Can the dismal science lead to a more blissful union? Thatâ€™s the premise behind Spousonomics by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, who argue that economic principles can be used to resolve marital conflicts. Nobel Prizeâ€“winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his wife, financial journalist turned fellow Columbia professor Anya Schiffrin, parse the authorsâ€™ claims.
Anya Schiffrin: Reading this book was hilarious, â€™cause itâ€™s the first time you have read a marriage book. But you liked it.
Joseph Stiglitz: Itâ€™s very interesting. A lot of economic activity does go on inside the household. They donâ€™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 â€œWhat are you better at doing?â€ Because they point out that one of the tensions in couples is whoâ€™s going to do what. So, for example, Joe is phenomenal at making travel arrangements. Heâ€™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, heâ€™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 doesnâ€™t want to do something, theyâ€™re going to pretend that they donâ€™t know or theyâ€™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.: Thatâ€™s hilarious, â€™cause youâ€™re an economist but you donâ€™t like to look at things in a quantitative way. Youâ€™re saying you donâ€™t want to quantify relationships.
J.S.: Itâ€™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, â€œIâ€™ll do a nine-minute thing but not a ten-minute, but Iâ€™ll be more enthusiastic if we do it for four minutes.â€ It just monetizes it, and that changes the nature of what itâ€™s about, right? Plus scorekeeping doesnâ€™t work, because itâ€™s not objective. Peopleâ€™s perceptions of what theyâ€™ve done and the other person have done are always incommensurate.
A.S.: Right, Iâ€™ve noticed with my friends who have kids, the wife always feels sheâ€™s doing more child care and the husband is always doing half of what he thinks needs to be done.
J.S.: Yeah. Itâ€™s true that all these concepts really are relevantâ€”but donâ€™t take them too seriously.
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