Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sex, marriage and exchange of value

One of the classic definitions of economics is that it is the study of the exchange of value. The exchange does not have to be an exchange of money. Things other than money, such as time or labor, are also of value.

Usually, we think of dating, courtship and marriage as matters of the heart, of love, and not very much in economic terms. But this is an aberration in history. Throughout most of humanity's time upon the earth, mating or marriage was seen primarily in economic terms and for billions of people today is still seen that way. The basic foundation of arranged marriages is that marriages are much too important in their broader effect upon the community (usually a tribe or clan) to be left up to the whims of the heart.

Even our own wedding vows - at least those still used by most churches and civil magistrates - reflect a economic-contractual origin, mainly from European feudalism. After all, "I name, take you, name, to have to to hold from this day forward," is legal language derived from taking possession of property. When this formula was established for weddings, the bride pretty much was property of her father, then of her husband. Hence, the minister's traditional question, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"

(This question, btw, is excluded from the United Methodist Church's modern vows. Yet every wedding I have officiated, the bride, no matter how financially independent or modern, wants dad to hand her over. I phrase it this way: " Who presents this woman to be married to this man?" I explain early in our meetings that I simply will not ask, "Who gives... ." The brides have always been fine with it, but one time at a rehearsal the bride's uncle (her father was deceased) became so upset at the substitution that I thought he was going to swing at me. But calmer heads prevailed.)

It's somewhat trite nowadays to bemoan the sorry state of the institution of marriage in America and Europe. I bemoan it, too. But unless we understand the economics of sex and marriage - that is, the exchange of value that is transacted in the acts or institutions - then we won't understand the status quo and what to do about it.

And, as the old joke goes, "status quo" is Latin for "the mess we're in." So how did we get to this staus quo?

Trend one: Women's employment

In 1918, a huge pop music hit was, "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They've Seen Paree)," wondering whether the boys over there in France would very willingly return to their prewar occupations, such as farming:
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'
How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin' the town
How ya gonna keep 'em away from harm, that's a mystery
They'll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'
Fast forward only one generation and you would ask the same question about Rosie the Riveter. 

How ya gonna keep her back in the home
after she's built a tank?
How ya gonna keep her away from bizness
earning an income and making those deals?
She'll never want to see a broom or a stove
and who the deuce can build a bomber at home?
How ya gonna keep her back in the home
after she's built a tank?

The inflow of women into careers and jobs heretofore held by men was enormous during World War II. Not only were women riveters on defense production lines, they were welders, assemblers, test and transport pilots, sheet-metal workers, tool and die makers, you name it. Large numbers joined the armed forces and were assigned "as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairmen, sheet metal workers, parachute riggers, link trainer instructors, bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts, and control tower operators. By January 1945 only 50 percent of AAF [Army Air Forces] WACs [Women’s Army Corps] held traditional assignments such as file clerk, typist, and stenographer.” 

With the end of the war, civilian distaff employment and military service decreased dramatically but not to their prewar levels. By 1950, paid employment of women was increasing again and in that year one-third of adult women had paying jobs. By 1956 the number had ticked up to 35 percent, including a quarter of all married women. By `1959 the overall rate had risen from one in three (1950) to two of five. The pace slowed after that and rose only to three of five by 1998. At the peak of women's employment outside the home in 2000, 77 percent of women between 25-64 were employed, but then the percentage dropped.

"Women's lib" began long before most people think. Today more than one-fourth of non-farm business are owned by women. 

Trend two: effective, cheap birth control

I covered the effects of the Pill on marriage in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2004 so I won't belabor it at length here. Key excerpt:

Since the invention of the Pill some 40 years ago, human beings have for the first time been able to control reproduction with a very high degree of assurance. That led to what our grandparents would have called rampant promiscuity. The causal relationships between sex, pregnancy and marriage were severed in a fundamental way. The impulse toward premarital chastity for women was always the fear of bearing a child alone. The Pill removed this fear. Along with it went the need of men to commit themselves exclusively to one woman in order to enjoy sexual relations at all. Over the past four decades, women have trained men that marriage is no longer necessary for sex. But women have also sadly discovered that they can't reliably gain men's sexual and emotional commitment to them by giving them sex before marriage.

