Can the dismal science lead to a more blissful union? That’s the premise behind Spousonomics by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, who argue that economic principles can be used to resolve marital conflicts. Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his wife, financial journalist turned fellow Columbia professor Anya Schiffrin, parse the authors’ claims.
Anya Schiffrin: Reading this book was hilarious, ’cause it’s the first time you have read a marriage book. But you liked it.
Joseph Stiglitz: It’s very interesting. A lot of economic activity does go on inside the household. They don’t mention this, but the word economics actually originates in household management. The classical economic questions are: How do you allocate resources? What gets done? How do you do it? Who does what, and how do you decide?
A.S.: One of the concepts they devote a lot of time to is comparative advantage, which basically means “What are you better at doing?” Because they point out that one of the tensions in couples is who’s going to do what. So, for example, Joe is phenomenal at making travel arrangements. He’s actually better than all the travel agents; he knows every bizarre schedule. Ask him when the last flight from Frankfurt to New York is, he’ll know. So he does that, which sounds trivial, but we travel a lot. Whereas I really love cooking, so I do all the cooking.
J.S.: Yeah, but I always think that cooking is more fun. Travel arrangements are not so fun.
A.S.: This is true. Also, I do feel like applying the comparative advantage to a household is a bit disingenuous because of learned helplessness.
J.S.: Which is, if someone doesn’t want to do something, they’re going to pretend that they don’t know or they’re going to do it badly.
A.S.: And I feel like, who mostly practices learned helplessness? Men.
A.S.: They also talked a lot about the endowment effect, which is the theory that people place a higher value on objects they own. Like, she gets to keep her ratty old La-Z-Boy, he gets to hang on to his old sneakers.
J.S.: One of the things I disliked was that there was a lot of scorekeeping in the book.
A.S.: That’s hilarious, ’cause you’re an economist but you don’t like to look at things in a quantitative way. You’re saying you don’t want to quantify relationships.
J.S.: It’s unromantic!
A.S.: And Joe is very romantic.
J.S.: For instance, one of the principles they use is cost-benefit analysis, and there was an incident in which a woman agreed to make love with her husband and she calculated it was going to take nine minutes.
A.S.: So she would lose nine minutes of sleep.
J.S.: Yeah. And then she looked at the benefit, and the benefits were a little bit better than the costs. But it raises the question: If it had taken twelve minutes, would she have decided not to do it? You know, “I’ll do a nine-minute thing but not a ten-minute, but I’ll be more enthusiastic if we do it for four minutes.” It just monetizes it, and that changes the nature of what it’s about, right? Plus scorekeeping doesn’t work, because it’s not objective. People’s perceptions of what they’ve done and the other person have done are always incommensurate.
A.S.: Right, I’ve noticed with my friends who have kids, the wife always feels she’s doing more child care and the husband is always doing half of what he thinks needs to be done.
J.S.: Yeah. It’s true that all these concepts really are relevant—but don’t take them too seriously.