08
Jun
11

The Great (non-)Stagnation, gender politics edition

Alex Tabarrok reports that median male income has remained roughly constant (in real — that is, inflation-adjusted — terms) since about 1975, while per-capita (real) GDP has kept rising at a roughly linear clip.  People tell stories about this all the time, usually involving inequality (“honest middle-class wages have stagnated while filthy Wall Street plutocrats create phony investment vehicles and suck the marrow out of the economy’s cracked and roasted bones!”) or some other fairy-tale plotline.  And the graph sure lends itself to fairy tales:

When you ask people — smart, conscientious people even, like Alex — why they use male median income, you get answers like “to avoid family-size effects I use male income”.  Okay, close enough for a zeroth approximation I suppose.  Right?

Maybe not:

Whoa!  Instead of looking for a job, I should be looking for a sugar mama.  Neither Alex nor the BEA is suggesting that women make more than men at the median, mind, but I’ll put my money (er…) on a linear function outpacing a constant function any day of the week.

Of course, all this talk of gender income differentials begs for some narrative-loaded political commentary.  Here’s Matt Yglesias being his usual heartwarming ThinkProgress-y self:

[S]harply reducing the structural barriers to women’s participation in the labor force outside the teacher/nurse/secretary troika constituted a major liberalization of labor markets, on a par with a gigantic policy switch, even though relatively little of it was done through formal legislation. That ought to have made the American economy much more efficient. But instead of accelerating growth, what we got from this increase in labor supply was a loss of earning power by working class men.

(Emphasis added.)

Well… god dammit.  You let women into the labour market, and all of a sudden they start competing with men, and supply goes up and the curve shifts to the right and men make less money.  It’s almost as if the median male income of 1965, say, wasn’t an accurate reflection of market value so much as artificially inflated due to restricted supply.  Sucks for single men like me, I guess, but I’m sure it’s all for the best (particularly if I can find a nice empowered young woman to buy me power tools).  If you graphed real median income for immigrants, minorities, and non-union workers against real GDP, I bet you’d find a similar increase.

Meanwhile, Arnold Kling brings the PSST.  In particular:

Over the past several decades, women have moved into the market economy and up the income ladder. Marriage used to be an inequality reducer–as higher earning males married women who earned little or nothing in the market. Now, marriage is an inequality reinforcer, as higher earning males marry higher earning females.

Funny how that works: in Paul Krugman’s good old days, go-getter businessmen married dutiful secretaries, while in today’s dystopia of pathological inequality, go-getter businessmen marry go-getter businesswomen.  Yes, the latter is apparently less equal than the former.

The problem with real-world time series data is that they don’t have the goddamn common courtesy to conform with the stories we like to tell about them.  Ungrateful sunzabitches.

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2 Responses to “The Great (non-)Stagnation, gender politics edition”


  1. June 9, 2011 at 06:02

    Neither Alex nor the BEA is suggesting that women make more than men at the median

    Why would they. It’s pretty damn obvious.

    • June 9, 2011 at 15:10

      Yeah, assuming that both the male and female lines have the same zero (I would hope they’d point out if they didn’t), the median male in the 1950’s earned about 30-40% more than the median female, while in the present the median female earns about 50% more than the median male.

      Based on this and the often repeated statistics that gender differences in the average being the other way around I’d guess that this is caused by a combination of a small number of men a the very top pulling up the male average, and a moderately sized group of woman (stay at home mums, and part time workers) pulling the female average down. If that’s correct this would indicate that a female graduate with a useful degree that actually chooses to work will massively out-perform her male peers. Considering the fact that there are significant legal requirements for companies to discriminate based on gender, major gender differences in outcomes aren’t really surprising.


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