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.

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