Power Couples

Town and Country

I am sitting on an old style white chalked brick veranda with a sweeping view of expansive forests and rolling hills. The woodlands cover about five times the area of the settlements in their midst. I grew up here, so although I cannot see the detail of the boscage from where I sit, I know it to harbor fir, spruce, white oak, maple, beeches and birches. On a warm humid day with wind you can smell the spruce. And with the hindsight of economic studies, I recognize the region to host a wood cluster, from forestry along the value chain of industrial and fine carpentry and about any wood product a house may need. Some of the unpretentious medium sized manufacturers are world market leaders for a random product, like a kind of wood siding, or window caulking. Social networks in the small towns are dense, it is easy to know everyone living in the region, at least a little.

When I left this peaceful place for the first time to live in a big city, one of the things that struck me was the anonymity that reigns once you hit the million person mark. Every day you meet people and families that your parents or other kin did not know before. You have to actively build up a stock of knowledge about them, and several people may not have ‘a reputation’ of some sort because the turnover of interactions is so fast and fluid.
At the same time, the amount of opportunities and choice are wonderful. In the city I moved to, you had a bus for every destination you wanted to get to, a course for any subject you wanted to learn. Out of the 6m inhabitants, you had a pool of at least 1m you could interact with and recruit friends from. It was easy to match preferences, from classical music over poetry to spiritual brand. Sports, music and any other hobby could be practiced at near olympic standards. (And the city we are talking about is Bogota, not Boston. In the 1990s. Just for the record.)

The variety of jobs people did was diverse too. In addition to teachers and doctors, I met salesmen, bankers, engineers, painters, entrepreneurs in retail, textile manufacturing, forwarding and furniture design, employees and managers of multinationals. I could make out a couple of clusters touching the city: the beverage industry, furniture and jewelry design, pharma and cosmetics. Professional activities mingled and overlapped and moving from one to another was a more obvious and more frequent choice than in my original forestial dwelling.

Love in the City

Which surroundings are best for your dating? It depends. As people couple up, they think about compatibility. This includes natural affinity, values and preferences, but it also includes very practical matters. Such as, will both partners work, and where will they work. The industrially more diverse metropolitan environment is likely to hold more options for either half of the couple. If both partners want to work, they will be more able to do that in the city rather than in the country. They are also more likely to find a better job match in the city. I.e. the more demanding and peculiar they are about what they want to do, the more they will benefit from the better odds in the city of actually finding it. In principle.

Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn mined valuable data from the US and corroborated this story in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (Nov 2000). Between 1940 and 1990, the college educated drifted increasingly to cities, and the biggest driver of this drift was the emergence of Dual Earner couples. By far. Husband AND wife started to work, and career minded people increasingly mated with career minded people. (As for why this suddenly happened, see my previous post Opposites Distract.)
This does not mean there are no power couples in the countryside, but if you look closely you will realize they are far fewer. And mostly covering the essential services: medicine, teaching, pharmacy, religion. Unless both partners happen to specialize in the particular local industry.

The emergence of dual earners is a sign of greater equality in couples. But the process of their concentration in cities helps create spaces of two speeds. By attracting qualified people more easily, cities will thrive more. While the countryside suffers brain drain. Over time, town and country may drift apart in productivity and wealth.

Digital Desegregation

However, let’s not forget that this is 2016. The spatial segregation I describe above applies to jobs that are geographically bound, that need a specific place of work and personal presence. This requirement is fading in many industries. Digital jobs like programmer and web designer can be done from any place with an internet connection, and so can many back- and sometimes front office jobs in finance, medicine and retail. Presence jobs in fields as diverse as diplomacy, engineering and science have phases that can be covered effectively and (more) efficiently through telework.

And this is why I can sit on this white veranda and enjoy the clean air and the view of the forests in the evening sun. My blog will soon be posted to the internet, visible in town and country alike. And my man is sitting next door and writing his own.

