Bryan Caplan  

Are Husbands Really Like Potatoes?

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When men's incomes go up, everyone expects the demand for wives to go up as well. If average male income rises, men have to offer women a piece (maybe a large piece) of the increase if they want to attract a wife.

But when women's incomes go up, lots of people expect the demand for husbands to go down: "Once women can become financially independent of a man, they will choose to do so."

This is theoretically possible, but only if husbands, like potatoes, are inferior goods. Counter-intuitive, to say the least. How many women dream of becoming affluent cat ladies?

If you distrust intuition, take a look at the facts. Back when women's incomes were low, men who wanted to get married had to be ready to shoulder, say, 90% of the financial burden of the household. As women's incomes have risen, the fraction of the burden men have to carry to marry has plummeted. This is just what you would expect if rising female income raised the demand for husbands.

So what's going on? I can easily believe that some kinds of husbands are inferior goods; a high-earning woman might rather be a spinster than marry a high-school drop-out. And there are symbolic margins along which men get a worse deal than 100 years ago - modern males are probably more afraid to make sexist remarks within earshot of their wives. But if you take a look at how much income women deposit in joint checking accounts, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that demand for husbands is at an all-time high.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
randy writes:

I've read recently about surveys which indicate that married men are the happiest people, followed by unmarried women, then married women, and the least happy people are unmarried men. I could provide a link if anyone's interested.

I don't think it's counter-intuitive to say that men are inferior-goods when marriage probably makes women less happy. It sounds about right to me Bryan.

Carl Shulman writes:

Let's look at the components of the demand for husbands. Women get:

1. Cash income and other material resources. Their marginal utility declines as the earning power of women increases.

2. Marital companionship. Males are more attractive when they are are higher-status, relative to the females in question. So, if female earnings increase relative to male earnings, the average attractiveness of men falls, and thus the utility of the companionship aspect.

3. Children. But higher-income women are better able to afford single motherhood (relative to low-income single mothers), IVF, and nannies.

Now consider the demand for wives:

1. Women make most spending decisions (outside of cars, consumer electronics, and one or two other areas) in households anyway. Women with independent earnings are likely to exert even more control over the funds they bring to the partnership, and to have leverage in financial negotiations. So, from the perspective of male discretionary income, increased household earnings comes with enormous marginal 'tax rates.'

2. On average, husbands earn more money so their wives can spend more, and the husband's return is in female attention rather than consumer goods. Men DO get a return for higher incomes and education, i.e. status, in the form of more sex. Female interest in sex declines in long-term relationships, but significantly less so when the male is higher-status relative to the female.

3. As women increase in status, marriage will become less sexually rewarding for the men marrying them, while the allure of increased joint income will be subject to a high marginal 'tax rate.' So I wouldn't be surprised to see a net fall in demand for wives when female income and status grow, and we do see male preferences for lower-status women, ceteris paribus:

The slackening of demand on both sides could easily get you the observed changes in marriage rates. Of course, the key thing is the demand curves really refer to different goods: women marrying at or below their status are less attracted, while men marrying above or at their status get less sex and affection.

Doop writes:


you write "men who wanted to get married had to be ready to shoulder, say, 90% of the financial burden of the household".
But the relevant burden should incude non-traded domestic chores.

BT writes:

A perfect example why nerds end up with books on a Saturday night and the jocks end up with the girl. Not everything can be explained by equations, sometimes it is important to observe life. Go to any college campus or high school and see who has more dates the nerds or the jocks?

Carl Shulman writes:

BT, factors like male height, testosterone/masculinity, appearance, sociability, etc all play very important roles. But they don't change dramatically as female incomes and education improve, so they're irrelevant to this discussion.

Also, looking at student behaviour is a bit of a red herring. Campus relationships are more likely to be entered on a short-term basis, rather than with marriage and children in mind, whereas here we are talking about the marriage market.

Further, students have a high degree of equality of income: they're all starving students at the moment. Thus other indicators of social status play a larger role. I'd also note the much higher proportion of female students 'dating up,' whether freshmen dating seniors, high schoolers dating college students, or college students dating working graduates and graduate/professional students.

jaim klein writes:

The Ashkenazi tradition is that the girls actually had to pay to get a husband. Parents of girls had to work extra hard for years to build up a fund called nedunia which was delivered to the new husband on marriage. Frequently the father-in-law took up the obligation of housing and maintaining the couple for a certain number of years, paying for his studies and/or take him as a partner in the firm. Folklore, like Sholom Aleichem's "Tevie the Milkman", centers on the difficulties of a poor Jew to marry off his daughters.

In summary, the demand for husbands (at least for Ashkenazi husbands) was always extremely strong, and actually it may be weakening.

eric writes:

I don't think the general demand for men is affected much either way. I think demand for men is pretty well fixed by the number of women.

I do think that women's income affects how men need to behave in order get a woman. Men need to be educated and make money like in the past, but they also need to be willing to share more of the house work and they need stay in better shape and wear better clothes. In short the roles of men and women are becoming less different.

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