What's Wrong with Housework Division by Comparative Advantage?
You may have heard of a new book, Spousonomics, that applies priniciples of economics toward creating a harmonious and effective marriage. I haven't had a chance to read Spousonomics yet, and look forward to doing so. But I've read excerpts and a bit about several of the key points the authors are saying in the media as they launch their book. Some of their messages are definitely intriguing, such as their attention-grabbing idea that couples will have more sex if they stop trying so hard to make it romantic or to carve out a big chunk of time for it or guess whether their partners are in the mood...these are barriers to just doing it. Could be some truth to this!
But another one of the authors' key messages is rather bothersome. It's what they term 'comparative advantage' as the correct way to divide up the household chores. Comparative advantage, to paraphrase, is the concept that each partner should do the chores he or she is best at...with a secondary principle that he or she should take on the chores that are most personally enjoyable or rewarding (or perhaps that are most important to each partner). So, for example, if Mom is a great cook and not so good at paying the bills, she should be the family cook; if Dad is good at finances and not so smooth in the kitchen...well, you get it. The result, they explain, is efficiency - in both time and money - since each partner can do their own skill-matched tasks more quickly and accurately than if they shared these duties. And this chore division avoids scorekeeping and judging, since Top Chef Mom isn't lording it over Crappy Cook Dad when it's his turn in the kitchen and Financial Wizard isn't angry with Mush-for-Brains Money Slob over forgetting, again, to pay the electric bill on time.
To illustrate this principle, the authors write about a few couples in their book who don't employ this type of chore division - showing us how miserable they become. One of their example couples is a poor, hapless pair who have decided to share every single chore 50/50. They scorekeep, they bicker, they judge each other. They're a match made in Hell. If they would only learn to divide by skill level, the authors explain, they would be so much happier. Really, it sounds so convincing - doesn't it? I bet you weren't fooled though. I bet you know a lot of what I'm thinking....I'm thinking first of all that their example 50/50 couple has got to be a figment of their imagination. Perhaps there are couples who operate like this, but we've yet to meet them. And we agree that their lives together can't be very fulfilling. They are a great example of why equal division of chores for equality's sake is a pathetic quest. And of course you don't need a reminder that ESP has nothing at all to do with dividing any particular task - nevermind every single task - down the middle. Or that ESP is not about 'fairness' (although this is certainly a byproduct of equal sharing) but rather about equal opportunity to share the joys of all domains of life together and have access to a balanced life.
But on to much more important things. I'm also thinking that the quest for peak efficiency that seems at the core of 'comparative advantage' misses so much. The business tenets that the authors borrow their economics priniciples from are focused on peak efficiency - turning out the most number of widgets in the shortest time, and making the highest profit. But in relationships, obviously, 'profit' includes more than money; more valuable than money are concepts like love, connection, meaningful contribution/significance, belonging, giving. And sometimes, we need to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to attain more of these values. Not always, but enough to make 'comparative advantage' only one of the reasons to decide how to share a given chore. Nevermind the idea that, mathematically, 'comparative advantage' only works when a couple is perfectly matched in their opposing skills; two chefs with equal interest in cooking for their family but equal distaste and supposed incompetence in cleaning the toilet are out of luck.
The biggest global problem with 'comparative advantage' is that it stunts evolution. It keeps things the same. That's because if Mom is good at cooking today (given her upbringing as a typical American girl who learned to cook from her mother and has internalized the idea that she should know how to cook and take primary responsibility for this as a mother herself), she'll only get better and better with experience. And if Dad was raised as a typical American boy with little emphasis on kitchen skills, he won't be quite as good as Mom at the outset of their marriage, and their skill gap will widen over time if he's never expected to take full responsibility for this family task. The many exceptions aside, we're left with mothers cooking across the country if we simply use skill level as our guide. Dads will miss out on the joy of providing good, healthy, tasty food for their partners and children on a regular basis, digging in deep to seek out recipes, buy the ingredients, learn the chopping and sauteing, and getting the meals on the table at a reasonable time. Moms will be stuck with the neverending job of meals, meals, meals. The same goes for many other culturally gendered tasks.
