November 25, 2012

"But luckily for me and my husband, I’m an economist, so I have more effective tools than passive aggression."

"And some basic economic principles provided the answer."
We needed to divide the chores because it is simply not efficient for the best cook and dishwasher to do all the cooking and dishwashing. The economic principle at play here is increasing marginal cost. Basically, people get worse when they are tired. When I teach my students at the University of Chicago this principle, I explain it in the context of managing their employees. Imagine you have a good employee and a not-so-good one. Should you make the good employee do literally everything?...

To “optimize” your family efficiency (every economist’s ultimate goal—and yours, too), you want to equalize effectiveness on the final task each person is doing....

To decide who does what, we need more economics....You want to assign each person the tasks on which he or she has a comparative advantage. It doesn’t matter that you have an absolute advantage in everything. If you are much, much better at the laundry and only a little better at cleaning the toilet, you should do the laundry and have your spouse get out the scrub brush. Just explain that it’s efficient!
Part of this idea seems to be that efficiency is a concept that appeals to males.  That is, efficiency is not only efficient as a principle for ordering the tasks, it's persuasive to the person you are trying to enlist in the tasks. And that appeals to the females: It's good for the relationship to use the rhetoric of economics.

67 comments:

edutcher said...

Most guys should understand the "You make more mistakes when you're tied" argument.

And guys love efficiency - look at all the fights when the wife wants to drive for 10 minutes looking for a "better" place to park.

rhhardin said...

She does know about comparative advantage, but not why.

Perhaps she like thes woman-better-at-everything idea and so has taken it up.

Even though the woman is better at everything, it still makes sense for the man to do some things.

It's not marginal cost related, though, nor tiredness. It's that you can get more output so that both parties are better off, the low grade toilet-cleaner trading his half a toilet for some laundry.

But the idea makes no sense at all unless the two people trade the goods they've made at the end, however, which isn't how a marriage works.

So basically she's an economic moron.

Bruce Hayden said...

Cute article, but makes some good points - though, as she points out, toilets are problematic. I have to clean mine on general principles, but she still oversees my work, again on general principles. Still don't get the reason that you should be able to eat off of it after it has been cleaned. Seems a bit of overkill to me. It is a toilet, for goodness sake, and will inevitably revert to form the first time it is used after being cleaned like that.

rhhardin said...

Beware of women who argue "I'm a [man's typical job]."

She isn't interested enough in the field to argue the merits, which she probably doesn't know, not being all that interested in it, except so far as it makes her a special woman.

edutcher said...

Oops!

s/b "You make more mistakes when you're tired"

Wasn't suggesting bondage or anything.

NTTAWWT

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that you get into fairness, at some point here, because women who work out of the house are unlikely to accept doing most of the housework these days, just because they are better at it. And, that means that if both parties want the marriage to succeed, then they both need to find a distribution of labor that seems relatively fair to both.

I think that her argument works with a lot of guys, because it is based on logic, and not on emotion. Guys don't do well with arguments based on emotion - even when the emotion is based on real issues.

rhhardin said...

The classic example of comparative advantage

The economics department head sends the secretary to deliver papers to the dean, even though the head walks faster than the secretary.

It's not tiredness or marginal cost related.

Chip S. said...

the idea makes no sense at all unless the two people trade the goods they've made at the end

She's talking about the production of jointly consumed goods. Trade is not the issue. The efficient allocation of time is the issue. Equalizing the marginal product of each person in each task is the efficient solution.

So basically she's an economic moron.

I realize that what's about to follow is a true ad hominem argument, but those are sometimes informative if not logically valid.

Emily Oster has a Ph.D. from Harvard, and is the daughter of two fairly well-known economists. She's also the spouse of one of the best young economists around. So her formal training, her home-schooling, and the theory of assortive mating all suggest that your assertion is incorrect.

rhhardin said...

Women are not better at housework.

They have rather a lower tolerance for chaos than men.

So they're the ones who get to say when the house is clean.

A side effect is that they're the ones to wind up doing the housework.

rhhardin said...

the idea makes no sense at all unless the two people trade the goods they've made at the end

She's talking about the production of jointly consumed goods. Trade is not the issue. The efficient allocation of time is the issue. Equalizing the marginal product of each person in each task is the efficient solution.


