Monday, March 12, 2007

Slobbiness as Fairness?

It is a fact* that women do more domestic work in heterosexual couples than their menfolk. Matthew Yglesias argues -- rather dangerously -- that this is not just exploitation: much of the effect can be explained by male tolerance for living in filth.

The result here actually shows that there are two different things happening here. One is that men and women have different ex ante levels of cleanliness. Single women do 10 hours of housework, whereas single men only do seven. A perfectly equitable division of labor, should result in a couple doing a combined seventeen hours and then splitting it evenly -- 8.5 hours each.

That, however, doesn't happen. Instead, you see male shirking to the tune of 3.5 hours -- cutting the male second shift down to five hours a week, and boosting the woman's up to 12 hours. But then women put three more hours of housework in per week. The effect of those three additional hours is to raise the couples' cleanliness standard up to the 10 hours per week per person maintained by single women.

Scott Lemieux puts an ostensibly feminist spin on this ancient male argument:

I continue to disagree with the implied solution of creating equality within domestic work norms that are an unholy marriage of 1)patriarchy, 2)the related assumption of one partner devoted full-time to domestic work, and 3)general cultural assumptions that unstructured leisure time is somehow immoral, and instead think that it makes more sense to try to achieve equality within a more rational allocation of priorities that doesn't take 50s-bourgeois standards of tedious domestic busywork as a given. An additional advantage of my idea is that I think gender equality will be much more viable if the total work is reduced.

I'd like to show some gender solidarity here, but I am afraid that I can't agree with the implicit normative premises either Matthew or Scott employs. If the position of our sex is to be vindicated at all, it must be on some other grounds.

I'll start with Scott's assertion that modal female norms of cleanliness are the product of patriarchal indoctrination. Now, the Pithlord is not in principle opposed to all arguments that depend on endogeneity of preferences or false consciousness. But I agree with Karl Popper and Jon Elster that such arguments require microfoundations. If the patriarchy acts, it acts through agents. And in my household, the only plausible agent of the patriarchy is me.

Now, in seven years of cohabitation/marriage, I can count the number of times I was the first to say, "Jeez, we'd better do something about the [vacuuming/ hamster cage/ bathroom." And even when I add the number of times my lovely wife said, "Let's leave that for now" I still get a number that children are expected to know if they want to graduate from kindergarten without being diagnosed with learning disabilities. On the other hand, if I add all the times that I have suggested that a lower standard might be appropriate to the complaints about our squalid living conditions from my life partner, I would get a number that would make Roger Penrose nervous.

So if average cleanliness (which we have occasionally achieved) is a patriarchal norm, it is being enforced by the feminist grad student and not the cranky Red Tory male lawyer.

Personally, I prefer a pop evolutionary psychology explanation to a social constructionist one. I think there's general agreement that in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation, women spent more time in high density settlements (at least by the standards of the day) and with poopy babies than did their more nomadic menfolk. Ceteis paribus, infectious disease was a bigger problem for women than for men. It is a quick theoretical line to the funky smell of the contemporary frathouse.

The best argument for a social constructionist approach is that the capacity of women of Scott and my generation (let alone Yglesias's) would cause their grandmothers heart attacks. (The same could be said of our grandfathers if they knew how bad we males are at fixing things.) No one keeps house like they used to. Two points. First, behaviour isn't just about preference -- its also about costs, including opportunity costs. The opportunity cost of time for women in our generation and social class is quite a bit higher than it was fifty years ago.

To the extent not only cost but preference has changed, I would say that this can be consistent with sociobiological theory. Our minds tend to define things relatively, not absolutely. It could always be the case that the average women would prefer a cleaner world, while learning to accept that it isn't going to be much cleaner than it is.

Further, and in any event, even if Scott is right that female preference for cleaner living conditions is the result of socialization by a sexist society, I don't think this has the normative implication that a greater degree of slovenliness than current heterosexual couples achieve would be more rational. On a purely instrumental view of reason -- which eschews evaluation of ends as opposed to cost-effectiveness of means -- each gender's preference is as rational as the other. As far as justice is concerned, preferences that derive from socialization are entitled to as much respect as those that come from biology. On a more pre-modern view of reason as encompassing pursuit of the Beautiful, the True and the Good, the estrogen-laden position seems to win on the first count.

It's true that a just solution might involve bargaining to a less clean solution than the female partner would prefer. But the disutility that creates for her should count in the balance just as much as the pain of extra work or lost leisure time.

Yglesias makes a still-more-subtle error. He tacitly takes it as just if the relationship leaves the woman no worse off than she would have been without it. If it would be OK with Pareto, it's OK with Matt. The trouble is he doesn't take into acount relational contract theory. Paretian optimality works as a criterion of justice for a one-off transaction: if both parties are better off and no one else is worse off, then we have as much justice as we're going to get in this vale of tears. But as Oliver Williamson or Dr. Phil could tell you, a relational contract involves investment in relationship-specific human capital. The mere fact that a party to such a contract would be better off sticking with it then exiting doesn't show that the contract is fair. So even if a woman would do about the same amount of housework if she were single, there is still the possibility of injustice if the male partner takes most of the economic surplus created by the relationship, even if there is sufficient surplus left over such that exit is not rational.

So just doing less housework or comparing women in couples to single women won't solve the problem of justice. But it could still be the case that at least some relationships in which women do more housework are just. Let us grant -- as I think Yglesias and Lemieux would in other contexts -- that a division of labour is not in itself unjust. The real issue is not whether each party gets the same specific benefits and burdens out of a relational contract (indeed, if that were the case, it is unlikely that the relational contract would exist in the first place), but that the sums of benefits and burdens be approximately equal. A traditional division of labour -- with the man in the coal mine and the woman doing domestic drudgery -- might fit the bill. The problem is the unequal distribution of unpaid labour when there are similar expectations of paid labour. (Even if there is fairness in the relationship, there may be unfairness in relationship breakdown if -- as is often the case -- the woman has paid for domestic work and childrearing by lost ability to earn income).

The trouble is distinguishing between division-of-labour as increasing the overall wellbeing of both parties and acting as a rationale for male exploitation. I don't have a solution to this, but I'm pretty sure putting women in charge of quality control is welfare-enhancing.

*The empirical facts in this post, such as they are, are British, but I'm sure that a bit of googling would show the same in Canada or the US. But I have to change the baby.

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