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Frances, I apologise for somewhat off topic question, but would you have any good tips for people studying gender at the macroeconomic level, producing models trying to explore issues such as 1. contribution of non-market production to GDP 2. impact of removing barriers to female labour market participation. I know that great Chad Jones paper on discrimination in general, but was wondering if you knew of work that is more specifically gender oriented (and possibly suitable for application to developing, not just developed, economies). thanks in advance for any tips

Luis - what kind of perspective are you looking for - mainstream, feminist, development econ,....?

Great article with a tough problem which will require highly granular data aimed at measuring factors previously not considered by economists. However you failed to give even a thought to the trans community in that the question how do you identify? may no longer have a binary answer in the future- as you pointed out with the aboriginal women identity is much more complex. GBA+ will require a well crafted dive into what forms an individual's identity,

Formerstudent - yup - and that's a huge data gap! Admin data would pick up some sex changes, but those still enforce gender binaries. Saul Templeton, http://law.ucalgary.ca/law_unitis/profiles/saul-templeton is starting to do some interesting work that's related to this area. See, e.g., his blog posts (linked to from his web site).

You say:

“Recall that every cost benefit analysis starts - either explicitly or implicitly - with a social welfare function. That social welfare function can be set up to value gains to the disadvantaged more than gains to the advantaged. For example, a social welfare function of the form:

V=log U1+log U2+...+log Un

explicitly values gains to people with low levels of utility more than gains to people with high utility. A well-done cost-benefit analysis, that incorporates distributional factors, can take into account disadvantage.”

These statements have the “ring of truth” to them but let's think about whether this utilitarian based approach to cost-benefit analysis makes any moral sense. Let's think about the social planners first-best outcome in a utilitarian framework. Really what's at stake here is that you are arguing for a transfer from more productive members of society to less productive members based on identifiable tags. Let us suppose for a moment that our benevolent social planner can directly observe productivity. In that case, equalizing marginal utility of consumption across individuals is the optimal policy. And if the utility for consumption and leisure is additively separable, everyone ends up consuming the same amount. But because some members of society are more productive than others, equalizing leisure will not be optimal – the social planner will demand that the more productive members of society must work more. Thus, the allocation that maximizes society’s total utility has the less productive members having higher overall utility than the more productive members. Do we really want this? Even little kids recognize that merit should be rewarded.

Why don't we just take Adam Smith a little bit more seriously? Let everyone earn their marginal product and stop with all these highly targeted redistributionalist programs which conflict with most people's basic sense of moral expectation. As for the ragged edge – absolutely, let's all help ensure basic human dignity. But we live in a country that already redistributes half the national income and yet we still have the mentally ill running around the streets. Do we really think that more bureaucrats doing more “proper” cost-benefit analyses for engineering society are going to help?

Avon: "Thus, the allocation that maximizes society’s total utility has the less productive members having higher overall utility than the more productive members. Do we really want this? Even little kids recognize that merit should be rewarded."

And bureaucrats do too.

Any attempt to maximize social welfare has to take into account the relevant constraints. A key constraint on tax/benefit policy is that the tax/benefit scheme should not make it attractive for high ability individuals to masquerade as low ability individuals. I.e. the tax/benefit system should not be so redistributive that highly productive people quit their jobs as computer analysts on Wall Street and instead become part-time math tutors living at home in their parents' basements. But that's the kind of thing that can happen if the tax/benefit system is designed so that less productive members had higher overall utility. This is why there are real limits to the amount of redistribution that social welfare maximizing bureaucrats and policy analysts advocate.

I would have expected you to have gone with a rights-based critique of utilitarianism. I.e. not that utilitarianism is impractical, but that it's morally wrong because focuses only on the ends (how happy people are) rather than the means (due process, respect for human rights and dignity, etc). Nozick, Wilt Chamberlain, etc.


You missed my point. I am not talking about a situation in which the social planner can't see productivity and taxes a proxy instead. I am talking about a situation in which the planner can see productivity directly. In this perfect utilitarian limit, it is impossible for anyone to masquerade as something that she is not. The planner taxes productivity directly – the Wall Street computer programmer will get the same tax bill whether she writes code or slacks off. To maximizes society’s utility, the planner will choose an allocation that gives the less productive members higher utility than the more productive members. Remember, the planner is trying to equalize marginal utility across individuals under a utility function that is additively separable for consumption and leisure – everyone must consume the same, but the social planner will require that the highly productive must work more.

If you are a utilitarian you would thinking this situation is fine, but it runs against most people's sense of fairness. Utilitarian societal cost-benefit analyses are normative laden calculations.

Avon - "but it runs against most people's sense of fairness"

Poking holes in utilitarianism is easy. The challenge - as the GBA+ folks have found - is coming up with some kind of alternative.

Can you articulate a little bit more precisely what "fairness" means to you? That, too, will be normative. Because what we're doing here is having a normative discussion about the best way to organize the world. Which is perfectly fine. That's what WCI is for.


Poking holes in utilitarianism might be easy, but society wide utility maximization so often gets presented as unassailable objective evidence based decision making. It is not, and we should be much more careful to point that out explicitly.

As for fairness, there is nothing remotely fair about the human condition. Geography has been most unfair in every respect. It was not fair that the shape of the continents – dictated by the randomness of thermodynamics in the Earth's mantle – led to isolated societies that could not develop, and an uneven distribution of useful plants and animals. It is not fair that one sex has to carry and bear children and yet has less physical strength. It is not fair that one sex has a chromosome so defective that it leads to host of sex-linked pathologies. There is nothing fair about planet Earth and there never will be.

In the face of all this unfairness, we can focus on the only thing that we really have a chance to shape – freedom. While Nature has been unkind to us, we don't have to be further unkind to each other in an attempt to right cosmic wrongs. On the GBA+ front, I believe that women have been oppressed and discriminated against for thousands of years, and I believe that the feminist movement is among the proudest achievements of humanity. For me, the message is not to judge people based on the properties of the groups to which they belong, but based on their individuality. I don't know if that's fair but it bends in the direction of freedom.

The freedom to be as unproductive as we like is quite a proposition. It makes me think of the current debate with doctor assisted suicide and to what extent individual freedom should be upheld. Within an evidence based system I believe that individual tax should be targeted as accurately as possible. It is not necessarily true that everyone must consume the same if they derive happiness differently from different consumption bundles. In the face of a tax on productivity Woolley did provide and answer- as long as the tax is non-distortionary the productive members will keep producing. As soon as your representative wall streeter decides to change his behaviour the tax is sub optimal. Just because the history of the human condition has ben unfair doesn't mean our designed systems must be.


Just to be clear, you would support the following: If the government could determine that you are a highly talented person, then the government should make you pay higher taxes whether you actually produced or not? That is your tax bill is independent of what you actually make but based solely on your potential. That is what the utilitarian approach demands in the set up I wrote about. Maybe that's fair in your eyes must most won't see it that way.

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