“Love and marriage, love and marriage …” the Frank Sinatra song from 1955 is the beginning of the theme song of a popular television show called “Married with Children”, set in Chicago. The show, which ran from 1987 to 1997 featuring the Bundy family of four, satirizes marital dysfunction. In 1973, Gary Becker of the celebrated University of Chicago Department of Economics had pontificated on a neoclassical general equilibrium theory of marriage in the Journal of Political Economy. Becker, a sociology undergraduate and a mentee of Milton Friedman, rose to fame subsequently winning a Nobel Memorial Prize from Sweden’s Riksbank in Economics in 1992, for his attempts to explain sociology through the lens of neoclassical economic theory.
1973 was also the beginning of the post-60’s decade of cultural liberalism in America, of marital licentiousness and wife swapping, famously captured by John Updike in his novel about the Ford years, “Memories of the Ford Administration.” Since then, that social change has not vaned, but has morphed into the more sophisticated trend known as “open marriages” of professional men and women, as women’s numbers began to rise in the workplace beginning in the ‘80s, reminiscent of Hollywood at work.
To be fair, such social attitudes have always existed in history, famously fictionalized in stories about mistresses and lovers as in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Scarlet Letter, Dr. Zhivago, and Madame Bovary and in reality from Rasputin to the British Royal Family, without forgetting the ladies’ man that Benjamin Franklin was. The Vedic Aryans had practiced both polygamy and polyandry and so have the Mormons, polygamy. To Frenchmen and women from Francois Mitterand to Dominique Strauss Kahn, mistresses and lovers are a way of life, whether in Champs Elysees or at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, has taken this licentiousness, unabashedly, to the levels only seen during Roman antiquity.
Today’s open marriages are but a puritanical variation of polygamy and polyandry, de facto hanky panky while being in de jure marriages to put up social facades. In the cultures of Washington and Lower Manhattan, such behaviors have been considered normal for as long as these two cities existed. These increasingly endemic realities of everyday culture characterize the novel of John Updike. Any resistance to it by a marginal few turns it into a cultural and political war of Democratic Clintonian guilt that had arisen more out of public shame than conscience versus the presumed and self-righteous Republican perfection. Traditional marriages have always been about the restraint of passions in a naturally non-monogamous species, whose conjugal habits are similar to its omnivorous eating habits, to ensure social stability.
Gary Becker, a trained sociologist, had simplistically simplified away all of that, sticking to the zany mathematical sanitizations of neoclassical economic general equilibrium in the marriage market, when the true model consists of two equilibria: a de jure equilibrium and a shadow equilibrium, consisting of an equilibrium market-clearing price of marital social order and over-the-counter unmeasured prices of quasi-non-marital behaviors respectively. Social cohesiveness and cultural quality are dependent on which dominates which, both behaviors not unknown to academia (they are, in fact, rampant).
Becker’s conclusion in his 1973 Journal of Political Economy paper “A Theory of Marriage I” that “[f]or example, the gain to a man and woman from marrying compared to remaining single is shown to depend positively on their incomes, human capital, and relative difference in wage rates. The theory also implies that men differing in physical capital, education or intelligence (aside from their effects on wage rates), height, race, or many other traits will tend to marry women with like values of these traits, whereas the correlation between mates for wage rates or for traits of men and women that are close substitutes in household production will tend to be negative” does not pass the smell test of reality, let alone the econometric validity of the conclusion itself. Neoclassical economists, similar to traditional families relying on astrologers for match making, like to believe their own baloney emanating from their high priests and perhaps even marry or separate that way if not impose that tyranny on others.
When women are increasingly becoming better educated and earning more than men and restraint becoming an inherently non-monogamous trait, Becker’s economics of marriage is not only not correct but irrelevant and perhaps so is marriage. Economists must get out of the business of matching (a Nobel for the work on the matching problem was awarded to Peter Diamond of MIT in 2010), jobs or marriage, because they are ill-suited to their own jobs and if they are lucky, they will be good fits in their marriages to be able to lead less dismal and happier lives.
Those contemplating marriage must keep finances separate from the start, seal that arrangement with a pre-nuptial agreement and keep the books diligently while in the marriage to be always prepared for divorces that are as simple as the marriages themselves in a legal system that is woefully behind the social reality, and is painfully and parasitically dysfunctional trying to achieve some illusory state of normative marital order through the law, which could perhaps constitute an unconstitutional intrusion into the private lives of Americans, hurting the parties involved more than helping them.
The biological reality of love is that it is simply brain chemistry acting in the self-interest, with marriage being primarily about a stable supply of sex and the woman’s biological clock for species survival. Middle age and beyond it is about companionship.
If those marrying think they are marrying for love, in most cases they are bound to be disappointed, whatever the Sinatra theme song from the TV show.
Happy Valentine’s weekend!