What Do 3,000 Years Do to Wages?

One of the better-known biblical passages, Leviticus 27:1-7, lists the value of pledges of silver to the temple based on the value of a person: 50 shekels for a man between the ages of 20 and 60, 30 shekels for a woman of the same age, 15 shekels for a man over 60, and 10 shekels for a woman over 60. Hourly wage rates of workers in the U.S. in 2008 differed greatly from the ratios implied by Leviticus. The average female worker between 20 and 60 years old earns, per hour, nearly 80 percent of a male worker the same age, not 60 percent; and the average older male worker earns nearly as much per hour as the average male worker between 20 and 60.

Most older men and women don’t participate in the labor force, and fewer 20- to 60-year-old women work than men that age. Take all U.S. citizens in each age/sex group, whether or not they work, and assume that men aged 20 to 60 earned 50 shekels per time period in 2008. Then women aged 20 to 60 earned 34 shekels, men 61 plus earned 14 shekels, and women 61 plus earned 7 shekels. Once we ignore differences in labor-force participation, the earnings ratios are not that far from what was expected 3,000 years ago.

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  1. David says:

    Yes, but didn’t people live to be up to 969 years back then? Or did you already control for that too? ;-)

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  2. X says:

    Consider verse 8 though: “But if he be poorer than thy estimation, then he shall present himself before the priest, and the priest shall value him; according to his ability that vowed shall the priest value him.”
    God apparently permits downward adjustment but included no express provision for upward adjustment. I think then that the quoted rates are inflated across the board. Does this create a bias where there is a greater variability in wages?
    Methinks it does… For example, you note that some elderly work, earning nearly as much as younger workers, and some elderly do not work, earning nothing. Assuming an omniscient God would have realized this, He would have quoted a higher-than-expected rate for the elderly because the retired could have their rates adjusted.

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  3. kip says:

    @David: technically the extremely old ages ended with the great flood, after that man was limited to 120 years i think. levitical law was given well after the flood.

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  4. Aaron says:

    That’s a better known passage of the old testament? In any field other than economics?

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  5. Ari says:

    Actually the laws you are referring to, in hebrew “Eirchin,” or in English, “valuations” for lack of a better translation, are not based on the value of a person’s labor. The verses you cite from Leviticus are talking about one who pledges the “intrinsic” value of a person, and those values are constant based on age and gender. They have nothing to do with a person’s value in the labor market.

    There are different laws that would govern one who wanted to pledge the value of a person’s labor, and in that case the value would be based on an estimation of the person’s market value as a slave or indentured servant.

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  6. Tzipporah says:

    “and fewer 20- to 60-year-old women work than men that age.”

    I think what you mean here is that fewer 20- to 60-year-old women are PAID for their labor, or have it counted in the total economic activity.

    I assure you, women this age do work, and usually a LOT more work, than men of the same age. ;)

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  7. psychohistorian says:

    Much like poster #6 noted, calculating women’s wages is not accurately reflective. I would guess that the value of a woman then was largely based on non-salaried home-economic type work (which, back then, was probably an actual full time occupation). Women today often do that work in addition to their day job, and most of those over 20 who don’t work for a salary probably at least do housework and the like. This would suggest women’s value (not wages) has gone up rather substantially.

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  8. RBishop says:

    “One of the better-known biblical passages” ? How many Christians would be able to quote or even refer to this passage ? Seems to me that Christians are definitely not the intended audience here. Is ‘freakonomics’ a (pseudo-)academic ghetto ?

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