Nationwide, the marriage rate has plunged 43% since 1960. Instead of getting married, men and women are just living together, cohabitation having increased tenfold in the same period. According to a University of Chicago study, cohabitation has become the norm. More than half the men and women who do get married have already lived together.
Remember, that was seven years ago and trends have moved on. Now we are in the age of "Cheap dates - How the ‘price’ of sex has dropped to record lows." 
Women are jumping into the sack faster and with fewer expectations about long-term commitments than ever, effectively discounting the “price” of sex to a record low, according to social psychologists.

More than 25% of young women report giving it up within the first week of dating. While researchers don’t have a baseline to compare it to, interviews they have conducted lead them to believe this is higher than before, which increases the pressure on other women and changes the expectations of men. ...

Sex is so cheap that researchers found a full 30% of young men’s sexual relationships involve no romance at all -- no wooing, dating, goofy text messaging. Nothing. Just sex.

Men want sex more than women do. It’s a fact that sounds sexist and outdated. But it is a fact all the same -- one that women used for centuries to keep the price of sex high (if you liked it back in the day, you really had to put a ring on it). With gender equality, the Pill and the advent of Internet porn, women’s control of the meet market has been butchered.

As a result, says Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, men are “quicker to have sex in our relationships these days, slower to commitment and just plain pickier.”
This is not an improvement. Despite almost 50 years of social engineering to try to find a manless substitute for marriage, nothing better than traditional marriage has been found to propagate the next generation, which is, after all, what keeps homo sapiens a going concern. Obviously, unwed women can bear children as we know all too well, but those children are at a marked disadvantage compared to kids raised in households living with both natural parents, disadvantage not only financially but socially. 

But with easy availability to sex, men have less and less incentive to marry. Saint Paul advised young men that "it is better to marry than to burn" with lust, but today young men don't have to do either. See also, "Why Are Women More Promiscuous Than Ever?" that asks the truly stupid question, "And why are men taking advantage of it by withholding commitment? " Because, to be deliberately pedantic, "you don't need to buy a cow when milk is cheap." Hence,

It’s little wonder that the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who are married has shrunk by an average of 1% each year this past decade -- down to 46% now. Single women have been catching on, but those who don’t discount sex say they can’t seem to get anyone to “pay” their higher price.
Meaning that women whose position is that he don't get the thing if she don't get the ring find that the market is wide open for him to look elsewhere. Only if enormous numbers of women decided alike to charge a higher price for their favors could this trend be reversed. But what are the odds?
“Let’s be realistic: It’s not going to happen here,” Regnerus says. “Women don’t really need men and marriage -- economically, socially, and culturally -- like they once did. What I hear in interviews with women is plenty of complaining about men or about the dating scene, but their annoyance is seldom directed at other women.”
Trend three: "The perils of no-fault divorce"
In states with no-fault divorce (including New York) the marital contract is severed on the unilateral demand of one spouse -- often the wrongdoer, with whom matrimonial judges consistently side. Victory in family court frequently coincides, too, with effective use of “preemptive strikes” -- legal motions and maneuvers that empower the “prepared” side (i.e., the one who launched the divorce), and especially the one with more cash on hand.

And eyes roll at any mention of misdeeds like adultery. It’s the 21st century, folks!

Because most judges face a huge volume of cases, litigants get herded in and out as quickly as possible. Dissents and other attempts to hold up the process get slapped down: This is a divorce factory, not an effort to produce justice.
Once upon a time, society in general valued the integrity of the marriage contract so highly that divorce was granted only for exceptional reasons. No fault divorce changed that and now either the husband or the wife can file to dissolve the marriage for any reason s/he wants. All fifty states and D.C. have no-fault divorce laws on the books. At least 70 percent of divorces are initiated by the wife and up to 90 percent of custody awards go to the woman (link).

