Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Today's reading list

- Frances Wooley, "Getting the Better of Becker" (1996)

- Marrianne Ferber, "A Feminist Critique of the Neoclassical Family" (2003)

- Barbara Bergmann, "Becker's Theory of the Family: Preposterous Conclusions" (1995)


  1. The Bergmann piece is pretty bad. There may be problems with Becker's analysis, but she completely fails to elucidate them, instead opting for a combination of incredulity and an annoyance that many economists disagree with her policy prescriptions. (Economics does not; any policy position depends on the values that underlie the position. Neoclassical *economics* does not advocate anything, but economists do).

    Becker's conclusion about polygamy (men able to marry multiple women, women unable to marry multiple men) being beneficial to women is obviously true, as long as women have the rights to determine who they marry. When those rights belong to someone else, the gains will go to whoever has those rights.

    The best criticism of Becker, I think, on these points is to argue that the distribution of rights and the allocation of those rights happen simultaneously in the real world. With a given distribution of rights, where women have the right to marry, polygamy simply increases the value of that right. Its effect on the distribution of rights is ambiguous; polygamy might systematically degrade the rights of women to choose their own marriage partner.

    Ferber nails a couple other good points in Becker's model construction. These criticisms, though, are of aspects of Becker's model where he deviates the most from methodological individualism and neoclassical orthodoxy; his 'deus ex machina' of the altruistic household (male) head is problematic, as it ignores much intra-household relationships that are as important to the study of the family as anything.

    1. I agree on Bergmann. I'm not quite sure this is right: "instead opting for a combination of incredulity and an annoyance that many economists disagree with her policy prescriptions.". I think she would have gotten to the right answer on polygamy if she just pushed her inquiry on that a little further (and for all I know she has elsewhere). What she suggested - that there is something going on in the social structure of these societies keeping women in such terrible shape - is basically the answer: they don't have marriage rights. If she pushed that a little farther she probably would have produced something similar. What I think is a shame is that she took that as a slight on Becker. That's my reaction to a lot of these things: of course there is more to say than what Becker said, and certainly they make a lot of good contributions, but it's harder for me to agree that Becker is as objectionable as they suggest.

      Woolsey, actually, veered more into the letting policy views dictate science territory in a few places than Bergmann did, in my opinion.

  2. Woolley finds it "preposterous" that good-looking, charming women are more likely to marry rich men than are homely harridans.

    Has Woolley ever actually glanced at the real world, or has her life been entirely devoted to reading feminist journals?


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