Opposites Distract

A Tale of Two Lives

My grandma Ann was a sporty, almost athletic woman who loved to swim. She had learned home economics in an exclusive boarding school and was a highly professional housewife. She knew the nutritional content of every staple food by heart and spent all morning cooking and straightening the house, aided by a maid. The afternoons were for looking after the kids and/ or paying and receiving calls. Her husband, my grandpa, worked long hours in his own law practice. I am not sure how much time their lifestyles left for joint leisure. On Sundays there was mass – which my grandma enjoyed and grandpa didn’t. And a bit of joint paying and receiving calls, according to a code that is no longer in use. (The maid would bring three business cards on a tray to announce a visiting couple: one from the wife and the husband each for grandma, and one from the husband for grandpa. Because a lady would not call on a gentleman.) My grandparents’ marriage project did not include a big plan for joint spare time; that was a secondary question if a question at all. They were from the same broader region but otherwise not very much the same. If they had something you could call hobbies, grandma loved doing sports with the kids, and churchy things. Grandpa went deer hunting with his buddies.Their tastes and views differed in books, music, politics and culture more generally. I know for a fact they voted for different parties all their lives. Opposites had attracted each other very much, they married young. It was more important for them to economically complement each other; grandma’s perfect running of the household including all nooks and crannies allowed grandpa to rise in his career, gain some notoriety in his profession and thereby build modest wealth for his family.

My other granny’s story is quite different. After secondary school, she had learned a trade that would earn her money. She worked several years as a commercial and legal secretary, and ended up running the front office of a regional court. Having turned down several marriage proposals, she may have started to worry parents and acquaintances with her insistence to marry for love alone. Finally, at the (then mature) age of 29, she accepted my grandfather who swept her off her feet. This marriage was two birds of a feather flocking together. Her teacher husband loved soft classical music, historic books and endless conversations with friends at least as much as she did if not more. They were both deeply religious; they also voted for the same party. The part time nature of their work allowed them to spend some leisure together and many family photos show the two of them with the kids. They took vacations and loved adventurous outings on their two huge motorbikes before the war did them part.

Love and technological change

What happened in the few years between my two grannies’ marriage dates? How come one follows a more traditional and one a seemingly more modern pattern? According to a paper by Lundberg and Pollak in 2007, two fundamental technical developments changed the lives of families in the first half of the 20th century: the surgence of household machines, and the pill. Before the advent of the machines, it was useful for partners to specialize, that is, for the husband to work and for the wife to look after the house and any children. Different skills sets and possibly different personalities in either half of the couple would allow this arrangement to work best. Tastes and likes were secondary, as Gary Becker’s seminal work on family economics underlines.

Household machines alleviated a housewife’s workload. A washing machine, even an antique one, allowed to handle multiples of the load that one could do with a scrubbing board on a basin. Coffee machines freed up one soul in the household to do something else for twenty minutes. This meant, that once the kids were in school, the woman could also go to work outside the house. Rewarded work made sense for women, and it made sense for their parents to invest in an education that would prepare for it. The pill (or other accessible forms of family planning) supported this trend as women could complete a full cycle of education well into their childbearing years. (On this one, also see Raquel Fernandez’s work.)

Women grew into a position to earn and to look after themselves. They did not need a breadwinner but won their own bread. In these circumstances, marriage was no longer a must. There were viable outside options for a young woman, at least economically; if probably at a social cost.

Love and leisure

Marriages became more of a choice than a necessity. They needed a joint fun component, and a leisure component. Joint leisure was made possible by the technological revolution in household machinery. In this world, husband and wife want to spend time together that they both enjoy. They want to have conversations for the sake of them, not because they are needed. To this end, it is recommendable to choose a partner that is similar in education and tastes. A partner that likes to do the same things in his leisure rather than a partner that occupies himself most efficiently in a complementary manner while his other half is also efficiently occupied in her job. The more salient joint leisure is in your life, the more opposites distract.

Social atavism?

The coupling of similar people is a feature we observe strongly in contemporary marriages. This so-called assortative mating has increased over time, and keeps increasing still. Partners are now usually close in education and wage, and also height, weight, and age. High-flying athletic lawyers tend to marry high flying athletic lawyers.  This does not mean that a regression on the social evolution over the generations is impossible. Opposites do find and attract each other sometimes, and it is not always clear where likeness ends and opposite-ness begins. In this day and age, however, there can be a tension between the economic reality and a traditional relationship model. Marriages between opposites last less long, on average, than those between well assorted mates.

