Got money?

Who has got the money in your relationship? I mean, who has the capital? – The man, the woman? Who do you think has it in most male-female interactions?

Well, I am not talking money as in bucks or accounts. I am talking about assets much closer to a relationship: sexual capital. With the cold, indifferent mind of the economist, we need to acknowledge that the woman has it. Always had.

Here is why. There are markets for sexuality. Let’s leave values and emotions to one side just for a minute and imagine that sex is a commodity that can be sold and bought. Well, it can. There is prostitution, there is pornography, and both can be lucrative trades. Some economists even argue that marriage is a lifelong contract about selling sex. In the vast majority of cases, it is the man that is buying and paying a price, and the woman that is selling and receiving the money. Occasionally a man is selling, too, but usually to a man, and the market for that is pretty small. The big market for sex is women selling to men; visual material, audio material and physical actions. (And the marriage bed. There is evidence of monetary returns to marriage for women, but not men.) In short, the sexuality of a woman is an asset. It can be hired out and sold. The sexuality of a man – cannot.

Let this sink in for a while, ladies. YOU have got the capital. And you largely have control over the price: your offer is in short supply and men’s demand is, hm, high. Higher than you think. Higher than they want you to think, possibly. And you can regulate your supply. Here is a secret: any signal of scarcity increases the price. This is the whole secret behind guys wanting a woman that hasn’t had many men: a signal that her capital is in scarce supply. True, it matters if you are surrounded by willing or less willing sisters, but you are much less substitutable than you think. And, paradoxically, scarcity signals make you less substitutable.

In countries where women don’t have much power they still hold sexual capital – and treasure it all the more. Hence the high regard for virginity in these places: a scarcity signal so strong it suggests a monopoly. Non-virgins don’t need to worry though; sexual capital is a renewable resource. As far as signaling goes, virgin is as virgin does (not did).

Job and Children

Today’s post picks up a comment spotted in the WSJ in March this year

Dear Economist

when is the best time to have a child if you’re considering a career in academia/law/medicine– professions with prominent career milestones (tenure, partner, etc)? Grad school (lots of time, but little money)? Before tenure/partner (more money, less time, but tenure clock is ticking)? After tenure/making partner (biological clock is ticking…)? Is your answer the same for men and women?

My dear,

I am glad you are planning ahead for this. Yours truly found out about the advantages of different professions in this regard when she was already well into her career as a political economist and pregnant.

Economists have researched your question from the gender wage gap perspective. The gender wage gap is the gap (well, shortfall) of women’s wages with respect to men’s after controlling for all measurable factors that typically influence the wage. The gap is the difference in the net wage of a man and a woman that work in the same sector, have the same education and work experience and other measurable skills…A part of this wage gap is likely due to baby breaks. And the residual we cannot explain…is possibly discrimination.

Anyway, back to the topic. Claudia Goldin researched what different professions did to women’s wages and wellbeing, and it turns out that among educated women, the doctors had it best. Yep. The earnings penalty for taking maternity leave was found to be smallest for physicians and other medical professionals, smaller than for those with a JD or PhD. And the largest penalty hit women with an MBA. Ouch. And food for thought.

A few other things you may or not, want to know: male earnings rise with number of kids, female earnings diminish, but only because of hours worked. Full-time earning women also see their salaries rise with the number of kids. By the way, MDs also have the highest number of kids, on average, from the professional groups above. No wonder.

Your Economist

Who tells the truth, husbands or wives?

Scientists who collect survey data talk to a lot of people and ask them a lot of questions. That includes a lot of husbands and wives. Sometimes they ask the same question to both, but in separate meetings. For example about what the couple own, how they spend their time, how many kids they have and how many more they want.

What is reassuring is that husbands and wives give mostly the same answers. For nearly any question, 100% of husbands and wives agree on what is going on (says some recent research on this).

On some questions however, husbands and wives disagree more. Some of these are on opinions, like ‘how big do you want your family to be?’ It’s quite possible that couples do not agree. Or maybe they don’t talk much about it. But others are about clear facts, as in: do you use contraception? In the cited research, men tended to paint a more socially popular picture than their wives, on questions related to family planning and sexual health.

