Gender Tax

Last week I noted that, in an hour of searching, I couldn’t find any defenders of the economic-theory-supported tall tax, even among economists.  Today I report it was easy to find supporters (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) of Alesina, Ichino, and Karabarbounis’s proposed man tax, also well supported by economic theory:

Gender Based Taxation … changes spouses’ implicit bargaining power and induces a more balanced allocation of house work and working opportunities between males and females. Because of decreasing returns to specialization in home and market work, social welfare improves by taxing conditional on gender. When income sharing within the family is substantial, both spouses may gain from [it].

So riddle me this: if careful economic analysis had instead favored taxing men less than women, how many supporters do you think that proposal would have found, even among economists?  And what does that say about how much economic theory influences economists’ policy conclusions?

P.S.  The best "man tax" is not a fixed tax amount for being a man, nor is the best "height" tax a fixed amount per inch of height.  Instead, each gender or height has a different income tax schedule.  So there is no special reason to fear some "couldn’t pay the tax."

Added 20Dec:  Here’s a paper on a more general tax on genetic features. 

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  • pontus

    Couldn’t you draw the conclusion from Alesina’s et al. study that benefit payments (UI for instance) should simply be lower for women? This is all about the difference in value between employment status, so that should work too.

    But maybe that is not so cool to say?

  • Zubon

    Do I sense the hand of Bryan Caplan here?

    With apologies for not having read all the links from both posts, how much do the height and gender taxes overlap? Men tend to be taller. I am trying to formulate my thoughts on having the tax be gender-based rather than sex-based, particularly at the edges of those concepts or where they conflict.

    (Links 2 and 3 are the same. Cut-and-paste error?)

  • Paul

    Is this an optimized tax with a sliding scale according to how manly one is? Will those of us with rugged good looks and an irresistible musk be called upon to pay more?

    Also, although you are probably right that people would not be supporting a woman tax, I think it’s a bit unfair to castigate economists for not supporting the woman tax that has not been proposed when they are supporting the man tax that has been proposed. And I certainly don’t think you can draw conclusions about the state of economics based on predictions that you made based on your assumptions about the state of economics.

  • Robin Hanson

    Pontus, good point.

    Zubon, fixed the link.

    Paul, why is it unfair to consider counterfactuals?

  • Larry D’Anna

    Let me point out again that we should consider whether these sorts of taxes are morally defensible before we ask if they are recommended by economic theory.

    There is absolutely no reason to think that every policy recommended by economics is morally acceptable.

  • steven

    If the axioms (like Pareto-optimality) are morally right, then logically so is the conclusion. So it’s possible to claim a policy recommended by economics is morally unacceptable, but only if you disagree with one of the axioms.

  • Jeff H.

    I think there’s no question that if careful economic analysis had instead favored taxing men less than women, it would not have enjoyed the easy support as seen above.

    It’s assumed women are disadvantaged to men, and thus one would jump at the opportunity to correct a perceived social injustice. It’s a way to show we care.

    But to slap a tax on already disadvantaged women to benefit men? It doesn’t matter how good the analysis is, it’d just seem so, so, unfair based on our assumption.

    I would call this something like confirmation bias, but I’m not sure.

  • conchis

    I think it’s the case either:
    (1) that Robin’s apparent counterfactual belief that people would not favour a woman tax is false; or
    (2) that if it is not false, the reasons for it not being false would also mean that favouring the man tax, but opposing an equivalent (and identically justified) woman tax would not be evidence of bias.

    I haven’t read the paper, but the ostensible good being served by the tax appears to be either (I can’t quite tell from the excerpt):
    (a) greater total social welfare, and greater equality of welfare; or
    (b) greater social welfare only.

    Any opposition to the woman tax is likely to be based primarily on a prior judgement that currently, women are less well off than men in a variety of ways with respect to employment, household work and income; and a value judgement that this is, other things equal, a bad thing.

    If a woman tax could be justified on identical grounds to the man tax and the man tax is justified on the basis of (a), then either:

    (i) We are living in an alternate universe where it is not true that women are disadvantaged in the respects just mentioned, and men are instead. In such a universe I see no reason to suspect the people who support the man tax would not have correspondingly different priors about the state of the world, and support the woman tax.
    (ii) Or the evidence presented in the paper paper contradicts a raft of other evidence that women are in fact worse off than men, and has to be weighed against all this other evidence. Things could go either way, but it doesn’t strike me that we’d expect significant bias here.

    Alternatively, if the justification for the man tax is (b), then those who care about greater equality for women have no reason to oppose the man tax, but at least a prima facie reason to oppose an equivalently justified woman tax.

    I don’t see problem here. I see a legitimate interaction of theory and new evidence with values and prior beliefs.

  • Gary

    Greg Mankiw recently posted about how right and left leaning economists differ. It struck me that the differences between economists are mostly the same as the differences among the general population. This is not what you would expect if economists are using the tools of economics to gain special insight into problems. Instead, it looks more like they know where they want to land, then use economics to justify their positions ex post.

    Robin, you pointed out before that judges see cases as similar as needed to get the outcome they want.

