Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Economics of Finding a Wife

A charming, reasonably sensible, but somewhat tongue in cheek essay by a fellow economist.


At 1:02 PM, April 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

The complications of spouse selection among the collegiate is a cute topic and all, but isn't a far bigger problem the fact that people who don't go to college are often not getting married at all (and having kids anyway)?

I wonder if Mr. Glaeser has devoted any time to writing about that.

At 1:17 PM, April 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Got curious and did a bit of searching, at least on the Bloomberg site. Here Glaeser makes the statement that more Americans need to marry, though here he's focusing almost exclusively on the effect marriage has on population growth and social program funding.

At 3:00 PM, April 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Power child: I don't see how people who make families, yet do not confirm it by a contract (which is the only thing a marriage actually is...well except for the ceremony, which is a ritual) are any problem.

As far as the article goes, it seems to be rather funny (charming it is indeed, well, from a certain perspective) to me than serious work. Maybe that is just my youth naivete (as I am 24) but I think people have much more diverse ideas about a "perfect spouse" than those mentioned in the article and it can hardly be generalized this way. Perhaps on average it could work, but the problem is that I have much more information about myself than any general information based on statistics can give (and so does anyone else) and therefore giving too much weight to the advice from others can be actually a bad idea...sadly I think I made that mistake in a long term relationship which ended few months ago and which I think would have worked very well, but did not entirely fit the "usual scheme". I can't take it back, but the lesson learned is to trust the unique info only I know about myself more than advice of other people or statistics. But maybe a decade or two from now, I will talk different :)

At 3:20 PM, April 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Tibor Mach:

The vast majority of cases where people "make families yet do not confirm it by a contract" are scenarios where a woman gets pregnant (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not) by a man she isn't committed to and then the man isn't around to be a father to his children. Children who grow up without their fathers are more likely to have trouble in school, trouble with the law, trouble with drugs, trouble with their health, and so on--especially if neither parent is college material. (For more on this, see Charles Murray's book Coming Apart.

Since people who aren't college material tend to have more kids in the first place (this is an old pattern unlikely to change) marriage can be seen as a force that mitigates against our society becoming overly populated with uneducated drug-using criminals who grew up fatherless.

At 5:07 PM, April 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

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At 5:08 PM, April 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

don't think a marriage is a very big obstacle today. Especially if you have a pre-marital contract it is almost no barrier at all. It used to be different because there were significant reputational costs associated with divorce and fewer women were working and able to support themselves. So if you are this irresponsible guy who leaves a family with a child for no serious reason, I don't think marriage will be a problem for you anyway. Even if statistics says that married couples are more stable than unmarried - there are going to be more people who are commited to the relationships among those who enter marriage than among the others...if no such thing as marriage existed, I don't think they would act very differently in their relationships.

Also a family held barely held together only by a piece of paper (since if there are stronger bounds, then you don't really need the marriage) and which would otherwise fall apart doesn't seem like a very good environment for a child either. Of course the ideal is for the child to have both parents. But I think one loving parent is better than two parents who cannot stand each other - the frustration has to come out somehow and the child will definitely feel it. Also, if the parents are at least a bit reasonable they can have the child in a joint custody even if they don't want to be together. It is worse than two loving happy parents, but better than being with just one parent or growing up in a bitter environment. Marriage can (at best) glue together people who don't want to be with each other (but I have doubts about that too)...and I think that offsets the disadvandages of single parenting.

Not that I am against marriage or anything (although I think the state should not be involved in such personal matters at all and marriage should be an entirely private and deregulated contract), it is nice if just for the ritual. But I would not see it as something that can do sociological miracles.

So even if your conclusions are otherwise true (basically that we are on a way to a future from the film Idiocracy) - which I have serious doubts about - still the way I see it marriage won't save us from that future.

At 10:58 PM, April 04, 2013, Anonymous Power Child said...

if you are this irresponsible guy who leaves a family with a child for no serious reason, I don't think marriage will be a problem for you anyway.