Hm. Maybe due to context. Or maybe not.

What can be done? Well, the effect was actually more marked in areas where women had lower status relative to men. Areas with more equity between men and women showed more consistency.

A Marriage Premium for Men

When economists talk about returns to marriage, they usually refer to women. There is good evidence that women, on average, ‘earn’ from marrying, through the husband’s higher wage. There is even a return to education that women can reap through marriage: highly educated women meet highly educated men (at university for example) i.e. the men who earn more than the less educated. (In some parts of the world, this will be the only return to education women will ever reap; nada with working outside the home.)

The news is that men, too, earn a marriage premium. But they earn it themselves. Here is how the story goes. Men who wish to marry make an effort in their job and by the time they marry, they actually have managed to improve their earnings. Marriage is enticing, and working towards it improves men’s professional and economic status. “If there were no returns to career choices in the marriage market, men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue-collar jobs over white-collar jobs” writes Eric Gould who studied the subject.

There is of course the risk that you pick up the fact that more prosperous men marry more easily anyway (and got prosperous by other motivations). But Eric Gould controlled for this issue and managed to strip out the domino chain that links the prospect of marriage to effort rather than the other way round. Only pitfall: the effect only works for average and lower earning men; highly earning men do not improve themselves by dreaming about marriage, they are already motivated.

Why Women Should Propose

Laura and her boyfriend Ed had dated for 6 years and lived together for five. They led a joyful, loving and successful life together as entrepreneurs in a European metropole. Their personalities completed each other: he, an introvert, polite, soft-spoken, laid back and the modern version of the humble scientist; she, an extrovert, passionate planner and organizer, presenter and confessing to an exhibitionist touch both professionally and privately. They indulged in the different hobbies they both brought to the relationship (he: avant-garde art, she: wedding fairs and books). They had jointly travelled half the globe, had a network of hundreds of common friends and intended to keep leading this life forever. The only thing missing: Ed just.did.not.propose. When Laura’s mother-in-law asked her about wedding plans, she owned up about the missing proposal. Ed’s mum then encouraged her to propose herself, as she thought would be fitting for an emancipated young woman. Laura plotted and planned and delivered a very romantic proposal to Ed. She proposed in a hot air balloon in the French countryside. Ed said yes. And for the protocol, he counter proposed not much later, in a helicopter. They have been married for 9 years now.

This may be the most radical post to date. Why should it matter who proposes? Other than for tradition, say. Well, tradition goes further than what we usually assume; it’s where the power sits. And if it is about proposing in a relationship, the first mover wins. He or she sets the agenda more than the one who reacts.

As reviewed by Nobel Prize Winner Dale Mortensen in 1988, an algorithm devised by Gale and Shapley in 1962 can be used to match employers and employees or husbands and wives. A series of matching outcomes is stable if no paired person has the desire to rather be single. However, in a given matching outcome some people can be better of than others. E.g. a matched person would not prefer to be single but rather be paired with someone else. While several people are happy with whom they are paired with. And it can be shown that the outcome is actually most favorable for those individuals who proposed the match first. They have more options to choose from than the ones who react and only can choose between different proposals.

So ladies, if you want to take charge of your relationship happiness, make a move. First.


Epiphany Special: Top 5 Factors for a Happy Marriage with Kids

As a sequel to last year’s Christmas Special, we revisit the topic of children and marriage. What do kids do to a relationship?  Brad Wilcox and friends at U Virginia know more. Yes, it is still true, that, on average, parenthood decreases marital happiness. Not overall happiness, but marital happiness. Yet, a significant minority of 35% remain happy in their marriage, or even see their marital happiness increase after children arrive. In the last Special, we looked at marital factors that differ for these folks. Today we look at the top 5 social aspects:

1.      Education. Education. Education. College-educated parents have more stable and happier marriages than their peers with lower education. The researchers reckon that stronger social skills and better money may be the underlying reasons. I beg to differ; especially as the Money factor is measured separately. In my humble opinion, higher education confers a stronger sense of empowerment and confidence in one’s own skills to solve problems.