A deleterious result is that men are increasingly reluctant (or able) to marry at all. Recent data on decreasing marriage rates of men are skewed by effects of the Great recession that began in 2008 and continued higher jobless rates of men than women. However, just from 2008-2009, the rate dropped significantly, continuing a trend of a few decades.

Trend four: increasing rates of cohabitation

My anecdotal observation is that since entering full-time clergy appointment in 1997, 90 percent of the couples who have asked me to officiate their wedding were already living together. I actually think, but don't know, that the other 10 percent were, too, but I know that 90 percent were. They were of all ages, including a couple in their fifties.

Repeated studies show that the cohabitation rate has risen sharply since 1960. This bodes ill for their marriage.

Many studies have found that those who live together before marriage have a considerably higher chance of eventually divorcing. The reasons for this are not well understood. In part, the type of people who are willing to cohabit may also be those who are more willing to divorce. There is some evidence that the act of cohabitation itself generates attitudes in people that are more conducive to divorce, for example the attitude that relationships are temporary and easily can be ended.
If either of the partners has a child when they move in together (almost always it is the woman, hardly ever the man) then the risk to the child is raised well above the risk a child has when living with both actual parants who are married. This risk is higher even if the couple shacking up are both the parents of the child. 

Wintery Knight asks, " Is cohabitation a bigger problem for society than divorce?

new report says cohabitation has replaced divorce as the biggest source of instability for American families. ...

It certainly is the case that cohabiting couples who have children tend to be less educated, poorer, and less committed to their relationship than couples who have children in marriage.

So one reason that children are less likely to thrive in cohabiting families than in intact, married families is that their parents, or the adults in their lives, have fewer of the resources that they need to be good parents.

But the best research on cohabitation and child well-being controls for factors like income, education, and race/ethnicity. And even after you control for these factors, you still find that children in cohabiting families are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, delinquency, drug use, and the like.

For instance, one study from the University of Texas at Austin found that teens living in a cohabiting stepfamily were more than twice as likely to use drugs, compared to teens living in an intact married family–even after controlling for differences in income, education, race, and family instability.
Read the whole thing.

Typically, discovering that the market rate for sex is practically zero and that men are thus less inclined to marry (for other reasons, too), a woman often concludes that since sex won't make a man commit to her (since he can get it else-whom easily), maybe living with her will. Once he discovers how desirable she is in other ways, she thinks he'll decide to tie the knot. Sometimes, yes, but if cohabiting couples do get married, the woman typically marries the third man she has lived with and the man the second woman. A woman usually thinks that cohabiting will lead to marriage, but the man thinks that cohabiting substitutes for marriage.

Anyway, soon the typical cohabiting woman discovers the downside: Men who shack up with women are bums, literally -- "A new study reveals that a man is more likely to live with a woman outside marriage if he is financially unstable." Well, duh.

Trend five: the rise of the woman professional and the impossible-standard fantasy

Women are as a group becoming better educated than men. This alone makes it tough for marriage because women are generally hypergamous, meaning they almost never agree to "marry down," while men have never had a problem with it. When a successful, financially well-off woman professional surveys bachelor availability, there are diminishing numbers of single men who are of equal or greater status. 

And increasing number of women are choosing careers over marriage. It is not just men who are delaying or avoiding marriage. More and more women are, too, since they can have sex without fear of pregnancy (except for, "oops") and altogether need men less and less for financial support. Increasingly, women are deciding in their college years that they can delay marriage until their advanced degrees are completed and their careers established, meaning that many of them deliberately decide to wait until their thirties to marry.

Which is not to say that their decision will come true. When a professional woman reaches her thirties, who does she think will be waiting for her? By then pretty much all the single men left will be (a) never married and not inclined to do so, (b) divorced, which has its own attendant risks since second marriages fail at a much higher rate than first marriages, or (c), well, gay. Good luck with that. Even a minimally hypergamous woman will find very slim pickings, indeed.

