Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Markets and Sex Selection

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber responds to a British agency’s recommendation that sex selection (i.e., parents deliberately using genetic screening or other devices to assure the sex of choice for their children) ought to be banned. Bertram’s reaction is dead-on:

The HFEA [Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority] is arguing (and the Secretary of State is agreeing) that acts should be prohibited where a majority opposes them unless permitting those acts would have definite benefits for society at large. But this is to get the burden of proof completely the wrong way round. Whatever majorities think about some aspect of individual conduct, in a liberal society it has to be clearly demonstrable that an action would be harmful if prohibition is to be justified. No such justification has been produced.
Exactly. Moreover, I’m curious as to what the alleged harms might be. Setting aside the mere desire to avoid “playing God” (whatever that means), I’m guessing the aversion to sex selection is driven by fear of the Chinese syndrome. In China, parents strongly favor male over female children, resulting in a high male-to-female ratio that has (supposedly) been the source of various social problems. But is there any basis for thinking a similar effect could occur in the U.K., or other industrialized Western nations? Setting aside the cultural differences, at least two other factors set China apart: First, the “one-child” policy makes parents choose between male and female children instead of having both. Second, much of China is still underdeveloped and rural, and in that context, children are typically valued primarily as farm hands.

In any case, I wonder if there could be a market solution to a hypothetical shortage of women, if one actually occurred. In market systems, when a valuable asset becomes scarce, its price (unless constrained) tends to rise, thereby attracting more supply to the market. Relatively abundant assets get lower prices. Now, the mating market differs in important ways from other markets, not the least of which is the apparent absence of prices. Still, there are other forms of compensation. If parents care at all about their children’s future welfare, they will consider their children’s likely mating prospects. If women are in short supply, prospective parents choosing the sex of their child will know that a male child has a greater chance of not getting a mate, and thus a greater chance of having a less than fulfilling life. A female child, on the hand, would have greater options and the ability to pick and choose among potential suitors. If the disparity were great enough, grown female children might even be able to command “reverse dowries” for the support of their families.

Arguably, there could be an externality problem that thwarts the market solution. Parents who choose to have a female child would create benefits for all potential future suitors. Of course, competition among males would tend to transfer such benefits to the female side of the market if females are in short supply. But if the female child had the right to choose her mate without demanding compensation for her parents, then the daughter could capture all the benefits created by her parents’ choice. For those benefits to be experienced by the parents, they must feel some satisfaction from their daughter’s happiness. Without such familial attachments, they lack a strong incentive to have female children, and thus the market solution doesn’t work as well. Still, I think my argument indicates a natural limit to the extent of sex selection, because eventually the higher returns to female children would induce sex selection in the opposite direction.


Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Backwards Induction and the Death Penalty

The logic-and-decision-theory puzzles that have been getting some attention in the blogosphere lately (from me, for example) reminded me of this story told to me by Jim Dow -- yes, the same Jim Dow who posts on this blog sometimes. But I’m sure he won’t mind my stealing his story (especially since he didn’t make it up anyhow).

An economist was sentenced to die within the next seven days. He was not told his day of execution, but he was informed by the King that whichever day it was, the economist would be surprised when it happened. Noting that the current day was Sunday, the economist thought to himself, “Well, I definitely can’t be executed next Sunday, because if I haven’t been executed by Saturday, I’ll know that Sunday is my execution day, and thus I won’t be surprised. And I can’t be executed on Saturday, either, because if I haven’t been executed by Friday, I’ll know that Saturday is my execution day (Sunday already having been eliminated), and thus I won’t be surprised.” Proceeding along these lines, he reasoned that he couldn’t be executed on Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday, or Monday, either. He therefore concluded, happily, that he would not be executed at all.

On Monday morning, to his great surprise, he was executed.


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.