Friday, December 5, 2014

Marriage: Private Good, Public Institution

Two friends recently wed. When I first met Pamela, her surname was the same as mine. She was kind enough to grant me the rare luxury of shortening her name to "Pam" for the sake of the rhyming scheme. As of earlier this week, she and BH have merged to form the Voltron we now call #TeamByrmela.

Okay, maybe it's just me that does that.

At any rate, congratulations you guys. And a well-timed one, as Justin Wolfers has been getting some really good press over his latest (impeccable, as always) empirical work on the role of the divorce regime as it relates to marriage stability. The tl;dr version: divorce rates have tanked. People who choose to marry these days tend to stay married. Of course, people have been delaying marriage and having kids out of wedlock and all that stuff. But for those folks who do tie the knot, they seem to be better at forward induction. There are fewer social pressures to wed hastily, therefore the rate of euvoluntary marriage is greater. That's fantastic news, so long as you're in a euvoluntary marriage.

Consider the following distribution:
The right tail has always been good to go. They marry, they stay married, they have decent jobs, live in good neighborhoods, obtain good educations, contribute plentifully to their retirement accounts, get regular checkups, and eat kale. The left tail has always been doomed, and the evidence for that is in the dismal failure of longstanding New Deal and Great Society programs to eradicate measured poverty. Life in the left tail is characterized by periodic joblessness, substance abuse, negative savings rates, unplanned reproduction, you know—pretty much most of the chronic gripes you hear from social conservatives.

But the grey area is what's contentious here. Wolfers is picking up a tendency for these folks to (marginally) postpone marriage until they've found a better match. No hasty marriage at 19 means no messy divorce at 35. My hunch is that the reasons for this are some admixture of both cultural and regime reform. There's less social stigma to being unwed, and that's related, probably by both cause and effect, to the advent of no-fault divorce.

The benefits of a good, stable marriage are unquestionable. The folks in the right tail have better lifetime earnings, more satisfaction, and usually a legacy they take pride in (see some of Double-D's posts on end of life regret for counterexamples). If the folks in the middle of the distribution would simply be more prudent and diligent about participating earnestly in the marriage market, they would find that the discounted present value of a successful marriage far outweigh the costs of obtaining one.

The empirical question is this: how receptive to treatment is that "if"? As Wolfers and Stevenson have noted in other research, the costs of at-fault regimes include higher rates of domestic violence and spousal suicide. Yikes. Restoring the old regime would hit the left side of the gray zone pretty hard.

There are maybe some tax incentives that could encourage the grey zone to shrink, at least a little, and probably only on the right side. But having one mortgage instead of two is already a pretty strong financial incentive, ne c'est pas?

So what remains? The institution of marriage is a public good: it has all the characteristics of a non-rival, non-excludable good. Individual marriages, contrarily, are precious private goods. Typically, when we want to encourage good behavior without the downsides of relying on coercion, we default to rhetoric, to persuasion. In the misty days of my youth, we watched felicitous families on television like The Waltons, or the Cunninghams, or the Ingalls clan out there in that little house on the... I dunno what to call it... savanna I suppose... veldt maybe. As I grew older, Ward Cleaver gave way to Al Bundy. TV families stopped being aspirational and became more cynical. Long time readers might accurately predict that I prefer cynicism in my own entertainment fare, given my cruel and unforgiving temperament, but if Deirdre McCloskey and Virginia Postrel are right, we get more of what we respect, we get more of what we glamourize. Perhaps we'd see more stable marriages out there if viewers would consume more content that raised the relative status of durable marriage.

A public service, if you will, in support of a euvoluntary institution.

Just watch out for hammy tropes though. Audiences know when they're being preached to, and they don't much like it.

1 comment:

  1. People easily forget that perhaps the best example of a modern egalitarian marriage on TV took place in the 1990s. I refer of course to Home Improvement. Yes Tim Allen's caveman stuff made him famous but that marriage was a very good model of modern marriages. Recent TV is not a good marriage wasteland.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?