And comparative advantage then comes in how?'

The guy is better off letting her do everything.

Sam Hall said...

The basic problem with sharing the housework is that men and women have different standards. A man may think that vacuuming the floor once a week is fine, while she wants it done every day. Regardless of who wins this fight, somebody is going to be pissed off.

Chip Ahoy said...

I really am the best at unloading my dishwasher but only because I have a good system that works best for my kitchen. It's the one thing I hate doing most so for me it's an unfortunate conundrum.

Assistant dishwasher unloaders readily accept my direction, for I am truly master of that particular dishwasher and that whole space. I go, "I have a system." and their eyes light up, like "Yay, a system!" Then I go, "But it relies on this surface being cleared." And they immediately clear it to bring on the system and we proceed effortlessly from there. Because I know where everything goes, that goes there, there, there, there, there, there, while I'm doing the same and the whole thing goes twice as fast splendidly.

What's amazing is how many people want to do it. They want my place to be cleaned up after a meal more than I do. I'm good to let it go and get to it later, it always looks worse than it really is, but they mostly want it cleaned up now. So they force me into action at my own place when we do things here.

Chip S. said...

And comparative advantage then comes in how?'

Comparative advantage comes in like this:

Before any task has been done, they each have different marginal productivities in the various tasks. Assuming that their productivities decline at the same rate as each task is performed, the one w/ the higher productivity at, say, lawn care will wind up spending more time on it than the one w/ the lower initial productivity.

It needn't be the case that they'll each do some parts of every category of task, b/c the rates of decline in marginal productivity may not be such that they ever become equalized. In the standard explanation of comparative advantage, such as the examples you have in mind, each person's marginal productivity is constant, so they each specialize completely. But that does not have to be the case.

What we're basically talking about here is the difference b/w the Ricardian model of trade (what you're describing) and the Hechsher-Ohlin model.

Hagar said...

Does this sharing also extend to the yard work?
Such as mowing the grass and shoveling snow?

john said...

Cheaper by the Dozen was written in the 1940's.
Way ahead of its time.

john said...

Hagar said...
Does this sharing also extend to the yard work?
Such as mowing the grass and shoveling snow?


Or picking up the dog shit?

Dante said...

Is this an argument for keeping women barefoot and pregnant? Naked too, hopefully, as they are much better at that than men.

rhhardin said...

What we're basically talking about here is the difference b/w the Ricardian model of trade (what you're describing) and the Hechsher-Ohlin model.

But there isn't any trade at all in the present case.

Chip S. said...

Have you considered hiring a maid?

Joe said...

They have rather a lower tolerance for chaos than men.

Bullshit.

Over my lifetime, I've observed that while the messiest living spaces were occupied by men, the neatest living spaces were also occupied by men and for the average, if there is a rule, it's that men tolerate slightly more clutter, but women have more stuff, which makes it, for me, more stifling and chaotic.

I've also observed that female group relationships are far more chaotic and dramatic than with men. At college, the worse apartments relationship-wise were, by far, those occupied with women.

Chip S. said...

But there isn't any trade at all in the present case.

No kidding. But there is the allocation of productive activity.

What part of my previous explanation is unclear? I'l be happy to try to find another way to put it.

rhhardin said...

If there's no trade, there's no comparative advantage.

Chip S. said...

@rhhardin, you appear to be acquainted w/basic economics, so perhaps you've seen the basic theory of cost minimization. If so, you should be able to follow this argument:

Take a production function for a single output (household cleaning) that can be produced with some combination of two inputs (the labor of each of two people). The cost of producing that output is minimized when the ratio of the opportunity costs of their time in other activities is equal to the ratio of their marginal productivities in household cleaning.

It will be efficient for only one of them to engage in household cleaning if the ratio of their marginal productivities is constant. This is what you are assuming.

If, instead, it has the standard convex shape, then they will each contribute some labor time to household cleaning.

Apologies to everyone else in this thread for the high dorkiness quotient of these comments.

I like Michael Haz's analysis better, actually.

David said...

Guys figured this out long ago. Be a complete fuck-up at the stuff you don't want to do and you will get out of doing it.