New Year Special: 6 Things To Make The Joy Last


Do you still feel the holiday warmth? Our house for sure still breathes hot chocolate, cookies, spiced goose, gifts, generosity and good company. I love it, and would like it to linger.

Can it? Over the years I have found that what can last without boredom is the inner part, the family ties, the altruism, the generosity – non-material would be too simple an expression; family ties can be very material. But transcendental nonetheless. The consumption aspects grow stale far too quickly. I mean I lurrve chocolates. Really. But I can’t look at them right now. Not even the finest brands – which I usually crave all year.

Another phenomenon came up this holiday, and everyone, including president Obama apparently, is going gaga about Fates and Furies. I also enjoy the read. Being still in the first quarter of the book, it’s kooky and a little bit crazy, a tasty and lighter bite after Crime and Punishment, which my book club wormed through earlier.

The new book, as many of you may know, dwells on marriage. How it can be something altogether new even after a string of relationships. The book marvels, almost like a distant perplexed observer, about how marriage can last, about passion that lasts.

But it can. Yes it can.

Psychologists have found that the kind of passion that typically a new love brings can indeed last decades. In very long-term couples that report still being madly in love, MRIs find brain activity that suggests new love next to other feelings commonly found in older companionate marriages, such as trust, familiarity and a feeling of kinship.

I am actually not surprised. In fact, I am rather happy that someone else provides a good argument-ology to my anecdotal observations and doesn’t let me look like a doe eyed dreamer when I claim the same.

So what makes the joy of marriage last? There are six attitudes you need to hold on to and cultivate, according to this research. Hint, we are onto our seasonal theme again: inner values matter. Intentionality matters. Having friends matters.

So here you go:

  1. Have some money, but spend it frugally and don’t care if your partner is rich. The couple should have solid earnings (i.e. more than $125k for the household). But only little should be spent on the engagement ring and the wedding, and neither partner should care if the other is rich.
  2. Don’t care too much about looks either. People who report caring about the looks of their partner are more likely to divorce.
  3. Go to religious worship regularly. This one is now well established in the research, and no wonder. Common values bond, a network of friends with the same values supports, and the whole thing is transcendental and non-consumerist = the essence of durability.
  4. Date 3 or more years before engagement. It sure helps to know each other well, to weed out any remaining information asymmetry, and to have weathered some ups and downs together. But to be honest, this one is a bit of a trade-off with the previous habit. The religiously observant, for whom ‘time before engagement’ often means abstinence, will not be thrilled by the length of this time. Religious people tend to have shorter pre-engagement and pre-marriage times.
  5. Have lots of friends at the wedding. People with bigger (but not more expensive) weddings are less likely to divorce. This one may be a proxy for ‘have lots of friends’ generally. People with lots of friends are probably not dramatically difficult to get along with, plus they have networks for help (with kids, the house) and emotional support. The appreciation of friends for the bride and groom is essential also because its absence would mean that partners would sometimes have to choose whom to spend time with, friends or spouse.
  6. Go on honeymoon. People who went on honeymoon are significantly less likely to divorce than people who did not. This probably means, don’t be too stressed or too workaholic to have a honeymoon at all. Or, in other words, be able to rank your relationship more highly than any other gainful occupation.

In the hope that every reader’s joy may last during 2016 and beyond. Happy New Year!

 

Mothers In Law Are The Best Thing For Marriage

How the emergence of grandmothers helped build monogamy

You may remember the saving moment when granny arrived on the scene, a few days after the first baby decided (your) sleep was overrated. Grannies still know how to hold and soothe a baby, and many of them cannot think of anything that makes them happier. Grannies also, conveniently, biologically need sleep a little less than younger women.

While in modern times it can feel like they save young parents’ lives, in ancient times, they actually did save lives. Families who had a grandmother around, that is, a woman who would no longer bear children but could look forward to another twenty-odd years of life, had better survival chances. Granny could look after older children while mummy had a new baby at the breast, and daddy was free to go hunting. Families whose genes supported such a lifecycle, i.e. the end of female fertility during healthy years, were favored by evolution.

