?

I have a paper with a coauthor that we’ve been working on for awhile. Before the boycott stuff came out, we had discussed where to send it next and an Elsevier journal was on the list. While neither of us has signed the boycott declaration, we have discussed the decision. Whether or not we decide to boycott officially, others’ decisions about whether to boycott will affect our paper’s publication process. More boycotters mean fewer reviewers available, and might lead to less appropriate reviewers (on average). It might mean longer response times as referees decide whether to join the boycott.

Of course, this could all work in our favor, too, as turnaround times could decrease with fewer submissions. But in turn, this could result in the decline of journal importance, if good papers aren’t going to Elsevier journals.

Maybe we just think about things too much…

Additional Motivation or Why Academic Work NEVER ends

Additional motivation for a paper, that is. A new study shows that children whose mothers are “nurturing” have higher hippocampal volumes–or higher capacity for memory, learning and stress-management (I’m told). While much of the motivation in my paper comes from development of cognitive skills, reading to children might also fall under the definition of nurturing. And since it’s particularly attributed to mothers, I’m going to go with it. Cite it, add it to the motivation section.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Health; the full text is available here.

As a side note, I think it’s fascinating to examine the controls that other fields include as superimportant. For instance, right- or left-handedness is controlled for in this population. We can only say this about right-handed children!

As another side note, I can’t believe that so many preschoolers are depressed.

h/t @AnnieFeighery

Joan L. Luby, Deanna M. Barch, Andy Belden, Michael S. Gaffrey, Rebecca Tillman, Casey Babb, Tomoyuki Nishino, Hideo Suzuki, and Kelly N. Botteron. 2012. “Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2012 ; published ahead of print January 30, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1118003109.


Boycotts are all around us

There has been quite a bit of talk lately about boycotts, in the academic world, in the foreign policy world, and in the consumer world.

Academics are signing on in rather large numbers to a boycott of the journal publisher Elsevier, for practices they view as stifling to creative and innovative thought, and access. The original call to boycott is here, the Chronicle article is here, and if you Google the thing, you’ll find dozens of blogs and articles talking about it. It doesn’t seem to have hit economists too hard yet, but I imagine it’s going that way.

In foreign policy, all the talk is about boycotting oil from Iran in order to ensure that they don’t get the bomb.

Finally comes the Apple boycott, rocking the consumer world. The NYT came out with a an article last week exposing exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions in China by Apple. Combined with the conflict minerals stuff, some people are hoping to end their iAddictions. Others, of course, want to point out that the whole thing is ridiculous.

Of these, Iran is definitely the silliest. Oil is a fungible commodity. If we don’t buy it from Iran, we have to get it from someone else, say Norway. Thus, another country who formerly bought from Norway, will now buy it from Iran. Iran will sell it to someone else, perhaps at slightly higher transportation costs, but they still will sell it. (Update: Off the wire blog goes into this in a bit more detail here.)

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Elsevier boycott. I am all for voting with my dollars, and my time, but I guess this feels big because it is inextricably linked to my profession and my sense of self. As graduate students, we are shown over and over again that the path to success is publish, publish, publish, get tenure, and be satisfied. But I can’t help but think that all of this is changing. It’s like the rug is being pulled out from underneath me. It’s not the end of the world surely, but I’m not sure what an open-access academic content world is going to look like. I’m sure that functionally, it won’t change much for most people. But for academics, it’s likely to change a lot. And that’s scary on some level, even if it’s also exciting and desirable.

I’m going to mull over my thoughts on the Apple boycott a bit more, but they certainly seem to be all around us, don’t they?

Update on Fun Wednesday Reading: I’m in the midst of Innes, Rob. “A Theory of Consumer Boycotts Under Symmetric Information and Imperfect Competition.” The Economic Journal, 116 (April) 355-381.

h/t @mflbellemare