Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Hedonic Marriage and Strange Bedfellows

I just finished reading a round of essays on the topic "Can Marriage Survive" on the Cato Institutes's Website.

I heard about the online discussion after coming into contact with Betsey Stevenson's work on the AEA panel that I chaired at the annual economic nerd conference in January, and was unafraid of her association with the libertarian-oriented Cato as I had seen (and agreed with) their views on gay marriage in the past. So, given a bit of extra time on my hands for academic reading, I ventured onto their website. Let me be clear, I am not a libertarian, but I do see their point from time to time.

In any case, the discussion on marriage is an interesting one, and worth your read. The lead discussant, Stephanie Coontz (author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage) makes, essentially, two points:
Her first point is that marriage is not on the verge of extinction, but it is definitely changing. It is not the social-organizing institution that it once was. Historically, says she, ". . . for millennia, marriage was much more about regulating economic, political, and gender hierarchies than nourishing the well-being of adults and their children." As technology (birth control), norms (about divorce, cohabitation, being single, having out-of-wedlock children, and sending kids to day-care), and women's economic opportunities changed (labor force participation, wages, occupational choice and of course, education), so too did the constraints that supported what we knew as marriage. Now that people no longer HAVE to get married to have sex or have kids, and now that people no longer HAVE to stay married, what does the institution mean and what does it do for us as a society? Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers argue (in their response essay) that marriage has moved away from a unit of production to a unit of consumption and that one of the consequences is that we choose mates for companionship rather than economic prosperity.

According to Stevenson and Wolfers: "So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption. In case the language of economic lacks romance, let’s be clearer: modern marriage is about love and companionship. Most things in life are simply better shared with another person: this ranges from the simple pleasures such as enjoying a movie or a hobby together, to shared social ties such as attending the same church, and finally, to the joint project of bringing up children. Returning to the language of economics, the key today is consumption complementarities — activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives “hedonic marriage”."

Coontz claims that in many ways, what's left over is better: the divorce rate has fallen (especially among the college-edu-ma-cated), when people do get divorced, they're much friendlier about it, men are less likely to just walk away from their kids and teen birth is on the decline. What's more, couples are more likely to share housework and productive work (i.e. not adopt that 1950s strict division of labor in which the man works outside of the house for a wage and the woman stays at home changing diapers) and they are more stable because of it. Husbands and wives have more egalitarian views about gender and as a result higher marital quality.

Hum. . . This is sounding more and more like, well ALL of the research on GLBT (especially the L part of that acronym) families. My work on the division of labor in lesbian households expanded on other short and relatively non-random surveys that showed that lesbians tend to be a) less likely to have a strict division of labor in the household and b) have more egalitarian ideas about how to conduct family business. As a result, they tend to be more equal. The jury was out on their stability although Neoclassical researchers like Gary Becker presumed that GLBT families would, by definition, be less stable (he never considered the fact that they received no institutional support as being a primary cause of this instability rather than some essential consequence of homosexuality).

So have we exchanged quality for quantity (in terms of the number of marriages as well as their length in years)?

Her second main point is that we can no longer structure social policies, work schedules, health insurance systems etc. etc. on the assumption that our commitments and care-obligations will be organized through marriage.

She concludes that instead of asking "what kind of family do we wish people lived in?" we should ask: "what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses and raise children more successfully?"

This sounds like an excellent starting point for a positive political movement supporting GLBT families, particularly those with kids.

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