Attitudes to international trade, boys v girls edition

Michael Hiscox, via Tyler Cowen, has a paper on 'The Mysterious Case of Female Protectionism':

The available survey evidence indicates that women in the United States, and in advanced economies more generally, are significantly more likely than men to support new restrictions on trade. Measures of the particular labor-market risks and costs associated with maternity do not appear to be related at all to the gender gap in trade preferences. We also do not find any strong evidence that gender differences in non-material values or along ideological dimensions have any affect on attitudes toward trade.

The data do clearly reveal that the gender gap exists only among college-educated respondents and is larger among older cohorts. We argue that differences in educational experience – specifically, exposure to economic ideas at the college level – appear to be most plausible explanation for gender differences in attitudes toward trade.

While I am not entirely convinced that the variables Hiscox uses to control for 'other factors' are adequate for the job at hand, the explanation he offers could potentially be part of the answer. However, I doubt either gender is blessed with an overall level of 'economic literacy' worth speaking of - thus, differences in economic education seem unlikely to be the main driving force behind the pattern we observe.

Tyler's explanation, that women tend to adopt a self-identity as a 'caring person', seems more plausible - although my hunch remains that more traditional 'economic' factors (current job insecurity and expected lifetime job insecurity, preference for risk, share in the gains from international trade) will eventually reveal themselves as the main culprits.

Hiscox also highlights a point readers of this blog will be familiar with:

The findings suggest the possibilities of a renewed theoretical and empirical focus on the role played by ideas, not just among policymakers but also among the broader electorate.

This seems to me to be one of the least researched areas in the wider field of economics. As a result, we are left trying to explain the pros and cons of different policies to a public whose concerns and biases we simply do not understand. By not knowing where the points of resistance to economic logic lie, we are unable to provide satisfactory answers to the concerns of the electorate - and because of this, the lessons of economics are often discarded as being irrelevant.

Economics is, more than anything else, the misunderstood science. And it's about time we did something about it.


  1. Anonymous Says:

    "The data do clearly reveal that the gender gap exists only among college-educated respondents"

    In which case, it would be highly useful to control for degree studied, given the massive gender bias in degree choice and the likely impacts of degree choice on trade preferences. For example, at the University I went to, I had a friend doing a large computer science (IT) course and he said that of over 100 students only 2 were female. It's likely that those with IT degrees would be more in favour of free trade on the assumption that such skills are more scarce outside of the US so free trade is more likely to lead to rising wages and opportunities for travel. Similarly, at the same University there was a strong female bias on all language courses, and the skill of knowing English plus another language is a lot less scarce with free trade, especially given that the UK and US are international chronic under-achievers when it comes to language skills.

    I'm not sure how well this argument would hold up across the whole range of degree subjects but it would be interesting to see.