Friday, October 9, 2015

Standard Contract Renegotiation: Marriage Edition

There is no de jure default prenuptial contract in the United States. But there is indeed a de facto contract. One with terms and agreements that get awfully onerous the deeper you get into the fine print. Mind you, I don't mean that the terms of a rancorous separation are considerably onerous on men. That a largely common-law court lags rapid social change (in this case, the enormous influx of women into the formal workforce) should surprise no one. No, what I mean is that becoming mired in a family court dispute is dead-wasteful. Every hearing, every plea, every supplication to the bench carries the opportunity cost of missed wages, missed picnics in the park, missed life. And this is in addition to all the explicit court and attorney fees. Divorce is big business.

Much like the taxi cartels of the land, family courts ought to be vulnerable to disruption by nimble, low-overhead competition. Apologies for dragging out a worn meme, but where's the Uber, but for the dissolution of marriage? A standardized, opt-out pre-nup a la Thaler/Sunstein seems like it should be a slam-dunk. What's not to love about freeing up courthouse resources and liberating people during a difficult period of transition?

Some possibilities:

  1. Prospect Theory. Newlyweds overestimate the bliss they'll obtain from a lifetime of marriage and underestimate the costs and deadweight losses of divorce. They also overestimate the probability their marriage will survive.
  2. Defection. Courts are predisposed to honor prenuptial agreements, but widespread adoption of new default prenup terms is out-of-sample. I don't know how likely it would actually be for courts to declare such agreements invalid, but such risks should make potential customers think twice.
  3. Signaling. The dreadful inefficiency of the present system serves a purpose not all that different from an engagement ring: I am exposing myself to this excruciating downside risk; see how serious I am over here, pumpkin? If this is an important enough signal, any efficiency gains from a standardized pre-nup should be captured elsewhere. Instead of 2 months' salary for a polished stone, maybe it's 6. TANSTAAFL.
  4. Transitional gains. Perhaps there truly is a preferable equilibrium that doesn't rely on an albatross in a black smock and powdered wig. But if it's a stag hunt game, being the oddball who solicits this new product signals unacceptable nonconformity. Given the preposterous peacockery of the modern Western wedding ceremony, there is at least some evidence that fear of violating the expectations of tying the knot can produce wasteful behavior.
  5. Inertia. Mom and dad didn't get a pre-nup. Neither are we. It ain't in the heuristic toolkit.
In the grip of my periodic melancholy, I fancy that point #1 up there is the only thing preserving the institution of marriage for the median American. If folks were perhaps a bit more rational, they might reconsider how strong their instincts for regret aversion should be.

Gordon Tullock's famous advice for transitional gains traps is: "don't set any." In this case, one wasn't set. It just sort of crept up. How to break an emergent state monopoly? Tough question.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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