2.       Money. Income does not matter for marital happiness. But financial stress does. Spouses with high consumer debt are likely not very happy in their marriage.

3.       Sharing chores and childcare. Mothers and fathers that share the housework and the childcare equally report higher marital happiness.

4.       Women working as much as they want, but not more. Mothers who work more hours than they would like to report lower happiness in their marriage.

5.       A (safety) net of friends and family. Extended family, and close friends can act as ‘insurance’ and alleviate some acute issues, for example regarding finances or childcare. They can also be a source of knowledge or education and role modeling. But: the influence can also go the other way. Family or friends that foster a critical attitude between the spouses or are bad role models will endanger marital happiness.


How long should you wait for sex?

Dear Economist,

how early in a relationship should you expect, or give in to, sex? I hear so many views on this topic that I am quite confused. Most guys want it as early as possible, and by the third date at the latest. Many dating gurus advise to wait – but not on how long. The only advice on timing comes from several world religions, which promote waiting until marriage. But how can this work in the modern world of dating? There seem to be no rules. – Now, do economists have a view on this?

Grateful for any light in this confusion, Yours, Katja

Dear Katja,

thanks for giving us an opportunity to answer this awesome question. We hear it a lot in conversation and counseling practice, but few people dare debate it online in a serious manner.

Yes – economists do have an opinion. A clear one, and empirically founded one. You should wait – for as long as you need a clear head to decide if the guy is the right one for you, and deserves your trust. (The question to you is then: what is ‘the right one’? If you are looking for someone to marry, then, yep, waiting until marriage is a good idea.)

Because after sex, the clear head will be gone and you will trust blindly. We owe this insight to a team of experimental economists at the University of Zurich. They tested the effect of oxytocin (the hormone women emit during orgasm, and also childbirth) on people’s judgment in an investment game. While the testees could still calculate well, they started to behave more trustingly and thereby opened themselves up to abuse.

Now, while it’s a good idea that mum and baby are bonded in blind trust, it may not be quite so useful in a dating relationship. Imagine you are high on oxytocin with someone that for some reason does not deserve your full trust. You risk being mucked about without even noticing.

You will say, great, but how can I ‘wait for sex’ in practice? My friends will think I’ve gone nuts.

First, your friends’ (or the majority’s) opinion should not come before your own wellbeing. Second, those who agree with the above (e.g. many world religions) have figured out all sorts of ways to delay sex until a time when it’s right. My favorite books on the matter haven been written by ladies who tested both worlds (waiting and not waiting)and then made their own conscious choice, Dawn Eden and  Wendy Shalit. You can save yourself your own trial-and-error by just reading about theirs.

Hope this works for you! Do check back in.

Best wishes,

Dr de Bergerac

Why Professional Women Marry Late

“The timing of a first marriage is related to the attractiveness of the alternatives to marrying. When women value roles that provide viable alternatives to the role of wife, they delay marriage.”

(Allen, S. M. & Kalish, R. A. (1984). Professional women and marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 46(5), 375-382.)

Dr de Bergerac is interested in this topic because she witnesses so many professional, attractive, intelligent women who are single and say they don’t want to be. They thrive in their careers, yet they do not seem to find The One. And those who do, do it much later than the population average. Why?

The scientific answer seems to be: they also have better things to do than the population average. If a date competes with a project at work that is fulfilling, bodes success and a higher income – then the date better be at least as fulfilling, easy-to-present-to-others, and liquid. Of course work and relationships fulfill different needs – but they also compete for the same, scarce resource: time. Professional women have less time and higher demands for relationships, given their alternative options. Both together are likely to keep them single.

Is there a way out other than asking the women to lower their standards? – Yes, outsourcing and delegation. Professional women could outsource the elements of dating they consider non-essential (to online matching services, professional marriage advisers..) and delegate those pieces of work they do not absolutely need for their career: let the intern pre-draft important emails and write the first version of the report. He’ll be thrilled and his boss will have more time to look for The One.