Indeed. Where do libertarians stand on marital policy? Do they think divorce or illegitimacy should be made more costly or that we should continue to make these things less costly? (Back when I was a market anarchist I didn't think about this issue very much.)

there are going to be more people who are commited to the relationships among those who enter marriage than among the others...if no such thing as marriage existed, I don't think they would act very differently in their relationships.

Sure, there will always be some population of people who are naturally conscientious and loyal. But how large a group are they? And what happens when pressure to marry is taken off everyone else? The reverence given to the marriage institution has waned in the last 50 years, with the result that far fewer people marry or engage in comparable lifelong arrangements today.

a family held barely held together only by a piece of paper...doesn't seem like a very good environment for a child either.

Of course there are gradations to the stability and cohesion of a household. We could look at statistics and make more precise determinations, but I think that the presence of a father (i.e. a two-parent household) does generate some kind of a net positive on the lifetime benefit to the kids. This means that in a considerable number of cases a less stable two-parent household is still preferable to more stable single-parent one. (Obvious exceptions would include scenarios where there is violence or serious abuse, but those are relatively uncommon.)

Also, considering the types of women most likely to end up as single mothers, the choice is usually not between a stable one-parent household and an unstable two-parent household, but between a somewhat unstable two-parent household and a much less stable one-parent household!

I love Idiocracy, but to be more plausible it should have included a thin upper caste of Victorians who still engaged in archaic institutions like marriage, education, and moderation of consumption, and who kept coming up with clever ways to tell themselves they were kind and egalitarian because they didn't judge the hoi polloi for their bad behavior--and in fact encouraged them in it.

At 10:59 PM, April 04, 2013, Anonymous Power Child said...

Haha, oops, I linked my name to Should have been to

At 3:28 AM, April 05, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

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At 5:21 AM, April 05, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

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At 5:25 AM, April 05, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child:

1) Well, I can't speak for "libertarians", but I can speak for myself. And I already said the state simply should not interfere at all. Let people make any contract they wish to. Let them call it marriage or whatever they wish to call it and let them set up the conditions of the contract by themselves. Also, perhaps more importantly - stop giving subsidies either to people who did or did not sign such a contract.

2) Well, maybe you're right about 2 parents in most cases being better, but how many of those 2 parent relationships are really just held together by marriage itself? You agree with me that today it is very easy to end marriage. Therefore most of these couples are held together by more than just that contract. If it were harder to end it, I think you would get more abuse and worse environment for children. If you go to an extreme point of illegal divorce, you will either have a lot of very disfunctional families or (more likely) people being still together on paper, but living their own lives with someone else anyway.

Also you only mention the utility of a child. But the parents come in too. If they are forced to stay in marriage, then they act different than they would otherwise have and assuming rationality, this leads to a loss in their utility. So if you put it all together, I would be reluctant to claim that "tighter marriage" is a net benefit.

As far as Idiocracy goes, I think it is entirely unrealistic. The current situation is powered mainly by the social state. Without it, it is simply not possible to feed and cloth and raise a lot of kids without having a decent job. At a certain point, that model collapsess (as it currently seems to be on a verge of collapse in most of Europe and USA) and the trend changes. And if you get to a point of Idiocracy (well, far before that actually), which really is just a caricature, then the advantages of being resourceful and skillful are just so tremenduous, that it changes the trend. Another thing is pensions. It used to be that the children looked after their old parents and supported them. That means a strong incentive for the parents to raise their kids well and make sure they are educated so they have the means to support them when they are old. Since the state does it instead, that incentive is weaker (of course still strong for other reasons at least in most families). But I don't think state pensions will survive more than a few decades anyway as it is a ponzi scheme, so that is also going to be fixed soon.

Also the film really seems to be more focusing on things like "haha, those rednecks watch monster trucks, that's stupid" than much else. of course it is a comedy and not a sociological drama, but that is also a reason not to consider it very seriously :)

At 8:05 AM, April 05, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Question for Tibor:

You write "Let people make any contract they wish to."

One possible contract is one that forbids or strongly penalizes divorce. You have been arguing that making divorce illegal has bad consequences. Should a contract making it illegal, or imposing strong penalties on one or both of the parties, be enforceable?