Of course then the woman can also refuse, which means either (1) it doesn't get done or (2) you pay somebody to do it.

rhhardin said...

That's perhaps important and interesting but the lady said comparative advantage, which is trade-based.

You need the trade so that the guy has to do anything at all.

SunnyJ said...

In the 50's I lived on my Aunt and Uncles farm. They had 5 boys and 1 girl and me. My Aunt held her own..it was a partnership. She had a indoor washing machine and dishwasher before the automatic milker was in place. They were partners and there was work to be done..not womens or mens work...work to be done. The investments made her more efficient if you will and when she was efficient the whole place was! We're talking baking bread every day, 5-7 loaves here...from scratch.

I had no idea there was any other way to do things and was shocked when I joined the world of finance, presumed experts on finance and ROI...only to find out my breasts were an issue. I remember, as the first woman broker in the office, calling my Aunt and Uncle and telling them it was a good thing these guys weren't farming..they'd have lost their asses in a year!

rcommal said...

I never compile honey-do lists, and I don't do inspections. Seems to work for us.

rcommal said...

I find that if I don't treat my husband like an idiot, he doesn't treat me like one, and vice versa. Fairly simple principle, really.

rhhardin said...

I claim that she is remembering comparative advantage, and its classical situation where one country is better at everything, a country which she identifies as herself, the woman; and nonetheless both of two countries are better off each producing something - even though the male country is worse than the woman country at what it's producing, and trading for what they need with the other in the end.

Which has nothing to do with her situation, but she liked the woman being better at everything, and the man has to help anyway.

rhhardin said...

Her next move, as economist seeking to force trade, would be to withhold sex.

She has to remember competition, however.

Her absolute advantage is not only declining, but may not exist.

Chip S. said...

comparative advantage, which is trade-based.

You've got that backwards.

"Comparative advantage" is nothing more than a term for the ratio of two different entities' (people's or firms') marginal costs of production. It is an explanation for trade, but it does not require that trade be carried out in order for it to exist.

With prohibitive tariffs on imports, England and Portugal would each produce both cloth and wine, despite the fact that England had a comparative advantage in cloth.

rhhardin said...

"Comparative advantage" is nothing more than a term for the ratio of two different entities' (people's or firms') marginal costs of production. It is an explanation for trade, but it does not require that trade be carried out in order for it to exist.

No. That's competitive advantage.

Comparative advantage is more paradoxical, owing to the trade at the end leaving both better off even though the male country sucks at everything.

Chip S. said...

No. That's competitive advantage.

I invite you to search any standard microeconomics textbook at any level to find an exposition of "competitive advantage" as a serious concept.

It's a grab-bad of silly or obvious stuff wrapped up in a shiny neologism.

I vow to try to make this my final geek comment in this thread: All that's required for you to understand Oster's use of the term "comparative advantage" in her column is to see it as an explanation of the difference b/w her and her husband's marginal costs of each household task starting at zero and the efficiency condition calling for equality of their marginal costs at their respective stopping points.

This might lead to complete specialization in some tasks and nonspecialization in others.

I propose clearing space for commenters like rcommal, who have interesting observations about the real world, where household chores as well as sex are not fully outsourced to professionals.

Freeman Hunt said...

Have a messier house. Not terrible. Just not pristine.

Baseboards, for example, who cares? Clean them if they're dirty enough to notice. (That's very dirty.) Or clean them if someone is coming over.

Some cleaning tasks are fictional. Behind the refrigerator, for example. I saw a cleaning schedule that included this. I assume the author was trying to be mean to people who didn't know any better.

rhhardin said...

She still has to induce him to do something.

The deal with trade is that both sides are better off.

Lacking trade, there's no inducement for the guy.

rhhardin said...

That is to say, she's using what she remembers from comparative advantage, that each country is induced to do something even though one country is better at everything; and applying it where there is no trade, and no inducement.

Rusty said...

So Chip S. Does this comparative advantage mean that ,say, it is more efficient to have widgetts assembled in in some place where labor is cheap and unskilled. Like China. Where as it is more efficient to have persnickety precise high end widgetts made in a more highly industriaal country with more skilled labor, like, OMG! Here? Because we're good at it?

rhhardin said...

Or clean them if someone is coming over.

