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Most of the time, we think about marriage as a personal relationship. We strive to keep the spark, resolve  the inevitable conflicts peacefully, protect our “couple time” and carve out some “me time.” Much less attention is paid to the other transactions that can occur in marriage, such as raising the children, providing the shelter, bringing in money or planning for future expenses. Long gone are the days when families sought “a good match,” forging strategic partnerships to enhance political influence, raise armies, increase property or wealth. Now we marry for love. But the material side of marriage still marks the interactions between a husband and wife in ways worth thinking about.

Ezra Klein is often in the news writing about economic policy.  Recently, this excerpt from one of his columns appeared in the Washington Post.

In the traditional view of marriage, write economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “the joining of husband and wife yields a more productive firm, because it allows one spouse to specialize in earning income from working in the market, while the other specializes in the domestic sphere. The division of labor allows for greater productivity, just as it does in the workplace. The different skills required for these separate roles provide an economic rationale for the advice your grandmother may have offered, that ‘opposites attract.’” Romantic, right?

But in recent decades, the marriage-as-firm view has crumbled — and not just because social mores have changed. “Washing machines, dishwashers and microwave ovens have reduced the value to the family ‘firm’ of employing a domestic specialist,” say Stevenson and Wolfers, who are, themselves, married. “Cheap clothes can be imported from China, rather than sewn at home. Healthy meals can be purchased from the freezer at Trader Joe’s. What’s more, legal and social changes have broken down many of the barriers keeping women out of the labor market … All these developments have increased the opportunity cost of having a spouse stay home, because that spouse now has greater value in the marketplace.”  (emphasis added)

Determining  the value of paid employment is very straightforward. The amount of compensation for the work performed pretty much settles the question. But fixing the worth of an activity that the marketplace  doesn’t value is harder. Take family care – how much do your children gain by being loved, read to, bathed, taught, fed and raised by you full time? Is it worth what you could have earned had you worked flat out and full time for 18 years? Is it worth more? The marketkplace doesn’t have a number for that. The only way to measure it is what it may have cost you in terms of wages you could have earned had you not been busy doing full-time care work. The opportunity cost, in other words, is the dollar value of the earnings you passed up.

The limits of the market’s ability to accurately measure activity values are what makes life so perilous for parents or other family caregivers. The economy tracks the exchange of money for goods and services. This narrow view punishes any other activity and drives the devaluation of family care. Personal transactions between parents and children, or adult children and elderly parents, or spouses, take time, energy and effort, and result in a variety of positive outcomes. But in monetary terms, there is no price tag, no accounting, for what is given and received. It simply falls outside the record.

It’s not that family care is non-productive. It is actually the MOST productive activity, and no society could endure without it. The failure occurs in the marketplace, which can’t find a way to assign a value to it. So paid work takes priority, pushing everything else to the margins as less important, less deserving and less desirable.  Consequently, those engaged in family care are widely perceived as less important, less deserving and less desirable. No leap of imagination is needed to get from women’s connection to family care to the bottom of the gender pay gap, family responsibility discrimination, and disproportionate rates of poverty for women in old age. It  costs women individually an awful lot. It costs the country a great deal more.

We need a new sort of economics that can capture and assess the value of the whole range of human activity, not just the exchange of currency for goods and services.  Measuring one activity solely in terms of the extent to which it prevents you from doing another simply promotes a race to the bottom. We reward only paid employment, and we impoverish those who nurture, comfort, tend to and care for others. Is this sustainable in the long term? Is it the best way to promote the individual achievement of human potential? Is it fair?

’til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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