At 10:24 AM, April 05, 2013, Anonymous Power Child said...

Tibor Mach:

I used to be a strong proponent of simply making all marriages private contracts, for the reasons you stated and others, but I now feel differently. We have seen that unless people feel some social pressure to marry, a great many will not. The added incentives (joint tax status, eligibility for insurance, hospital visitation, and so forth) are a significant--though perhaps not critical--part of this pressure. Making marriage a highly visible and entrenched part of the culture (as the ultimate rite of passage into adulthood) is also important.

I don't think the extreme of banning divorce is optimal, but I think we could go much further in that direction than we are now before the negative unintended consequences outweigh the benefits.

With kids, I am not talking about utility to them exclusively: raising kids in a 2-parent household tends to result in kids who grow up to be better educated, less crime-prone, etc.; men who work to support their families are more productive and less tempted to spend their time and resources on testosterone-laced non-productive activity.

Therefore, the intact nuclear family (buttressed together by marriage) is really a public good. By raising kids with both parents around, utility is increased not just to the kids but to everyone else as well. (Weigh this against the simple utility to two adults who get their wish not to live together.)

When you say "social state" I am under the impression you are referring to the "nanny state," and I agree that it contributes to the current situation: by subsidizing prenatal care, childcare, groceries, etc., we lower the cost of illegitimacy and divorce--resulting predictably in more consumption of these things--to the great disutility of all.

At 11:26 AM, April 05, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Power Child:

I think you should consider the possibility that the breakdown of marriage is effect, not cause—that, for a variety of reasons, stable long-term relationships have become less attractive over the past century or so. Reasons include:

Reliable contraception and abortion make casual sex as a substitute for marital sex more available and more attractive than in the past.

Reduced child mortality and increased division of labor with regard to things that used to be done in the household mean that a wife is less specialized to that role, making a long term contract less important.

At 11:35 AM, April 05, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

David: Good point. I think there is a difference though. I was arguing against state making divorce illegal in general . The problem is the same as it is with statistics. I have more information about myself than the state has. Therefore I am better at evaluation whether a particular contract is good for me than the state is. Of course, that is an assumption, one could say I don't know what is good for me and state knows better, but I really don't like that way of thinking ("we know what is good for you, so you better do as we say") not only for moral reasons but also because I think that it is (with rare exceptions) just not true. State is unlikely to know better than me.

If I decide to enter a contract that is really hard to break on my own free will AND at the same time I have an option of a "weaker marriage" which is exactly the same, although easier to end, then it is probably a "marriage-like" contract that is the best for me. However if a state dictates what marriage should be like, then while there still may be good reasons for me to enter the marriage even under those condidions, it will be worse than a situation where there is a choice.

A very simplistic example: I have a girlfriend, entering marriage under the state restriction means a net benefit for us so we do it. If we could change the conditions a little bit and still call it marriage, it would be even a better deal. If we happen to be lucky and the current state version of marriage is optimal for us, then nothing changes. But a change towards deregulation means a non-negative increase of utility (and the case of everyone being fine with the standard state marriage seems unlikely to rather positive increase).

Of course you could say I can have a contract like that today instead of the official marriage, change a few rules and it would be the same. But first of all I think there is some gain to the token word marriage itself (that is why gays wanted "marriage" and not "partnership" or whatever even if legally they would be the same) and also as long as there is a state - some benefits of marriage are exclusive to it (access to personal medical information and similar things). At least they are in the Czech republic. A life partner who is not a spouse will simply not get access to your medical info if you are in a coma for example. Perhaps that can be dealt with a special contract though, I cannot say, I am not a lawyer.

At 12:34 PM, April 05, 2013, Anonymous Power Child said...


Need the decline of marriage be exclusively cause or effect? It seems pretty clear that it's both: there are many factors contributing to marriage's decline (including the two you mentioned, though I would say marriage's true importance is not significantly diminished by either) and the decline of marriage is also contributing to other widespread changes.

These are changes I believe will greatly lower most if not all people's total utility--and the poor will suffer first and worst.

At 7:04 AM, April 06, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

I think this fits in nicely here: :)


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