    The best explanation for the above two examples (and a world where the economists who support a gender specific tax won’t support a height tax) is that people are hopelessly biased.

  • mobile

    if careful economic analysis had instead favored …

    This is a pretty slippery use of the language. Descriptive economic analysis cannot favor or disfavor any policy without some underlying normative assumptions. Reasonable, bias-free people can agree on the facts and on the likely consequences of some policy and still disagree in good faith whether those consequences are desirable or not.

  • Larry D’Anna

    steven: trying to judge the morality of an axiom is a type error.

    In my estimation the utility of not having discriminatory laws (insert the usual caveats concerning the meaning of “discriminatory”) outweighs the economic gain tall-taxes or gender-taxes purport to offer. The most economic theory can tell us is how much economic gain is on offer. It cannot tell us how much we should value non-discrimination.

  • Toby Ord

    Steven, the standard economic assumptions (including all the ones needed to get to a policy recommendation like this) are indeed highly questionable. I don’t think any moral philosophers would agree with them, not classical utilitarians, nor Nozickian libertarians, nor (especially) people with more commonsense ethical views. That pareto improvements are improvements is not very contentious (well, it does conflict with widely held views about deserved punishments, but I think these views are false anyway). Much more contentious are pseudo axioms like the principle that something is an improvement if the winners could compensate the losers, which is widely used and obviously false.

  • Robin Hanson

    Mobile, I’m not sure how much more clearly to say this: standard economic analysis does give normative conclusions.

  • Paul


    I think that considering counterfactuals is certainly a reasonable approach: “I think that if this had favored taxing women over men it would enjoy less support.” is a reasonable hypothesis, in my opinion. Maybe I am reading you wrong, but I felt that you stated the hypothesis, then stated another hypothesis to be tested that is based on the first untested hypothesis without the qualifier that you might be wrong. It just seems like a bit of a straw man. Consider a similar statement: “They support free trade now, but I daresay that free trade would enjoy less support if it threatened big domestic corporations. We should examine where this sort of contradiction comes from.” I wouldn’t mind if someone provided examples of my inconsistency, or tried to test the inconsistency hypothesis, but by stating the inconsistency as a hypothesis, then using the hypothesis as fact, it makes for a bit of a straw man.

    That was my only concern. Please let me know if I have misunderstood.

  • TGGP

    I bet Hopefully Anonymous would have torn into Robin for this. Too bad he’s gone.

    I don’t know as much about the behavior of economists, but how many people think that the results of Robin’s counter-factual would be different from those he imagines?

    Mobile, I’m not sure how much more clearly to say this: standard economic analysis does give normative conclusions.
    I haven’t read Milton Friedman’s essay on positive economics, but if econ does that isn’t it no longer a dispassionate positive science and instead an ideology of the type that earned Marx’ “vulgar” epithet?

  • Robin Hanson

    Toby, as you know I defend the usual economists’ normative standards to philosophers, but my focus in this post is on how much economists accept those standards.

  • Chris Jeffords

    What about taxing men for the amount of hair on their two big toes? Surely a correlation can be found between the amount of hair thumb-toes have and the amount of income a person earns. We could certainly control for all of the same factors that were accounted for in other studies and simply concentrate on the effects of hairy feet and earned income. Wouldn’t this be a justly acquired endowment? How much support would a hairy tax garner among economists? Does it really matter? I think it is of utmost importance to work out as many possible scenarios as humanly possible for the purpose of testing the implications of economic theory before any sort of application ever occurs. It seems to me that implementing policies is much easier than undoing them if they do not work well.

    I think we give humans too much credit. It is quite easy to lend support or an opinion without really knowing full well the implications of what you are supporting (or not supporting for that matter).

  • Psychohistorian

    No one has noted that this uses a different economic rationale than the height tax. The theory is that a tax based on gender would lead to an increase in utility. A height tax would simply help redistribute income that has been “unfairly” distributed based on a basically immutable characteristic, thus doing more to redistribute utility than to increase it. There is no expected gain in productivity as there would (allegedly) be with the gender tax (if I read it right). Thus, one could buy into the use of a gender tax and reject the use of a height tax and have entirely consistent values.

    Thus, the fact that RH can find more supporters for this than for the height tax does not necessarily reflect some kind of bias in the community. The two taxes are quite different in their normative roots.

    Larry made a major point with the fact that people value living in a non-discriminatory society, which models don’t take into account.

    Moreover, this theory (though it is possible they addressed this and I did not get to it) would substantially affect the marriage market, particularly if it were only applied to married couples (and it would have unpleasant effects if it weren’t, since the whole rationale applies to a man-woman household).

  • Robin Hanson

    Psycho, both taxes have the same efficiency rationale.

  • rukidding


    The infinite set. “economic theory” supported communism. Still does, if you want it to.

    Man tax? Already have it, in that men pay higher tax rates, on average, than women. Whites pay higher rates than blacks, for that matter. Tall people, if they earn more on average, pay more, on average. Does anyone really have a problem with that? Not I, probably not most of you.