A recent PNAS article explains in more detail that an increase in life histories involving grandmothering had another beneficial side effect. In societies with active grandmothers as described above, fertile males would naturally outnumber fertile females. And as mentioned previously here and here, this also means, (fertile) women had higher bargaining power than men. Men needed to compete for fertile females; the latter could choose and thereby call the shots.

In a world where women call the shots (also see here), a couple of things happen to relationships and family life. You have empirically a higher incidence of monogamous marriage, higher earnings for men and higher wealth for young parents. – All symptoms of men working hard to obtain the favors of women.

In short, the emergence of grandmas has very likely helped couples form a strong and stable bond (as desired by -the newly powerful- women.)

With this in mind, a warm thanks to all grandmothers, and well wishes to all grandparents, on the occasion of National Grandparents’ Day, 13th September!

Power, Commitment and Dating: 5 Lessons from Jean Tirole

Jean Tirole recently received the prize in memory of Alfred Nobel for Economics, for his work on firms’ market power. Understanding how his sharp insights translate into the world of dating took me considerable mulling over, although it now feels obvious upon hindsight.

You probably all remember a beau that casually dated many women at once, “stringing them along” without making up his mind on who he should become exclusive with. Or a woman that nourished many admirers’ hopes for a long time, without settling with any one, but also without letting any one of them pursue another woman. Such is the nature of power in the dating market. And Tirole’s insights are highly relevant (and make for wicked strategies, actually).

Here are five key lessons:

1. People with power in the dating market can effectively ward off competitors. For a description of what that might look like, see above, and dig in your high school memories.

2. You can tell commitments from non-commitments, even in a powerful person. True commitments are actions that are hard to reverse. For example, if she moves house to be near you, that would be a commitment. As would be a publicly announced engagement, or, of course, marriage. Declaring the relationship exclusive to close friends, and to any admirers or former dates probably also counts. However, spending time with you, being intimate, and/or being generous with you, is no commitment. It can be stopped at will.

3. Dating market power is hard to maintain. Warding off a competitor is costly; it will take time and effort to string along that one woman that is already turning her head towards someone else, or that one admirer that is about to give up.

4. But power can be broken. If put under the right kind of pressure, the monopolist beau or belle will behave as if powerless. If the above described effort to maintain power is altogether more painful than losing that person from one’s circle of influence so to speak, then the powerful dater will let his subject move on. So the trick is to push the boundaries: if you are the competitor, i.e. the dating market entrant that would like to snatch one worthy date from the circle around the beau, just keep the lady of your intentions as busy and entertained as you can. It needn’t be with dates; if you have other avenues to meet her or engage her along her interests, even without you being involved (sports clubs, work, volunteering, your friends etc), do so. Make sure the monopolist beau will have a hard time keeping up (or finding spare minutes in her calendar). If she is not his favorite, he will let go.

5. Building up that kind of dating power from scratch can be a ton of work. Obtaining uniqueness in the dating world, to the extent that one can exercise market power, is comparable to  investing until securing a patent. What could those investments look like in the dating world? Building up a network, organizing social events, fun activities and gatherings, attracting and hosting interesting conversations…are all activities that enhance popularity and thereby dating power. It might also help to hit the gym three times a week until in ship shape. In some cases Miss or Mr monopolist may have a huge advantage on these accounts; too huge for anyone to follow. If a potential follower fails to realize (aka be impressed by) the size of the task, a stiff competition can ensue and the leader effectively be leapfrogged. Ha!

No guarantees when you apply any of this in real life…

The Price of Naptime

You know what’s the best time of the day? If you are a parent of young children that is. Naptime. Those 1-2 hours in the afternoon they nod off and let you be. One good hour for mum and dad to do what they want, alone or, together. Read a book, write a blog, engage in a passionate conversation. Essential. Restoring. For body, mind, soul – and sanity.