That's another thing women do.

Have people over.

Chip S. said...

I hope this comment isn't so geeky that it violates my earlier vow:

@rhhardin: Your most basic error is that you are treating a husband/wife pair as two independent decision makers instead of collaborators making joint decisions.

They are not unrelated individuals contracting w/each other for the performance of household services.

rhhardin said...

On the contrary, I'm pointing out that the lady is saying comparative advantage where it does not apply, namely here.

Chip S. said...

@Rusty, Yeah.

There's a study of the US furniture industry that shows that the large-scale producers were hurt by Chinese imports much more than small-scale firms producing high-end specialty furniture.

Chip S. said...

@rhhardin, please re-read the third paragraph of my 12:21 comment. It explains how you're misreading Oster.

rhhardin said...

That's nice but it's not comparative advantage.

Wiki has something, paragraph one

"In economics, the law of comparative advantage refers to the ability of a party to produce a particular good or service at a lower marginal and opportunity cost over another. Even if one country is more efficient in the production of all goods (absolute advantage in all goods) than the other, both countries will still gain by trading with each other, as long as they have different relative efficiencies."

Notice trade.

Chip S. said...

You don't seem to have read my 11:59 comment either, b/c it answers your Wiki quote.

Alex said...

If the man is good at fixing things(woodworking, plumbing, roof) then he gets a 100% pass from any chores.

rhhardin said...

Send in your comment as wiki paragraph two and see how long economists leave it up.

RichardS said...

Interesting that you presume that different things appeal to men than appeal to women. How far would that idea go? It could lead to the idea that different kinds of teaching techniques work better for each sex, and, ultimtely, perhaps, to the idea that different jobs appeal to women than to men.

ambienisevil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
McTriumph said...

I traveled for a living early in my marriage. My ex-wife was highly educated,book brilliant, and very successful at her job. She was also very efficient, Comet cleanser was very efficient at removing dead bugs from the hood of a new 3 series BMW and heel marks off a no wax kitchen floor. I miss her.

Chip S. said...

@rhhardin, why cite the wiki when there's Amazon? Here's a standard textbook. On p. 36 you'll find this definition:

comparative advantage: the ability to perform a given task at a lower cost.

Note the absence of a specific reference to trade. As will be clear to you if you read the associated passages, comparative advantage is used to explain trade. Trade is not a prerequisite for the existence of it.

This must be my last comment here for a while b/c, appropriately enough, some pressing household tasks await me. But I'll end w/ this example:

Consider the allocation of tasks b/w the CEO of a privately held firm and his or her secretary. Suppose that after a while they marry each other, and the secretary now works for no salary in order to save on FICA taxes, sharing in the profits of the firm instead.

Will the efficient allocation of tasks change b/c the CEO and the secretary are no longer "trading"?

Mitchell the Bat said...

I once heard a woman say: "Never underestimate the sexual attractiveness of a man handy around the house."

I thought that was pretty funny.

rhhardin said...

"The potential of gains from trade is determined by all our abilities taken together. The theory of how this all works is called the theory of comparative advantage, and it will be the major theme of this chapter."

first search result

Rusty said...

Chip S. said...
@Rusty, Yeah.

There's a study of the US furniture industry that shows that the large-scale producers were hurt by Chinese imports much more than small-scale firms producing high-end specialty furniture.

Thank you, Chip. I wanted to be sure I remembered it right.

Synova said...

In my experience a lot of the house-chore trouble comes from the fact that one person does think she is best at everything and then feels angry and resentful when he doesn't do his share of the chores to her standards.

Yes, of course, it can be the other way around, too.

mutecypher said...

If you visit the American Use of Time Survey that the article cites for time spent on household task, you will find the shocking statistic that, on average, men spend more time working (outside the home) than women.

You can also do your own analysis.

For example, if you take households with children under 6, and add up the time spent on household tasks, purchasing goods, caring for household members, and working - you will find that on average men in that group spend 8.66 hours/day on these tasks, and women spend 8.56 hours/day.

This suggest to me that men and women are already engaged in the comparative advantage mindset, but that it is being done on a broader and more sophisticated way than the author implies.

Of course, individual households may differ substantially from the averages.

wyo sis said...

