Emily Oster on the Division of Household Labor

by Reihan Salam

Emily Oster, an enormously inventive thinker, has a terrific article in Slate on how families should approach assigning various household tasks. Her basic insight is that we should draw on the principle of comparative advantage:

Imagine Finland is better than Sweden at making both reindeer hats and snowshoes. But they are much, much better at the hats and only a little better at the snowshoes. The overall world production is maximized when Finland makes hats and Sweden makes snowshoes.

We say that Finland has an absolute advantage in both things but a comparative advantageonly in hats. This principle is part of the reason economists value free trade, but that’s for another column (and probably another author). But it’s also a guideline for how to trade tasks in your house. You want to assign each person the tasks on which he or she has a comparative advantage. It doesn’t matter that you have an absolute advantage in everything. If you are much, much better at the laundry and only a little better at cleaning the toilet, you should do the laundry and have your spouse get out the scrub brush. Just explain that it’s efficient!

The Oster approach could resolve many simmering household conflicts, provided all parties are on the same page regarding relative strengths and weaknesses.