Monday, November 10, 2003

Labors of Love

A couple of recent posts by Jane Galt and Amy Phillips got me thinking about the division of labor within the household. Jane and Amy both note that women still tend to do the lion’s share of housework, despite the fact that many of them have full-time careers, but both also – admirably – regard the problem as an interpersonal, not a social or political, one. Says Jane:
The fact is, the people doing most of the child care and housework in this country are women (even though, I must point out, many of them also work as many hours as their husbands). I don't want to argue about why this is, for there are enough couples in the country fighting about who does the housework; I see no net benefit from bringing more people into the argument by raising quarreling about chores to the level of a Pressing Social Problem.
That is the right perspective, I think. But at the potential risk of my future mating life, I have to wonder: is there any reason to regard this as a problem at all?

The way I figure it, the division of cleaning duties in a household is essentially a bargaining game, akin to the division of a pie or (to take a particularly current example) the division of revenues between management and labor. One of the most robust conclusions of economic bargaining theory is that the division of duties, or shares of rewards, in such a situation is a function of the parties’ “threat points.” Put simply, your threat point is how well off you’d be if you didn’t bargain at all, thus preventing an agreement. The better is your threat point, the larger will be your share of the bargaining gains.

And in the case of household chores, there’s a darn good reason to think that men have a better threat point: men typically have a higher tolerance for filth. Amy puts it best: “[I]n my experience, women almost always notice when things are dirty and decide to clean them about a week before it occurs to the men in their lives that maybe something is dirty…” Exactly. When it comes to the cleanliness-leisure tradeoff, men apparently tend to place greater weight on leisure than women. We should therefore not be surprised to see a division of duties that places a larger share of cleaning duties on women, even if men and women have exactly equal bargaining power.

One could argue that men’s greater tolerance for filth actually gives them greater bargaining power. That would not be consistent with the terminology in the bargaining literature, but it is consistent with the vernacular. But it doesn’t vitiate my point. Men’s bargaining power, such as it is, comes not from legal privileges or monopoly power – it comes simply from their preferences. If men are willing to tolerate more filth, their net gains from an agreement equally dividing household duties would actually be smaller than women’s net gains from that agreement. The unequal division of duties that prevails in many households arguably represents an equal division of the net gains from household cleaning, given the lower marginal value of cleanliness to men.

All of the above is a relatively straightforward application of bargaining theory. The more difficult question, to which I don’t claim to know the answer, is the degree to which “linking” of seemingly distinct household bargaining games can change the results. To wit: can women effectively link chores to sex, by threatening to withhold sex when chores haven’t been done? If so, then the threat point may shift in a manner that (if popular stereotypes about tastes for sex are correct) disproportionately affects men, allowing women to shift a greater share of duties onto their partners. The difficult theoretical question here is whether the threatened linkage is credible, given that women, too, have been known to enjoy sex from time to time.


Valery said...

love is all around ! feel it!

celandine said...

Oh, this is entirely true. One interesting thought is that even between two female roommates, one will end up being the industrious "wife" and one the slob. My friend and roommate is simply a lot more bothered by mess than I am.

This seems to be an economic point, though there's probably a better way to quantify it: two people are unlikely to have exactly the same mess preferences, and if they're even slightly different, the stable solution is for the slightly neater person to do all the work. Strict equality can only be maintained with rules and nagging.

Star Fish said...

Good point Celadine, in evolution the same thing is to be exhibited as well - this will guarantee that evolution runs in the way that it should and at the same time will serve as a check and balance mechanism!