Marital manipulation by any other name is still manipulation. At least be honest about your purpose.
I'm not saying it doesn't or even that it should'nt happen, but to imagine that you've escaped it by citing economics is a little self-delusional.

Hagar said...

Speaking of dishwashers; if your glasses, etc. get a cloudy surface with the EPA approved detergents of today, try scrubbing them with a sponge dipped in CLR occasionally.

And note, McTriumph's comment above is meant to be sarcastic. Using Comet or Ajax on a BMW, or any other prized artifact, is grounds for divorce!

leslyn said...

"Part of this idea seems to be that efficiency is a concept that appeals to males. That is, efficiency is not only efficient as a principle for ordering the tasks, it's persuasive to the person you are trying to enlist in the tasks. And that appeals to the females: It's good for the relationship to use the rhetoric of efficiency."

I didn't see that in her statement, so this analysis seems contrived to me.

I read her saying that her education and experience equipped her to deal with issues in her marriage without passive-aggression. p-a is a bad tactic used by both genders.

So, her education and experience helped give both partners an effective neutral playing ground. Rather a nice example.

Am I too literal in not seeing the passive-aggressive passive-aggression?

Ann Althouse said...

"I didn't see that in her statement..."

Yeah, my thing is to add value.

McTriumph said...

"And note, McTriumph's comment above is meant to be sarcastic. Using Comet or Ajax on a BMW, or any other prized artifact, is grounds for divorce!"

Like I said, ex-wife.

Erika said...

Hagar, also Lemishine is a gift from the gods. And it can be conveniently purchased through the Amazon portal found at the top of the screen, which sends the message to Professor Althouse that you appreciate her blogging!

MadisonMan said...

If you have to argue about who is doing what, then you are a control freak.

Clean what you want, and leave the rest. If it's not as clean as you want, adjust your feelings.

Anglelyne said...

But luckily for me and my husband, I’m an economist, so I have more effective tools than passive aggression.

Hey, you know what's even luckier for me and my husband? Neither one us being so intellectually and emotionally stunted and deformed that we're reduced to the range of behaviors between "passive aggression" and "autistic loon" in dealing with everyday life.

To decide who does what, we need more economics.

Only because this is an economist can we assume that this is not tongue-in-cheek.

sagoldie said...

My principal objection is to the idea that the division of labor can be settled by evaluating the alternatives on a single dimension -- economic efficiency or some such. Where do factors such as personal preference, and, as some other posters have noted, the quality of results.

The point is that what's needed and negotiation based on multiple competing and sometimes conflicting objectives which is to say that one should not expect that right "answer" can be computed.

JRPtwo said...

Oster rejects (1) appeal to fairness, (2) appeal to feminism and related statistics and (3) passive aggression in favor of (4) economic efficiency. I, too, read this to say that her spouse would be more convinced by the efficiency argument than the others in part because he is male.

We can get the trade component of comparative advantage by starting with the spouse’s agreement that each will work a certain number of hours. Then comparative advantage explains why they might come to an agreement that has specialization. I agree with rhhardin that Oster needs something like this to make comparative advantage applicable. I suppose the “trade” might come in the form of “I won’t let you eat the food I cook if you don’t do the dishes” and vice versa.

Oster’s increasing marginal cost argument is just a way to use efficiency to explain each spouse putting in some time. But, again agreeing with rhhardin, this isn’t normally part of comparative advantage. It seems like a false and contrived way to explain both working. They may both work because they want to help each other, because they think it’s fair, or because they want to induce each other’s efforts.

Finally, Oster’s model misses a lot by simplifying away all production inputs but time. She loses the point that one party my be good at dishes but hate it, or be slow at cooking but love it, or prefer to clean to their own standards even if they don’t like cleaning.

rhhardin said...

or because they want to induce each other’s efforts.

The Chinese hire whippers to whip themselves if they don't work hard enough.

A team forms a business hauling barges up the river. To keep the others from slacking off, they collectively pay a whipper to make sure everybody works. The whipper is their employee.

This would be good for housework too.

deborah said...

@ Anglelyne

Giving her credit for being an autisitc loon is an insult to autistic loons everywhere. I didn't read the article; the off-putting bit quoted was sufficient.