Bargaining theory

Bryan Caplan says:

When the bachelor gets married, he almost certainly starts doing more housework than he did when he was single.  How can you call that shirking?

Megan McArdle says:

I’m no neatnik, but this is . . . daft…Does Mr Caplan think that "person with the lowest standards wins"
should be a general rule for marriage? Can women unilaterally quit
their jobs because they’re content with a lower standard of living, or
spend the retirement fund on shoes because they don’t mind spending
their golden years in penury?

I believe there is no simple Coasian answer to this problem.  Even if bargaining were possible the final deal would depend on the initial allocation of the property right.  That’s a sign that an apparently "small thing" (after all, how much do you spend on a maid, relative to family wealth?) is treated as having large symbolic importance.  And what does economics tell us about symbolic goods?  Symbolic goods usually have marginal values higher than their marginal costs of production; Americans for instance love the idea of their flags but the cloth is pretty cheap, especially if it comes from China. 

Going back to marriage, the theory of symbolic goods means the man should take the woman’s most irrational requests (flowers?  the placement of the toilet seat?) and go to the greatest lengths to satisfy them.  Expand output where marginal cost is low, which in this case refers us back to the gestures not the real efforts.  That’s part of the Nash bargaining solution, namely to make concessions where it costs the conceding party the least.  If there is a case for the man not cleaning more, it’s that greater net gains may be had from satisfying other, less rational demands of the complaining party, in this case the wife.

In other words, it is OK not to clean more, provided you insist on the contrary on your blog.

Oops.  Time to go clean up.


If either partner thinks the issue calls for utility-maximizing bargaining, the marriage is in trouble.

"He said we ought to bow when
we spoke to him, and say 'Your Grace,' or 'My
Lord,' or 'Your Lordship' -- and he wouldn't mind
it if we called him plain 'Bridgewater,' which, he
said, was a title anyway, and not a name; and one of
us ought to wait on him at dinner, and do any little
thing for him he wanted done.

"Well, that was all easy, so we done it. All through
dinner Jim stood around and waited on him, and says,
Will yo' Grace have some o' dis or some o' dat?'
and so on, and a body could see it was mighty pleasing
to him." -- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Tom, I would certainly think that if both partners think this calls for utility-maximizing bargaining, then things are going quite well - both know what's going on, they accept it, and you'll get a utlity-maximizing result. Hell, if you don't think that's called for how will I respect you in the morning?

If exactly one of them thinks it calls for this, this person should double check that their marriage is, in fact, a utility-maximizing bargain before they continue.

This is one of the biggest reasons why I do not like women. It seems that all of them have this too-much-cleaning-and-too-much-stuff characteristic and make men miserable about it. Now that I think about it, it's weird that I feel this way since my own mom was a lot less clean than my dad wanted her to be...

The weird thing is, in some of the couples I know, the woman complains the man doesn't do enough housework, and the man complains the woman doesn't provide enough sex.

There's a certain symmetry here, no? Whatever the right answer is about housework, shouldn't it be the same answer about sex?

All husbands should keep the lids down. Including the cover lid, so you don't have to look down into that bowl while brushing your teeth.

And, once it's a habit, you don't even think of it as an effort. Suddenly, when visiting female friend's apartments you get praised without even expecting it.

Also, if you always sit on the seat, you'll find you have to clean the toilet rim far less often. An added bonus: When you close the top lid before flushing, you prevent mists of bacteria from being spread all over the bathroom.

Phil, that makes sense to me!

As it is, I am doing more housework married than I would as a bachelor. I like empty space and bare walls; she likes to fill space with furniture, clothes, knickknacks and stuff.
As a bachelor with roommates, the place was often fairly messy, but it wasn't MY mess. "Don't touch other people's stuff" was drilled into my childhood a lot harder tan "Keep the coffee table clear" so if it wasn't my stuff, I didn't clean it up.

This seems to be an area that doesn't call for much jargon or thinking. If you're incapable of selfless acts of love, and need a rational thory for the things required, the intimate life isn't for you.

Opinions may differ, of course, but I don't think ontologies have universal application.

There is a reason why men would do much less housework than women even if there neatness ideals are not far off. If a women feels the need to clean when the house is at a 4 on the messy meter and her man feels the need to clean when the house is at a 5 on the messy meter, she will end up initiating the cleaning 100% of the time despite having a preference for neatness that is only slightly higher than her husband's.

I found “Jacqueline†'s contribution highly amusing, although it was short†¦ I hope she would post a more comprehensive one – the discussion is too dominated by guys. My questions to her would be:
- do you understand that the concrete meaning of “fairly† is at the center of the dispute? Who is to determine what is “fair† in this context?
- if the house cleaning tasks should be divided “equally†, do you agree that other tasks (home and car repairs, heavy lifting etc.) should also be divided so? What about the requirement that both parties have to contribute equally to the household budget (somehow)?

I would really like to hear more female voices on this topic†¦

I went back and read the original post. I think almost everyone is missing the most important point: "Furthermore, as some fascinating research shows, the hardest problems to cope with are those you blame on other people."

It just goes to show how hard it is for people (on both sides, i.e. men and women) to let go of blaming the other, and to see the problem from the other person's perspectives. Even when the other side reveals some potentially enlightening information about their perspective, we typically use that information to attack the perspective, and prove that our own perspective is superior, instead of taking the opportunity to use the information to search for a compromise that might satisfy both sides.

If that's true, that's only one more reason not to get married, as the research pointed to in the original post shows that our outcomes are better when we blame ourselves rather than others.

I think the key to women not getting "screwed" in the division of housework is to not do anything at the beginning of the relationship that they don't want to keep doing forever. I think too many women start out relationships by being on their best behavior, being extra nice to the guy by cleaning up after him, showing off their homemaking skills in the hopes it will encourage him to marry them, whatever. It creates unrealistic expectations.

I never established an expectation from my husband that I would do much housework, so I don't have to do much now. When we can afford it, we hire a weekly maid service. Otherwise, we just sporadically attack whatever area has gotten too gross for one of us to stand. He works from home so things tend to bug him sooner than they bug me. I can also usually outlast him in laziness.

The one area in which I failed to use this strategy was laundry. After we'd been dating for about a month, his laundry pile was so large that he had to go buy new clothes because he was out of socks and underwear. (He'd been spending all his free time with me instead of doing his laundry.) I felt sorry for him so I washed and put away all his clothes. To this day, he will not do any laundry, and just lets it pile up until I do it for him!

Very nice article! Thanks for this!

I'm no neatnik, but this is . . . daft...Does Mr Caplan think that "person with the lowest standards wins" should be a general rule for marriage?

Is it realistic ?

we should read more about the person's article

thank you for this information

Comments for this post are closed