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Incremental versus Excremental Economics

Incremental versus Excremental Economics
Keith Rankin, September 20 2002

Orthodox neoclassical economics is incremental in its nature. Economic analysis is done by considering small changes at the 'margin' to such things as cost, utility (ie happiness), revenue or whatever. And neoclassical economists prefer to interpret economic history as a sequence of small, evolutionary, incremental changes.

On that basis, the opposite kind of economics, that sees change as a set of revolutionary steps, must be excremental rather than incremental. Either that, or excremental economics has something to do with the toilet. Or, perhaps, with both revolutionary change and toilets.

Certainly the completion of the feminist revolution will be when men do an equal share of cleaning the household toilets. The toilet, and who cleans it, has become a metaphor for the allegedly contemptuous attitude of males towards housework.

Is this a revolution that can happen? Just why is it that men have a reputation for eschewing toilet cleaning duties? Can ordinary incremental economics explain excremental inequality? Can we construct a marketplace within a simple woman-man household?

I don't think that men are lazier than women. (A recent NZ Herald article by Doug Stevens - Overall workload is shared equally between men and women - convincingly argues that men and women, on average, spend the same amounts of time working.) If we can assume that, then what matters is the process. How do men and women decides who does what? Orthodox (incremental) economics suggests that there will be specialisation of tasks between individuals. A theory of specialisation, though, is not enough to explain why women are more likely than men to specialise in toilet cleaning.

The toilet cleaning imbalance can be explained in part by the fact that men still do relatively more of their total work outside of the home, which means that, by subtraction, women do relatively more work inside the home. But this is no final solution to our problem. We need some explanation as to why men work more out of the home, and some guidance as to whether men will continue to work more outside the home.

One economic theory is called 'path dependence'. This means that the present is in large part determined by the past. So even if men started working more outside the home centuries ago as a result of some accidental or chance circumstance, that pattern will have been perpetuated. Certainly we have a tendency to believe that people should do what people do do. Anyone with a three-year-old child will understand that discovery about the way the world does work convinces them that that's the way the world ought to work.

But path dependence has its limits. It means that even revolutionary change may be slow. It does not tell us that complete changes (eg changes of work specialisation patterns) cannot happen.

We are left with two possibilities: either the revolution can be achieved, or that some innate difference between men and women will condemn women forever to doing at least 51% of all household toilet cleaning. I am inclined to the latter view. After all, even if men do 50% or more toilet cleaning, women will continue to squeeze toothpaste tubes from the middle rather than from the end, and will continue to buy more shoes than men.

How might a formal intra-household market work? Each adult could write a list of tasks they would like to have done that week. As each person would be deemed to have the same internal spending power; 'demand' points would be allocated to each task, with the total number of points being equal for each adult. For example if only one task is nominated by one adult, that task would qualify for all that person's allocated demand points.

The next step is to decide who will do what. Where men and women do equal work outside the home, they would expect to perform tasks within the home which add up to the same number of demand points. They would of course be free to negotiate, so that each person does the tasks that they dislike the least.

If they equally dislike toilet cleaning, they may do an equal amount of toilet cleaning over the year. Or they may not. If there are other tasks that women dislike doing more than men dislike, then men will trade, doing more of those tasks in return for less toilet cleaning.

The problem with this approach is that we do not write equal lists and do not allocate tasks as if there was a system for pricing housework. We are not very good at communicating our 'demands' to our partners, lest we be construed as too demanding. So we tend to do ourselves the tasks that we individually demand the most. Rather than communicate our demands, we tend to produce for ourselves things that we want more than our partners want, be they ironing, toilet cleaning, or whatever.

So the person who demands the most will end up doing the most. Not having a market does not mean that demand and supply are abolished. The problem of unequal housework that feminism has posed may be better understood as one of intra-household demand, and not, as supposed, one of unequal intra-household labour supply.

Could it be that women, on average, demand cleaner toilets than men? We could test this. We could survey samples of all-male and all-female households (including single-person households) to find out how often the toilet is cleaned in each. If toilets are cleaned more often in all-female households then we have our answer; women demand cleaner toilets. It is possible that women are unwilling to wait for men to clean the toilets, while men are content to have toilets cleaned less often.

Why might women demand more toilet cleaning than men? Probably for the same reason that they buy more shoes. They are different from men. Maybe not a lot different. But different nevertheless.

Incremental economics cannot explain everything. But it can offer a theory of demand for toilet cleaning. Equality will take place when (if ever) women demand fewer domestic services, not when men supply more.


© 2002 Keith Rankin

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