    But more to the point, men do pay more into social security than women (although that difference is probably pretty small by now), on the average, and because they don’t live as long, get less out. And, we tax men more via health insurance, in that men must pay the same rates as women, even though they use much less resources, even after accounting for childbirth. They just don’t go to the doctor as much. Where it benefits women to have separate insurance accounting, such as with driving, they do.

    It might be a man’s world, but it’s a woman’s country. And even the so-called gender disparity in income here is largely illusory, and disappearing. In fact, young women in Manhattan earn more than their male counterparts, and if Manhattan is a bellweather….

    Perhaps our female-oriented education system, which has led to women having a large majority of college students, will, within a few generations, make women higher earners on average than men.

    And the odds that they’ll then demand that they pay their share of social security or health insurance is?

    In truth, for political reasons, this country will never ask women to pay more than their fair share of anything, except maybe dry-cleaning bills. But whether we’ll start making them pay exactly their fair share, personally, I think is possible. Maybe if they get a woman president, they’ll come off their high horses and believe in “suffering” fairness as much as demanding it.

  • Shakespeare’s Fool

    Has not history shown us that the more vigorously
    the Gods of Economics have striven to grant equality
    of results, the deeper the poverty, the oppression, and
    the misery?

    Rudyard Kipling:
    “As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
    There are only four things certain since Social Progress began —
    That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
    And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire—”

    Robin, I’ve had my finger in that fire too often. I don’t need you
    to hold it there.

  • Dr. Zeuss

    Conchis gets this exactly right: in universes where a woman tax is justified, men are disadvantaged, and people on the side of the oppressed will support a woman tax.

  • Robin Hanson

    Zeuss and Conchis, the economic theory used here has little to do with whether women are “oppressed.”

    Fool, this is not at all about equality of results.

    rukidding, most random policies are not well supported by economic theory.

  • conchis

    Robin, then the example illustrates the rather trivial point that theory interacts with other, extra-theoretical values. Is there supposed to be something wrong with that?

  • Larry D’Anna

    Robin, does your economic model take into account the vast effort people would make fighting random attribute taxes if we thought there was any chance they might be enacted?

  • Hanson’s Secret Admirer

    “Fool, this is not at all about equality of results.”
    Posted by: Robin Hanson | December 18, 2007 at 08:25 AM

    I am going to print that out and frame it on my wall.

  • Unknown

    To answer Robin’s question, what this illustrates is that economic theory has very little influence on the policy recommendations of economists.

    This is not surprising. In general, moral theories have very little influence on people’s actions. Their actions are not determined by moral theory, but by their desires, whether or not these desires are in accord with their theories. And in the same way, economists propose a policy on account of their desires, not on account of economic theory, whether or not their desires and economic theory are in agreement.

  • Pseudonymous

    Conchis gets this exactly right: in universes where a woman tax is justified, men are disadvantaged, and people on the side of the oppressed will support a woman tax.

    Dr Zeuss, in this universe, short people are disadvantaged. So why are the people on the side of the oppressed not supporting a tall tax?

    Personally, I think it is because there is not as yet such a thing as the Campaign for Equal Heights.

  • Shakespeare’s Fool

    O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
    Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
    Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
    And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

    [Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

    ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
    Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
    What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
    Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O be some other name!
    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other word would smell as sweet;
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
    and for thy name, which is no part of thee,
    Take all myself.
    Romeo And Juliet Act 2, scene 2, 33–49

    “According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of
    the United Nations, more than 25,000 people died of
    starvation every day in 2003, and as of 2001 to 2003,
    about 800 million people were chronically undernourished.”
    As of 6:16 PM EST Tuesday December 18, 2007.

    And, Robin, knowing this (or at least its statistical equivalent),
    you argue for taxes on height and subsidies to beauty?
    Subsidies to beauty for the richest, freest, most over-nourished
    women in the history of the world?

    (And if you tell me that this is not about “subsidies to beauty”,
    you miss the point again. The names you put on these taxes
    and subsidies is not what matters. The categories you put them
    in — if not “equality of results” or “subsidies to beauty” or
    whatever you wish to call the categories – is not what matters.
    The harm this meddling will do is what matters. The distraction
    from the good that can be done is what matters. )

  • Gray Area

    It seems the problem is the statistical definition of “endowment.” Endowment is a causal concept, it refers to things that ’cause good fortune.’ Presumably we ought to spend the research effort into figuring out direct causes of good fortune, rather than wasting time taxing wealth correlates which may or may not have a causal basis.

  • briarandbramble

    “And what does that say about how much economic theory influences economists’ policy conclusions?”
    It says that this kind of economic reasoning is very plastic and can be twisted to support a wide range of conclusions, and generally will be used to support whatever is most expedient for the author. When you read these papers, you need to be wary of every step.
    One trick which is often used is for the author to mention a few assumptions explicitly. This is done in order to distract you from all the other assumptions they are implicitly making but not mentioning.
    For example, let’s suppose there is an emasculation factor e which causes disutility to the man and increases as his wife’s wage rises. That could change the conclusion of the paper, but I don’t see this factor in any of the equations.
    Or, assume there is a p(a|acw) (propability of adultery occuring given presence of attractive co-worker) that increases as a function of market participation rate. I don’t see that in the equations either.

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