Of course, this one hour is only worth so much because the other hours of the day are filled with toddlers’ laughter, their crazy and creative ideas, needs, energy and wisdom. It is a clear case of diminishing returns. Given that this is one hour only, it is valued highly. One hour more would still be fun, two hours more (of productive solitude) would be helpful, but three kid free leisure hours would probably max out the fun, and any further minute would be boring and lonely.

Ok, just wanted to quickly get this message out before a little chocolate stained finger tries out my keyboard, as the soft steps on the corridor seem to announce…

 

Dating in the Times of Piketty – part II

This is the second part of our musings on dating in a more unequal world. As we discussed in part I, we have a few relevant case studies, both historic (feudal Europe) and contemporary (countries with largely Western culture and relatively high inequality, say parts of Latin America). Still, both sets of cases do not fully reflect the situation developed Western nations are gliding into according to Piketty.

Let’s see what is different and what that means for us.
Different from feudal Europe:

  1. Agency of women. In contrast to Jane Austen’s times, women now have voting rights, full property rights, can marry and divorce as men can, and are active in politics and business. The first born daughter may well end up running the family business. (No need to smash the entail, Lord Grantham.) We also know that women, on average, tend to be more left leaning in politics than men. Summing up, this means on the one hand, that hypergamy will likely be an attractive option for both genders (see part I) and courtship patterns may change. Not only will we see groomed young women queuing and trying to prove their virtues to the Mr Darcys, we will also see groomed young men queuing and trying to prove their virtues to, say, Paris Hilton. On the other hand, women’s agency has shifted the political center to the left. This makes it more likely that the bottom 99 percent will oppose an unequal world and vote for a politician that can offer a credible route out of it. Finally, it will also mean that men and women overall have more occasion to meet and mix, at university and work, say.
  2. Wealth is mostly represented by capital, not land. Capital can grow; land only up to a limit. So overall, social mobility in Piketty-land should not be quite as restricted as in Austen-land.
  3. Internet, social media. Any return to inequality will be well documented and well known. The fact that Piketty stirred up the world in so short a time, even the fact that I can write and share this very blog, are witnesses to this change. The average people can see the rich people’s life style more easily, more completely and can choose to covet or to criticize it. Facebook is not exactly a paragon nexus of social mobility, but certainly more so than an Austenian ballroom. The fact that average yours truly is facebook friend with some royalty, as well as heir/esses gives reason for hope. Mrs Bennet’s duty is still valid, but got a little easier. The wealthy networks are more infiltratable.

Different from both feudal Europe and quasi-feudal contemporaries:

  1. Smaller families. This should, on average, make it a bit more difficult to spread inherited capital widely. There are simply fewer heirs and heiresses to marry off.
  2. Longevity. The overall life length is of relatively little interest. What matters is the length of productive life, which seems to expand only slowly or not at all. A longer productive life would give more opportunity to run business risks and thereby accumulate wealth; more opportunity for social mobility. Still, longevity alone already means a longer time span in which heirs need to stand on their own two feet, before cashing in.

Despite all these differences, our main prediction from part I remains. Marriage will be more important a means to access wealth than it is now. And wealth will therefore play a larger part in choosing our partner. The downside is, obviously, that loveless marriages are likely to become, once again, a distinct and accepted possibility.

Mothers As Benign Dictators: 3 Economic Problems Solved By Motherhood

We have been hearing a lot about things mothers worry about, problems they see and experience more than others. I would therefore like to dedicate this one minute read to three problems that true motherhood effectively solves.

1. Communal goods. Goods with more than one proprietor rarely work, see communism. A pasture that belongs to all shepherds of a town usually gets overused (economists call this the Tragedy of the Commons), and a kitchen in a student flatshare accumulates dirt or more. This is because one person can load the costs of his or her actions onto others without paying for them. Well, we only have interest in loading costs onto others if we don’t care for them too much. Mothers Care. Big time. Altruism undoes the Tragedy of the Commons because we care about others’ woes as much as our own.

2. Externalities. The process of being able to unload our costs onto others is called externality. It does not only happen with common goods, it also happens in pollution, excessively loud music etc. Externalities have been known to happen even between people who like each other. Like siblings, say. So called omniscient planners can detect and prevent externalities. Like, hm, mothers. They know. They see. They act. Turn down that blaster.

