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The New Economics of Marriage

May 17, 2012 • 262 Views

When North Carolina’s voters rejected same sex marriage, they were not thinking economically.

Traditionally, marriage has been about specialization. With the husband in the labor force and the wife at home, their division of labor resembled a small factory. He supplied the income and she was the “domestic specialist.” As in the factory, specialization led to a more productive household.

No more.

Marriage has become a different kind of economic unit. In many households, both partners earn income and both (or none) cook. Washing machines, dishwashers and microwave ovens minimize chores. We have day care and take-out.

With the division of labor changing, so too has the institution. Previously marriage was based on shared production. Now, increasingly, marriage is all about shared consumption. Marriage has become what economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolpers call “hedonic.”

As a result, the demand and supply sides of contemporary marriage markets in which people find partners reflect new values. Correspondingly, the contemporary household as a production unit increasingly is designed for companionship and “consumption complementarity.”

And this returns us to North Carolina and same sex marriage. The new economics of marriage has changed the characteristics of the people who enter marriage markets and of the households they form. Inexorably, new incentives are leading to new choices. As more households change, will politics follow?

University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolpers (who live together and have a child but are not married) explain a lot more about the new economics of marriage here and here and here. If you want to continue further, Ezra Klein’s Washington Post Wonkbook  also discusses Stevenson and Wolpers and how their view of marriage relates to the North Carolina vote.

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