Another problem with 'comparative advantage' is that it takes the easy way out. The authors proudly tell us that it avoids the neverending arguments about whose turn it is to do what and who does a better job of folding the towels. Well, yes, that's true. But it also avoids the meat of marriage - the communication that keeps us close and keeps us peers over time. Their reasoning is a bit like saying that we ought to take separate vacations because then we won't have to fight about where to go. I'd much rather learn to work together as a team to solve these issues than find a workaround that avoids needing to talk with one another. The key, however, is in the word 'team.' Couples who get stuck in the chore-division wars - focusing on who does what and what their partners aren't doing (or are doing wrong) - will entirely miss the rewards of ESP.
If they first decide together that they want equality and balance, and then get on the same side of this goal, the rest is...well, not entirely easy, but 100% doable and worth every discussion. In fact, the ESP couples we've interviewed for our book and met over the years almost uniformly gush about their love for each other and about how their high level of communication is one of the things they treasure most in life. And, for me personally, the idea of separate-but-equal is sad...I want to get in close with Marc on everything it takes to run our family. Even if one of us isn't as adept at a specific task.
Now I'm sure the authors of Spousonomics don't really mean that Dad can't ever cook and Mom can't touch the bills (to stick with our example). So I will put in a plug here for something I'll call 'attenuated comparative advantage.' It's the idea that interest level and importance level can play a lovely role in deciding who does what - just not as the only deciding factor. If Mom loves to cook and Dad doesn't really enjoy it on your average day, then it makes good sense to allow Mom more kitchen time. We do this sort of thing all the time, as do all other ESP couples. But we do so with a few important caveats in mind:
- Pinchhitting: We aim to give both partners at least enough competence in every task that they can cover for each other when necessary, without a lot of direction or supervision. This allows both the freedom to not be fully saddled with any task, and we think this gives them mental and emotional breathing room.
- Keeping it interesting: We love to switch up our tasks from time to time to keep learning from each other. Marc has been doing our bills, for example, for quite awhile now, and I'm sensing that I'm losing touch with this task. My internal alarm is softly ringing - time to get a lesson in his techniques and then take over some of this so I get back to remembering I'm perfectly capable of tending our finances.
- Watching the balance: Because ESP couples value balanced lives that give them plenty of access to time with their kids, caring for the home, tending their careers and for their own personal interests (and as a couple), they make sure to purposefully watch for imbalances in overall sharing within any of these four domains. Not to watchdog each other or scorekeep, but because they know their best lives come when they can share each of these domains - overall - about equally. If 'comparative advantage' leads to Mom getting 90% of the childraising, for example, something is wrong with the balance and the couple can address this together as a team.
- Scrapping the stupidity: Full-on 'comparative advantage' invites the use of the phrase "but you're so much better at it than me, honey" as the perfect excuse to get out of a task. There may even be some truth to this at times, but it keeps both partners trapped in role-based marriages and keeps us from fully, intimately appreciating what it takes to do any task. It also reinforces the myth that doing something better is the best idea. Who cares if the towels are perfectly folded? Maybe someone does, but maybe that someone would get to embrace a far more important life lesson in learning to let go instead - if he/she surrendered the towel folding to the 'less-capable' spouse. Every single household task is fully doable by able-bodied partners, and I'll give you the million dollar challenge to prove it: if you or your spouse is offered a million dollars tomorrow to do a 'good enough' job at any task around the house, what do you think would happen?
- Making sure efficiency is not your only goal: Efficiency is great - we love it. Everyone does. But it isn't everything, and sometimes it is a false god. If we operated only by efficiency, why would anyone ever go fishing, plant a vegetable garden, or knit a sweater. These things take tons of time and the end result is much more expensive than the typical store-bought equivalent. Indeed, why would the junior parent ever embrace spending time with the family when the more efficient spouse could accomplish so much more?