Time magazine, "Who Needs a Husband?", July, 2007:
Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, argues that women have set themselves up for disappointment, many putting off marriage until their 30s only to find themselves unskilled in the art of compatibility and surrounded by male peers looking over their Chardonnays at women in their 20s. "Modern people approach marriage like it's a Bosnia-Serbia negotiation. Marriage is no longer as attractive to men," she says. "No one's telling college girls it's easier to have kids in your 20s than in your 30s."

Michael Broder, a Philadelphia psychotherapist and author of The Art of Living Single, decries what he calls the "perfect-person problem," in which women refuse to engage unless they're immediately taken with a man, failing to give a relationship a chance to develop. "Few women can't tell you about someone they turned down, and I'm not talking about some grotesque monster," he says. "But there's the idea that there has to be this great degree of passion to get involved, which isn't always functional. So you have people saying things like, 'If I can't have my soul mate, I'd rather be alone.' And after that, I say, 'Well, you got your second choice."
More on this as an update in January 2023: The Rise of the Single Woke (and Young, Democratic) Female. I am ignoring the "Democratic" part of that to offer these relevant facts:
The number of never married women has grown from about 20% in 1950 to over 30% in 2022, while the percentage of married women has declined from almost 70% in 1950 to under 50% today. Overall, the percentage of married households with children has declined from 37% in 1976 to 21% today.  

A new Institute for Family Studies analysis  of 2020 Census data found that one in six women do not have children by the time they reach the end of their childbearing years, up from one in ten in 1990. Single adult women now total some 42 million... .

The Pew Research Center notes that since 1960, single-person households in the United States have grown from 13% to 27% (2019). Many, particularly women, are not all that keen on finding a partner. Pew recently found that “men are far more likely than women to be on the dating market: 61% of single men say they are currently looking for a relationship or dates, compared with 38% of single women.” 

I am just describing, not prescribing, for I don't have a prescription that is realistically possible in our culture. Women simply do not need a man's financial support as much as they used to and growing numbers of women do not want to get married for any reason. At the same time, a woman's sexual inducement for a man to take vows is practically shredded by other women lowering the "price" of sex to almost nil. And the widening belief among men (justified or not) is that most marriages are doomed to end in divorce, resulting in them being court ordered to pay their ex a significant percentage of their income for years to come. 
That lessens their willingness to marry, too.

This is not going to be turned around. It is the new reality and the new "normal." But there is nothing normal about it.

Update, Sept. 2023: The Indispensable InstitutionA new book may relax the taboo in policy circles on discussing the importance of two-parent families.
[O]n a wide variety of measures, the average child growing up in single-parent homes is at a disadvantage compared with their two-parent peers. On the most concrete level, single mothers have less money and time to devote to their children, and they are at higher risk of poverty and welfare dependence. On a societal level, the rise of single-parent homes has increased and entrenched both economic and social inequality. 
Growing up apart from a father carries considerable risks for children aside from economic hardship. Boys, in particular, are more likely to have academic and behavioral problems without their fathers in the house, and, statistically speaking, the presence of a stepfather doesn’t make their futures look any rosier. Growing up in a single-mother household is associated with poorer college completion, even after controlling for a host of other variables, as well as with diminished likelihood of marrying or staying married upon reaching adulthood. 
These well-researched facts have evidently failed to impress Americans. Since the 1960s, the percentage of the nation’s children living with a single mother has only gone up. Today, 40 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers; that’s double the share in 1980. In many subgroups, the all-but-universal tie between marriage and childbearing has been completely severed. In the early decades of the transformation of the family, single mothers were likely to have been divorced, but by the 1980s, the majority of single mothers had never married in the first place.  ...

That puts kids at a double disadvantage: not only do the children of unmarried parents not live with their fathers; even if they maintain relationships with them (and many do not), those relationships are often strained. Never-married dads are far less likely to remain involved with their children than divorced dads—in part, perhaps, because their children’s mothers, or the fathers themselves, have moved on to new relationships. These trends have turned the U.S. into the global capital of fatherless families.  
Update, Wall Street Journal (free link): "On Marriage, an Economist Bravely States the Obvious - 

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