Success and Inequality


An article in the current issue of The Economist (February 8th-14th 2014) reports a hypothesis that sexual equality increases the gap between rich and poor households. That concept was analyzed in “Assortative Mating and Income Inequality”, a working paper disseminated by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a Cambridge, Massachusetts think tank.

The thesis is that the increase in female participation in high-end professional and managerial occupations has increased the tendency for those with similar earning potential to marry (or cohabit with) each other. The net result is a disparity in household incomes; they are becoming more unequal. The wage gap between highly and barely educated individuals has grown in our high-technology society. In previous times, say the 1950s and 60s, however, this would been mitigated because of households formed where men and women of disparate earning power were more likely to marry. Or so the paper postulates.

The Economist article states that “Nowadays, successful men are more likely to marry successful women. This is a good thing. It reflects the fact that there are more high-flying women. Male doctors in the 1960s married nurses because there were few female doctors. Now there are plenty.” So doctors marry doctors, lawyers marry lawyers, and so forth.

The phenomenon of assortative mating, that like tend to marry like, is not new. There is the occasional Cinderella, or even rarer, Downton Abbey’s Tom Branson, the chauffeur who married the earl’s daughter. But the “like” used to be more based upon social connections fostered by neighborhoods, rural communities, churches, ethnicity, and other social, rather than economic or occupational, characteristics. Today, similar occupational interests, at least among the more educated, is the determinative similarity.

“The wage gap between highly and barely educated workers has grown, but that could in theory have been offset by the fact that more women now go to college and get good jobs. Had spouses chosen each other at random, many well-paid women would have married ill-paid men and vice versa. Workers would have become more unequal, but households would not.”

I am not so sure this is valid entirely. While it may be statistically valid if the assumption that spouses would choose each other randomly was true, that assumption contradicts the whole associative mating theory and seems not to be so. Furthermore, in the past, our culture put a stigma on men who earned less than women, and it seems unlikely that many would have married one. While in those days, executives might marry their secretaries, it is unlikely that many factory workers would have married professional women, the few who existed back then.

The NBER paper is not long, but relies on a lot of esoteric mathematics to make its point. It seeks to find the Gini co-efficient (named for an Italian economist, and which is expressed as zero at total equality, and one at total inequality, i.e., one person owns all the wealth), for then and now. The study shows a Gini of 0.34 in 1960 and 0.43 in 2005 for U.S. household incomes – a significant change.
It certainly appears that sexual equality in higher education and the workplace influenced associative mating, and has been a factor in household inequality in income and wealth accumulation. That is not surprising to a close observer. When artificial, mainly cultural, barriers are removed, a person’s sex, except for some obvious physical characteristics, will not limit her accomplishment. Those characteristics, outside of biological reproductive functions, mainly relate to physical strength. Ayn Rand pointed out that the standard of living that a man’s muscles can provide is that of a medieval blacksmith; in today’s society, the rest of our living standard come from the minds of men and women.

The irony is that many of those who have been the most vocal for the advancement of women in education and the workplace have been part of the “social justice” crowd that decries inequality of income and wealth. Inequality in that regard has been with humankind almost from the beginning. It’s certain to continue until the last day.

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