Marriage Isn't $mart; Or, Advice From My Economist-Friends

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Marriage Isn't $mart; Or, Advice From My Economist-Friends

These are my friends Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers -- oh, and that lil' munchkin is their daughter Matilda. (Mattie, your lesbian aunt Marcie loves you!)

Betsey and Justin are economists at the Wharton School; this month, Betsey just finished her tenure as Obama's chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. 

And my friends have some advice for you (courtesy of their interview at Spousonomics), my happy Vp homos who may be considering marriage now that the option is becoming increasingly available to our community. Not only is marriage not the "$martest" of options, but, they explain, the universality of the "marriage contract" may not even suit your particular lifestyle (which resonates with Dan Savage's idea that every relationship has its own specificities, and its own ethical parameters, such that every relationship demands its own unique contract). 

So, read on, and learn -- because, sometimes, even straight people have intelligent things to say.

Q) I recall Betsey [saying] you two decided not to marry based on a cost-benefit analysis. Explain.

Justin: Because Betsey and I earn similar incomes, we would pay a marriage penalty.  The U.S. has a household-based taxation system which subsidizes married families when one person stays home and taxes most people extra if they choose to marry and both work full-time.  The average tax cost of marriage for a dual-income couple is $1,500 annually.  When our accountant ran the numbers for us a few years back we discovered marriage would cost us substantially more.  I love Betsey and all, but is the marriage certificate worth thousands of dollars annually?  I can love her plenty without the certificate.  But this isn’t just about a bean-counter saving his beans.  Truth is, I find it offensive that the tax man treats me differently according to a  very private decision—whether I marry or not.  And so I prefer to remain unmarried, at

Comments [5]

Conlite's picture

First and most important:  I

First and most important:  I love that this straight couple are willing to go against the general flow of straight society in their beliefs.  It is, after all, only when the straight, white, middle class majority are willing to embrace new ideas that progress is made against any prejudice on a national scale.  Therefore I love these friends of yours.

Having said that, I have to disagree with their take on marriage.  Just because the governement stupidly makes a financial penalty for getting married is not a reason to abandon marriage.  Various state governments have also created all kinds of legal impediments to gay marriage or even living together as a gay couple.  Does that mean I should give up on gay relationships and marry a guy?  (It would certainly be the more financially sensible option after all.)

As far as each relationship needing its own contract, the basic marriage contract is "I will monogamously love you through all circumstances for the rest of my life".  Why would this not fit any couple interested in marriage?  Because they don't want monogamy?  I would think in that case you probably wouldn't want a commited relationship of any kind.  Or is it because they don't want to commit for life?  In this case, perhaps the problem is not with the marriage contract, but with divorce law.  Prenups were invented for this.

I do think each couple needs to build their relationship their own way, and the need for transparency in a relationship (avoiding asymmetric information:) is obvious, but does this require a new kind of marriage contract every time?

Tiff's picture


Then there's also the question of insurance and other benefits, especially if one person chooses not to work in an environment where they aren't an option. The issue of children is also a big consideration for me personally. I think I'd sign whatever agreements necessary to ensure that my (future) kids were as protected as they could possibly be, legally speaking, and that my partner/wife/whatever didn't run into custody problems if something happened to me. Perhaps it's less likely for a heterosexual couple to have problems regarding grandparents trying to take a child after the biological parent dies, but situations like that can arise, and then what? I've heard of cases where (typically anti-LGBT) grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc, have received custody of their biological grandchild after the death of one parent, despite the fact that the child had another, non-biological parent. That sort of thing worries me....

Marcie Bianco's picture

Conlite, these are great

Conlite, these are great questions, and I actually have sent them on to Justin to ask for his response. I personally agree with the basic definition of marriage that you provide above (grounded in the idea of monogamy), but I think both B&J are motioning toward the minute specificities that must be worked out in a relationship for it to last. (So, what is "monogamy," for instance?...because there are certainly people out there who define monogamy in ways that radically differ from how I believe the term to be defined.)

Their collective perspective is conveyed purely in economic terms, which can be a bit jarring when thinking about marriage (which is idealized, romanticized, etc etc). For me, for instance, I disagree with Bets re the promise/futurity of marriage -- this is because I'm Nietzschean. For me, the marriage contract is not only a legal promise but an ethical promise of willing oneself -- of willing that vow to your partner -- into the future. (For Nietzsche, "the promise" is something that very few humans can endure in the sense that the promise is a willing of something into the future even though time produces change (people change, lives change, circumstances change, etc etc).)

That all said, I'll post Justin's thoughts asap.

Grace Moon's picture

asymmetric information. I

asymmetric information. I like that term, I'm gonna use it.

tweet tweet @gracemoon

Marcie Bianco's picture

their entire lexicon is

their entire lexicon is comprised of econ-jargon, which is oftentimes brilliant because of terms, like "asymmetric information," that enable one to explain a situation without the heavy emotion that derails desired moments of rationalism (during a disagreement or argument, for example).... "Asymmetric information" should become a key term within Lesbian Discourse, for sure....