The Economics of the Institution of Marriage

Freakonomics takes a two-part look at marriage for this podcast with Steven Dubner. I’m a big fan of Freakonomics. One, he’s got a great voice. Two, Freakonomics really delves into questions that are already right in front of us, that we’re all affected by. Like marriage.

In the first part of this podcast, Dubner speaks to economist, Justin Wolfers, who says that Americans, compared to all other cultures, love marriage. We marry more often. We marry earlier. And more of us get married. The economist he speaks to is not married. He is Australian and he “cohabitates” with his partner. They have kids. They share a life. So they are essentially married. But not.

Co-habitation, they explain, is more popular in the rest of the world than marriage itself. Sort of like the Joni Mitchell lyric, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall making us tried and true.” Co-habitation has come a long way from what marriage was initially intended for—it wasn’t really for love, Dubner explains, it was for structure, to have children together, to fulfill a need.

Americans love marriage

Says Wolfers, “There was a model marriage in the 1950s that we all believed in: The idea of marriage as a factory. You get married because you can do more together than you can do apart. It’s like a pin factory. The way you do more together is by ‘specializing.’ The specialization is that Dad would go to work in the market. And Mom would work at the really, really complex part of running a household. And she would be really good at it. And she would be much better at it than Dad. And as a result the pie’s bigger for both of them, and it would be productive which makes Mom and Dad both better off.” Obviously, much has changed since this 1950s concept. Which is what Wolfers explains.

And this is where Freakonomics is cool because you don’t expect someone like Wolfers, an economist, to have all sorts of statistics and theories and philosophies about marriage. You expect this of a therapist. Or an anthropologist. But Wolfers approach as an economist is interesting because it unpacks marriage as an institution and how we’ve used it over the years. There’s so much more in this podcast that’s great, including Dubners conversation with Harvard economist Claudia Golden who explains that marriage just isn’t the institution it once was. It moved to a factory model, to a “hedonic” marriage. Otherwise known as love. (LOL.)

In the second part of the podcast, Dubner talks to Ivory Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and research analyst at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Toldson asks this question: Are there enough successful black men for the black women who want them? All of these questions and deep dives about marriage gives us an insight about a topic we thought we knew plenty about—but clearly there is a lot to learn.