Who should do What?


Each country in the world is known for at least one major export product. For my own home I’m proud to say it is tulips. The Netherlands seems to be the best at producing tulips. We have the bloemenmarkt, the Keukenhof, yes there are flowers (mainly tulips!) everywhere.

To have a country with only one main export product (I’m sure there’s many more, but bear with) is a far cry from the self-sufficient societies we used to form. You gathered and hunted your own food. Moved around when necessary. Trading only really came about when tribes became more settled, specialized in different skills and had “left-overs” to trade with other tribes. Granted they were on friendly terms of course. But why trade at all? Most tribes had plenty of people, could they not cover all their bases themselves?

Now the standard economic theory of comparative advantage can go a long way explaining how trade today came to be (if we are blatantly ignoring tariffs, barriers and wars for a bit). If I have an apple orchard and exclusively grow apples, yet you herd animals and use them exclusively for their meat, there is an opportunity for us to obtain both apples and meat if we trade. I could of course go into herding animals myself, and you could always go into apple growing yourself. But to be frank, the trading is more efficient. Why? Because it would cost me much more to start herding than it costs me to trade the produce I would otherwise already grow. I have a comparative advantage over apples, and you have a comparative advantage over meat.

Now to illustrate how this would work beyond the individual level, let’s take the following two countries: Atlantis and Eden. Can you guess which products each nation produces? Exactly, boats and cars. Now, it takes Atlantis about 20 minutes to produce a boat. They are quite savvy when it comes to shipping materials. Making a car, however, takes forever. It takes 55 minutes for Atlantians to make a car. But, there is hope. Eden can produce cars in about 15 minutes. However, it’s a bit behind on boat technology so a boat takes over an hour, 70 minutes to be exact. So in one hour Atlantis can produce 3 boats, but only 1 car and a bit. Eden can produce 4 cars and not even a full boat. If they are on good terms, they might propose to each other a trade of boats against cars. 3 boats per hour, against 4 cars per hour. Because trading is cheaper (time-wise) and more efficient than continuing to create the products they are disadvantaged at, the two nations trade. This is known as trade through comparative advantage.

But how long will this trade last? Well, that is tricky. If neither of the countries ever decides to develop the technology to improve production on the good they are disadvantaged at, they’ll very likely always be dependent on the other nation. But countries do not seem to like dependencies much. They can’t rely on them during times of crisis, such as war or economic downturn. If they are capitalist markets, there will very often be a drive for innovation to ensure competitiveness, so if the exchange rate 3 boats: 4 cars is no longer profitable, negotiations have to start again, and there is no guarantee that those pan out. It might that because of this each country goes their own way (trade-wise that is). It might be that none of this ever occurs and trade continues to slumber on.

Trade can remain quite stable, granted that circumstances don’t change too much. But of course, circumstances can always change. And that is exactly the key issue here.

Now I am not a macro-economist, so trading between nations has never had my full attention. What does have my full attention is what happens on a more societal or even individual level. And there is a great trade-off of comparative advantages present within current society. The trade-off between working and child-rearing. And the nations producing? Men and women.

I think as a society we are (slowly) moving in the right direction of equal opportunities. But the last thing the equality movement needs is the effective undermining of female value. Now there is this statistic out there stating that for every $1 a man makes; women only make $0.78. Now there were some flaws in this report for sure: it didn’t take into account part-time workers properly, which are mainly women, and there were some doubts as to which sectors it represented. Regardless of its flaws, the report put forth a finding that most people (mainly women) were already aware of: their time is undervalued compared to their male co-workers. As such, women are at a financial comparative disadvantage when it comes to bringing home the bread.

Now if you (as a couple) have the luxury of sending out only one of you to bring back the bacon, so the other can run the household, rear the children, take care of other family members (all very valuable, yet often unpaid jobs, I might add) who do you send? The one that makes the most money, right? Because having only one income to rely on can be quite limiting. Well, the one to make the most money (or have the better prospects and growing opportunities is statistically not likely the woman… As such you send out the male part of the couple to make sure you can make ends meet. Talk about passive enabling. And that is given that you are a straight couple and have the option to send out a man into the business world. What is a lesbian couple with children supposed to do? Just settle for lower pay? What if that is not an option? Can you make an actual argument for a lesbian couple to have to turn two jobs, whereas a straight couple would have a higher chance of not having to?

Now to be fair, I doubt my generation will ever have to worry about this – the chances of one half of a couple not going to work are slim, very slim indeed. It just doesn’t seem very financially viable anymore, but I’ll let you know when I cross that bridge!

Going back to comparative advantage. Even if we do manage to fix the wage gap (here’s hoping…) society is still trying hard to keep women in their stereotypical roles. If it’s not through guilt-tripping and unwanted judgement, it is through arguing that women are, by nature, better caretakers. Women have evolved into being homemakers (I don’t think Darwin would be impressed by that argument, but hey). So as such, there is a comparative advantage to women being at home. Whether this advantage is real or actually based on hard science remains to be seen. I don’t think most “scientific” explanations of gender differences when it comes to “who should do what” are reliable, because ALL of them are biased. Each gender has skin in the game after all. If you ask me, this comparative advantage is a really twisted fairytale we tell ourselves and each other to promote complacency. Because an all-out female riot is just messy. And too emotional. And if we are rioting, who is taking care of the kids?!

I think the best bet we have of breaking through gender roles is acknowledging that comparative advantage is different for each and every individual. Some men are better at child-rearing than women are. Not because of their gender, but because of how they themselves were raised and the personal traits they had and have developed. Some women are better investors than men, again for similar reasons.

It is time to stop making an economic argument to maintain the patriarchy. Telling women to stay home because their male counterparts earn more and have better prospects will not change the situation we are currently in. It will maintain it, and might even worsen it. It is time to look back at the individual, beyond the gender. If I am more ambitious, more hard-working and my personality suits working long hours more, I should be the one to bring home the bacon. And like I said, when it comes to my generation, we’ll all be working till we’re 70 anyway. Who is raising the kids? We’ll probably all have to do our fair share. We are moving in the right direction. Slowly.

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