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.

Same-sex marriage makes me better off

I laughed out loud a bit reading this article on how same-sex marriage is actually good for straight women. With only the title to guide me, all I could come up with in terms of expectations was that there would be some long rant about how if gay men can marry, maybe that will reduce the stigma associated with being gay which means that fewer gay men will marry straight women, or that women who had foregone marriage in solidarity would now be able to get married. Let’s say I was pleasantly surprised when the article rather took on equality within marriages as opposed to making some tenuous, crazy link (what was I thinking?!).

Key (first time I laughed out loud) quote:

As same-sex couples marry, things get better for us, too. Remember the scary (and since-discredited) stories about how a woman is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a husband after she turns 40? Or the one about how suitors are fleeing from Maureen Dowd because they’re afraid of her Pulitzer Prize? The poll showing evangelical women in patriarchal marriages are happier than Sarah Jessica Parker? Well, same-sex marriage shows that people can make long-term, loving, sexual bonds with each other even where neither is naturally inclined to tell the other what to do.

It’s a cheeky way of putting it, of course, and I’m railing inside against the insinuation that women harp on their partners, but I like how the author takes a historical perspective on women’s rights within marriage. She starts with how marriage stripped a woman of civic personhood and describes various efforts to maintain women in that lesser role until it evolved to where we are today.

As an economist, of course, I think she skipped one of the most salient examples of justifying inequality in marriage. The man who is credited with essentially founding family economics, Gary Becker, argued, and rather convincingly, that gains from marriage, in an economic sense, at least, came from specialization. Men earned higher salaries in the market than women did, so men should work for pay in the market and women should stay at home. It’s a lesson in comparative advantage taken from trade theory (one of my least favorite lessons in teaching principles). If you’re relatively better at something than your partner, you should each specialize in one thing and then trade to maximize gains. This makes your feasible consumption higher than if you tried to do both kinds of work yourself. Interestingly, it doesn’t really matter if you’re technically better at both things, you can still gain by agreeing to specialize and trade. Becker’s work doesn’t rule out that women might actually be better at both market work and home work, but since men did (and still do) earn higher wages than women, they’re going to be relatively better at bringing home the bacon than doing laundry and cleaning.

The scary part is that at face value, it almost seems reasonable. It’s only in reading the work carefully that it smacks of machismo. Becker’s ideas echo (although his work precedes some of it) several other scholars (of sorts) and others mentioned in the article whose work was used to justify keeping women from working and at home, cooking, cleaning and raising the kids. A lot of scholarly work has, unwittingly or not, served the interests of those desiring to maintain unequal marriages.

So, will same-sex marriage make us all more equal? It’s an interesting hypothesis, and one that might even be testable, but I’m not sure we have all the information yet. Legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t mean same-sex marriage ‘works’ in the sense the author is proposing and we certainly don’t have the same kind of happiness data on same-sex marriage, yet. It’s also problematic that our most recent census won’t count any of these people as married, but the next one will (all these problems again of how we define family). However, there is hope. The process of state-by-state legalization of same-sex marriage means that we have something of a natural experiment. Though not randomly assigned (although you might argue that Iowa’s same-sex marriage law was more random–put in place by the judiciary–than New York’s–put in place by the legislature), the different timing of these laws means that we can measure how other things change within the states. I imagine, as the data become fuller, that lots of papers will come out about how same-sex marriage influences gay ‘brain drain’, women’s wages, etc. It’s exciting to think about.