January 11, 2014

JAMES TARANTO: The Fallacy of the Middle Ground: A clarification, and more questions, on “gender equality.”

If X wants to raise taxes 20% and Y doesn’t want to raise them all, it doesn’t follow that a 10% tax hike would be the optimal policy. Such a framing of the question leaves out the possibility (among others) that it might be a good idea to cut taxes instead. Similarly, discounting by 50% the estimate of the economic gains from “gender equality” leaves unquestioned the assumption that such gains would inevitably obtain.

Further, it seems implausible to estimate the opportunity cost of forgone household work based on the income one realizes through paid work. To illustrate the point, take two hypothetical examples at the extremes of the income distribution: a woman who works as an investment banker and makes $1 million, and a woman who works as a store clerk and earns $15,000 (roughly a year’s earnings working full time at minimum wage).

Assuming that both women have the same number of children, is it really plausible to suggest that the former would be worth $500,000 as a stay-at-home mom and the latter only $7,500? Surely not. The magnitude of the differential captures the opportunity cost of forgoing paid work for household work, not the other way around.

And these numbers do not give a full picture of the women’s economic incentives. In today’s America, the banker-mother is likely to be married to a high-earning man, whereas the clerk-mother has a high probability of being the sole support for her family. If both women want to become stay-at-home mothers, the banker is in a much better position to do so. For the clerk, it may not be feasible at all. But by Jacobsen’s reckoning, the clerk who stays in the workforce because she has no choice thereby makes a small contribution to “gender equality,” while the banker who exercises the choice not to is setting back equality, and much more considerably.

Read the whole thing.