Commodity Prices vs. Rights For Women

Tyler Cowen states a simple, provocative true or false question without elaboration:

As commodities prices fall, the rights of women rise.

The ensuing comments are as much a Rorschach test as anything else and I guess this post will be the same. It’s mostly an illustration of how I approach problems. Generally speaking, I don’t identify the applicable theory and try to apply it to the specific case which to my eye is what most of Tyler’s commenters have done (those that didn’t answer “How dare you!”, that is).

I found Tyler’s question too vague to be susceptible to straightforward investigation. What commodities? Where? How do you define “women’s rights”? Or determine that they’re rising? So I’ll answer a different, related question that I find a bit more rigorous: in the United States what is the historic relationship between industrial commodity prices and expansions of women’s legal rights? That may not be Tyler’s question but it’s one I can begin to answer.

Possible relationships would include a positive correlation, a negative correlation, no clear correlation, and a lagging or leading effect in either direction.

The graph above illustrates industrial commodity prices in the United States from 1862 to 1999. That should handle one side of the question.

I would characterize the periods of great expansions in women’s rights in the United States as two, the first from 1919 to 1935, the second from 1965 to 1982.

The first period saw women granted the right to vote, prohibition (at the time seen as a women’s rights issue), and concludes with the enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935 which provided subsidies to widows, married women, working women, and, importantly, AFDC.

The second period began with the enactment of the Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, included the period of Women’s Lib and the women’s rights movement, Roe v. Wade, women entering the workplace in unprecedented numbers, and ended with the failure of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

I can think of some other periods of expansion of women’s legal rights in the U. S. but those two should serve for discussion.

The first period of expansion of women’s legal rights accompanied what was, perhaps, the greatest decline in industrial commodity prices in U. S. history. The second period of expansion of women’s legal rights accompanied an even greater increase in industrial commodity prices. To my eye that suggests there’s no clear relationship.

2 comments… add one
  • This reminds me of the Pastafarian chart showing the correlation between pirates and global warming.

  • Ben Wolf

    Andy already beat me to it. One could just as easily say: “as global average temperatures rise, so do the rights of women.”

    Wait, don’t we have another thread regarding how useless economic data can be?

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