Tuesday, February 22, 2011

There is no market solution to the blankonomics problem

And obviously God has not listened to our prayers to end the plague:

Spousanomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes

From Yahoo's Shine:
Splitting the dishes, laundry, vacuuming, and other household chores may seem fair, but an unbending line right down the middle can lead to more friction, not less, because no one is good and fast at all things. But when couples adopt the economic principle of “comparative advantage,” which says it’s not efficient to take on every task you’re good at, only the ones you are relatively better at, couples can gain time for the things they really want to do, the authors write.

“In economics, having the comparative advantage in something means you produce it at a lower cost and really quickly,”* Paula Szuchman said in an interview with Yahoo! Shine. So if one of you is better at laundry, then do it. And if the other can do the dishes and clean up the kitchen faster every night, while the better cook cooks, go for it.

The authors, both accomplished journalists (Szuchman: Wall Street Journal and Anderson: New York Times, where she spent years covering Wall Street and delivered award-winning coverage of Merrill Lynch) decided the time was right for an economics-approach how-to for a successful union for a few reasons. One was a pretty tough first year of marriage for Szuchman, who was surprised it was harder than she thought to merge two lives and that “something as banal as housework could get in the way” of all the fun she heard people were having being married. Another was the prevalence of economic terms suddenly in the national lexicon at the time of the financial meltdown. All at once, terms like “moral hazard” and “loss aversion” were all over the news to help explain a seemingly unexplainable economic freefall. “There seemed to be some useful parallels,” Szuchman said.
If you can get beyond the incredibly annoying title (and I can think of no reason you should), the fundamental analogy is still fatally flawed. Economic approaches tend to be reductionist; they work best on problems with clearly defined objectives and components that can easily and accurately be assigned scalar metrics (problems distinctly unlike those involving relationships).

If the purpose of a marriage were to optimize the completion of chores, the authors might be on to something other than a band wagon here, but, of course, that's not why people enter into the institution. This is not to say that things like chores can't have a major impact on a relationship or even that the advice the authors give about dividing up chores based on competence is necessarily bad, but that even if the authors are right here, they are still using a terrible model.

A flawed model may occasionally, simply by accident, lead to an accurate prediction, but so can guessing and in one important way guessing is far superior. The model brings with it a sense of rigor and reliability, of intellectual seriousness. With a guess you know what you're getting.

* Maybe an economist out there can help me out. This sounds like absolute advantage -- "I can do A better than you." I thought comparative advantage was something like this "I can do A better than B and better than you can do A (or at least more profitably). Your B is as good or better than your A (though possibly not as good as my B). I should focus on A (because of the opportunity costs of B) and you should focus on B."

Anyone care to clear this up?

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