3. Natural Monopolies. A natural monopoly arises when it does not pay to have more than one provider of a good or service. There is then a risk that this sole provider charges too high a price or excludes people. I would reckon that in many families the car is such a natural monopoly, or the TV…or any asset that is too expensive to buy twice and sometimes hard to use by more than one person at once. In these cases too, mum can take a stand and manage access with fairness and altruism. Bloccupying the TV or car is not a sustainable strategy with most mums, my mum included….

In short, mothers can undo those problems that economic theory has found a so called ‘well meaning dictator’ can solve. The issue is that in the great wide world, well meaning dictators are a rare species. In our families however, we may know one or two.

Love and Work

I wanted to write a post that matches a seasonal date and picked 1st of May, which is the day of work (or labor) in many countries. And just as I am looking for an inspiration to write about Love and Work, a domestic discussion dawns upon me that is right on theme. Best Husband is not thrilled at yours truly working too much in the office and too little at home. He’s got a point: contrary to the mainstream, he really shoulders the bulk, some 90%, of our housework. He has also, for an extended time, been a stay-at-home-dad.

So what would a wise Economist advice? Who should do what in the home, and how much? Here are three points that should guide your decision:

  1. Comparative advantage. Old theory, still true. Who of you is comparatively faster and better at household chores (compared to other tasks that are waiting, such as childcare and work outside the house) should do more of them (and less of the other tasks). Putting all tasks on the table together may aid the negotiation.
  2. If you want more kids, make sure the woman doesn’t do too much. An Australian study (Craig and Siminski, Soc Pol 2010) found that the higher the workload of wives in a household, the less likely the household was to decide for a second child.
  3. Absolute workload matters more than relative share of husband vs wife. In the study mentioned above, the relative share showed no effect on fertility decisions. It doesn’t matter to the wife if the husband alleviates her load, or if hired help does. (Actually, the latter should be more popular, because the wife may want to spend her newfound leisure with her husband..rather than see him work.)

Who’s in Your League?

Charlotte is an extremely attractive woman in her late 30s. She is college educated, compassionate, sporty (good skier) and her beautiful craftwork could make Martha Stewart envious. No kidding. It would be easy to write her ad without any exaggeration. She has never had a want of suitors since the age of 13, when I first met her. – Still, she has been just as extremely unlucky in love. After several broken relationships, she is just about to give up on the couple thing. One thing that did puzzle me was her choice of partners: while honest and friendly, they were quite average in about everything else including looks, education, interests and effort.

Charlotte, for all I can see, has never held out for somebody in her own league. I would rather place her film star looks, bright mind and exquisite taste next to a hard-working, highly educated overachiever. A category that neither of her former partners inhabited.
This prompts me to plough the literature for 5 facts to keep in mind when choosing your own league:

  1.  You need to set your own standard and search for it. If you don’t find the quality you are looking for where you are, (also if you don’t really know how good things can get) you need to cast your net more widely. This means online dating, singles groups and, why not, the classic matchmaker. It also means pursuing your values. Fighting for a cause, whether in politics, an NGO or in your neighborhood community will unearth people who think on your wavelength.
  2. Men tend to overestimate, women to underestimate their attractiveness. (And within each gender, more attractive people underestimate, and less attractive ones overestimate their prowess.) Says this research. What is more, men become especially overconfident with attractive women. In the light of this, ladies and gentlemen (and stunners and wallflowers) kindly adjust your earlier assessment of yourself.
  3. Your league is relative. It can always be higher than you thought, in the right environment. As several speed dating studies found, your dating opportunities depend largely on circumstance. So choose your circumstances wisely.
  4. People in your league tend to like the same things as you. Taste is a good proxy for education, and education and effort are reasonable proxies for achievement. Moreover, it is good to choose a partner that likes the same things as you and enjoys doing them together; this will enhance relationship quality later on says research quoted here.
  5. Your confidence signals who you are. Check here. In a world where people don’t know you yet, they will go by the signal you send yourself. If it places a high value on yourself, that is the value people will assume.