Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Where is the market failure in marriage?

In honor of National Unmarried and Single Americans Week, I’m going to put on my economist hat and ask: Is there an economic rationale for government incentives to get married? By ‘government incentives to get married’, I’m talking about all the ways in which the government (and society in general) privileges married people. One widely-cited statistic is that there are over 1000 benefits, rights and protections in Federal laws that are based on marital status. Given my current situation, I’ve been doing a lot of research on some of those benefits. Some can still be obtained by the unmarried, with additional work (e.g., I can manually change the beneficiary for my retirement accounts or sign an advanced health directive so my partner can make medical decisions for me) but many are simply not available to unmarried people, period. It’s no wonder that single-sex couples are so eager to gain access to legal marriage (completely aside from the social acceptance aspect, of course).

But as an economist, I wonder: why should people have to get married to get these benefits in the first place? Is there any economic rationale for government policies that confer benefits on the married? In my Intro classes, I teach my students that government intervention may be warranted in situations of market failure; that is, where the market outcome may be “inefficient” for some reason. In econ-speak, an “inefficient” outcome is one where benefits to society do not line up with costs. In most markets for traditional goods, the costs and benefits only go to the people buying and selling the goods (e.g., when I eat a hamburger, the person who benefits is me and the price I pay covers the costs for the company selling the hamburger). In some markets, there may be costs or benefits for people other than the buyer or seller and if those external costs or benefits are not reflected in the price of the good, then the market may be inefficient because there will be ‘too much’ of some goods (when there are external costs) or ‘too little’ (when there are external benefits). The classic example is smoking – when I consume cigarettes, I create costs for people other than just me and if those costs don’t get built into the price of cigarettes, then I’ll buy more cigarettes than society wants me to.

These external costs or benefits are one justification for government intervention in markets; basically, taxes or subsidies can reflect the social costs or benefits so the ‘price’ reflects the full costs or benefits. If the government taxes cigarettes than the price goes up and I buy fewer cigarettes. Applying this to the marriage ‘market’, one would have to argue that there are external benefits of marriage so the government needs to provide extra incentives to get people to 'consume more’ marriage. So people other than a particular couple must presumably benefit somehow from that couple being married. I guess the conservative argument is that married couples are more “stable” and better behaved (?) and this is therefore better for society than if those people were running around just cohabitating or being single. I don’t know that there is really much evidence of this – a quick Google search turned up lots of rhetoric along the lines of ‘family values’, and studies about how marriage benefits the people IN the marriage (though the psychologist Bella DePaulo has also written a lot about how those studies often don’t actually show causality), but I couldn’t find anything showing that marriage, per se, has external benefits, such as causing people to act any better (for society) than before they were married. The closest I could find was arguments about the impact on children (i.e., kids do better when their parents stay together) but if that’s the basis for government intervention, then all the benefits should only go to couples with kids, not just anybody who is married.

Although I can’t think of a good argument for marriage benefit policies based on the standard idea of economic efficiency (i.e., the market ‘underprovides’ marriage so the government needs to provide incentives to boost consumption/production), I can imagine an argument based on administrative efficiency – i.e., some policies were probably adopted simply to reduce paperwork (e.g., most people would name their spouse as their beneficiary/spokesperson in most situations anyway so making that the default saves time and effort), or because “legal spouse” seems like an easy shortcut to identify “Very Important Person in my life”. But given that 46 percent of American households are now maintained by unmarried men or women (including 6.7 million specifically ‘unmarried-partner’ households), and the increasing trend in the percentage of couples choosing cohabitation over marriage, it seems like perhaps we should starting questioning whether marriage as the ‘default’ is really the most efficient way to go…

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Merging lives

I mentioned yesterday that my relationship status has changed pretty dramatically since I stopped blogging here a few years ago. To be more specific, I am now "engaged". I put that in quotes because while J "proposed" and we are going to eventually have a wedding at which we will formally commit to spending our lives together, we are not planning to sign any legal documents designating that we are "married" (i.e, no marriage license). One of the reasons I wanted to start blogging again is because I could use an outlet for reflection as we navigate what it means to merge our lives without that legal designation. So far, what I know is that it means we are going to have to process a lot more paperwork, and as we do that, we'll have to consciously and proactively think about a lot of issues that many couples don't deal with until they have to (and sometimes when it is too late). So I'll be writing about some of that.

Most immediately, J moved in with me about a year ago. J's daughter was a high school freshman when we met in 2009 and he had joint custody (she was with him three nights each week) so it was pretty much understood since the beginning that major life changes, like us living together, would wait until after she was off to college (and if anyone was wondering, yes, that was an issue at times, but we're past it now so I'm not going to dwell on it). The upside to knowing we'd live together eventually, but having lots and lots of time before it actually happened, is that I/we were able to very slowly make changes to the house to make it 'ours'. We did have a conversation some time ago about whether he would move in with me or we would look for a new house together (living at his condo was never really an option). Once we decided that keeping my house made the most sense, I began thinking about home improvements differently. Big decisions, like upgrading the insulation and installing solar panels, became joint decisions. That was really weird, partly because he wasn't actually living here yet and I still very much think of it as "my" house, but mostly because I've been making those decisions on my own for so long and it just felt odd to be factoring someone else into the equation. A big issue for me is balancing what I see as my independence with what I know people are 'supposed' to do when in a relationship. That is, I know I'm 'supposed to' discuss these things with him but what if we disagree? If I know what I want to do, and I'm paying for it and it's my house, the feminist in me resists the idea that I would do something different just because this guy wants something else. And yet, even as I write that, I know how terribly selfish that sounds...

More than one person has commented that this is a lot harder at 40 than at 20. We're both used to doing things 'our way', we know what we like, and are used to taking care of ourselves. I will say that it helps tremendously that J and I communicate really well - he actually likes it that I pretty much have to express every thought and emotion I have. So when I'm irked by something, he can just read it on my face and we deal with it. And it definitely has gotten easier, as we've slowly figured out our routine, who does what chores, etc. But I feel like this is all still very much a work in progress. Then again, I wonder if it ever stops feeling that way?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Quirkyeconomist, Take 2: Being Quirkytogether

I suppose I really can't just pick up this blog after a more-than-three year absence without some sort of explanation. So... The short version is that a) life got busy and b) as my relationship progressed, I was having a harder time figuring out how/what to write for a blog that I had originally started in order to write about being happily single. It seemed easiest to just stop. But although my relationship status has changed pretty dramatically, I'm still pretty much the same person and I still think the same way about a lot of things related to being single and being in a relationship. And I've been thinking that maybe I do still have something to say that fits with the spirit of this blog. Specifically, as the world has evolved and being happily single, or a "quirkyalone", has become increasingly accepted (or at least, less maligned than I think it used to be), I think there are a growing number of people who find (or will find) themselves in a 'quirkytogether' relationship - that is, two people who are happily single start dating and then have to navigate what it means to be in a relationship. Or as Sasha Cagan put it in Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics: "At the core, quirkytogether values the idea of two fully formed human beings coming together for a partnership rather than a merging of the souls - it's not a soul mate idea of finding the other half to complete you, but about finding a lively and dynamic partnership that still allows you to be fully yourself."

This is where J and I find ourselves, and I think it might be interesting (or at least cathartic for me) to share some of what this means for us. I was doing a little of this before my 'hiatus' but I felt weird about it; this time around, I'll try to just own it. I've also simply missed having a personal blog where I can share some of the random stuff that passes through my brain. So I'm back...