Pur Autre Vie

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Saturday, March 03, 2012

What Good is an LTCR?

So, one might ask whether there is any real value to long-term committed relationships beyond people's idiosyncratic preference for them. I think there is, and in fact I think LTCRs are a crucial social institution. In fact, while marriage has at times been seen as an oppressive institution, I think in all likelihood its overall effect is strongly egalitarian and welfare-promoting.

LTCRs have a few important characteristics that are relatively easy to model.

1. Picture an LTCR as a stream of benefits and costs for each partner. Benefits include sex, companionship, and financial support. Costs include opportunity costs (giving up other sexual opportunities - usually) and financial costs.

2. The "commitment" aspect of an LTCR allows people to make mutually beneficial trades across time. For instance, imagine an attractive young woman who can provide significant sexual benefits to her partners. She might enter an LTCR with a less-attractive man with a promising career. Early on, she provides him with sex while he provides relatively little. Later, he provides her with financial stability while she provides relatively little (at that point she is no longer especially attractive). This doesn't work absent an LTCR - there is no way to strike inter-temporal bargains if there is no commitment mechanism. Eliminating LTCRs means eliminating the "gains from trade" - it is analogous to eliminating contract enforceability in courts of law.

3. LTCRs also provide a sort of risk-pooling or insurance benefit. With two independent sources of income, it is far less likely for job-loss or illness to be catastrophic. Again, this doesn't work absent an LTCR - insurance would not be worth much if the insurance company could walk away from its obligations at will. It is the "in sickness and in health" aspect of LTCRs that helps them reduce risk.

LTCRs are thus egalitarian in that they protect people who would otherwise be in desperate situations. A lot of the worst-off people are people who were hit with major setbacks without any kind of safety net to cushion the fall. If these people were in LTCRs, they would be a lot better off. (LTCRs are also egalitarian to the extent they are monogamous, since monogamy is itself egalitarian.)

LTCRs can be partially replaced by government-funded social programs, but I think few social programs could provide the huge benefits of LTCRs at such low cost. LTCRs are a cornerstone of a good society, and their decline is a major reason to worry about the fabric of our society.

13 Comments:

Blogger Sarang said...

Of these points, 1. is not LTCR-specific (it is true of any transaction) and 3. does not apply to the pre-sexual-revolution era when there were far fewer working women. This leaves you with 2. I am skeptical about the importance of this in practice but it is certainly a logical possibility. (I just don't think there's an esp. large pool of low-status potentially-high-achieving people out there.)

In general, I think the biggest problem with your models and metaphors is that you treat all marriages as happy/equivalent. This is self-evidently false, and it is intuitively clear to me that a disproportionate number of unhappy/abusive/etc. marriages in the old days were between people who would not be married at all in the present setup. I think this is worth harping on because I do not think it is legitimate to treat the sexual revolution and the economic liberation of women as separate issues. A major thread in late Victorian liberal thought (see e.g. Gissing's Odd Women or a randomly chosen play of Shaw's) is that women are often economically forced into marriage even when marriage would be dire; take the economic imperatives away and the necessity of marriage correspondingly goes away.

I mean, consider the following Q.: why aren't all the women who desperately want children getting married to the ugly men? I don't actually see how your model answers this without adding in some handwaving about norms.

12:02 AM  
Blogger James said...

Women who aren't formally employed often provide the equivalent of an income stream by doing household work. So I think 3 applies quite often, and would have applied pre-sexual revolution.

There are unhappy marriages, but each is unhappy in its own way.

Ugly men make bad sex partners. Also, ugly men may not be in the market for fatherhood. It's not that there are literally no potential husbands available, it's that you are scraping the bottom of the barrel. As the NY Times article points out, a lot of these men have other kids, don't have real careers, etc.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

How exactly does household work count as breadwinning?

12:32 AM  
Blogger James said...

It's a close substitute for breadwinning. Let's say the husband earns $100,000/year. If the wife stays at home and cooks and cleans, the household can make it on $75,000/year, allowing it to save $25,000. If the wife does not cook and clean, the household has to spend all $100,000. So it's as though the woman is working a job for $25,000. And it's tax-advantaged, too.

12:34 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Yes but this is a marginal effect. It isn't as if a mining accident would leave you with 3/4 what you were earning pre-accident. I realize that there were other things a wife could do (take in knitting, etc. -- documented in various places) but it is not plausible that, in a society w/o jobs for women, it'd have been a rational decision for a man to acquire an otherwise unwanted wife on the grounds that she could take in the knitting if he lost a leg.

12:40 AM  
Blogger James said...

Why is it a marginal effect? Because I picked numbers such that her imputed income was 1/3 of his? That's easy to fix! People have estimated very large numbers for the value of women's household work.

Let's say the man gets laid off for a year, and they've been together for 5 years. Then the $125,000 they have saved as a result of her labor will tide them over, with room to spare. Whereas if the man were heading the household by himself, a year of unemployment would be disastrous.

1:16 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

No, because it is not plausible that a single man starting with X in the bank and no revenue stream would really, generically, run out of money faster than the same person with a spouse to support, even if the spouse were to help with the housework.

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