Today, I came across an intriguing 2010 article written by an economist named Timothy Reichart. Reichart uses the tools of economics to analyze what he sees as the effects of the widespread introduction of contraception in society. I’ll try to encapsulate his argument into several key points:

  • With the increased prevalence of contraceptive options for women in society, the market for marriage (previously the only “market” in relationships outside of prostitution) has split into two markets: the marriage market and the sex market. This occurs because contraception lowers the cost of participation in the sex market and permits such participation without risk of unwanted pregnancy.
  • As a result of this split, due to biological factors, more men than women will participate in the sex market, while more women than men will participate in the marriage market. This leads to a relative scarcity of women in the market for sex, and a relative overabundance of women in the market for marriage.
  • This discrepancy in bargaining power translates to a discrepancy in welfare for women. To Reichart, this takes two forms. One redistribution occurs when, in the “more important” stage of life (the marriage stage), women suffer a welfare loss (resulting from their relative overabundance), as this welfare is redistributed to women in the sex market (which Reichart sees as the less important stage of life). The second redistribution occurs from women to men in the marriage market (again, due to the relative scarcity of women). [Here, Reichart neglects to mention the transfer of welfare from men to women in the sex market, presumably because either this market is less important in his view, or because it is counter to his narrative.]
  • As a result of lower welfare for women in the marriage market, which comes from these two types of distribution, which both result from the split of the marriage market into a marriage market and a sex market, which results from wider availability and condoning of contraceptives, there is more divorce.

Unfortunately, this is where I start losing any sense of his argument. Throughout my reading of the article, I take his arguments with the faith of a legitimate attempt to discuss these social issues through a more rational, economic lens. But here, Reichart seems to stretch too far to justify an agenda.

So why do these events lead to higher divorce rates? According to the author, there are many reasons which don’t contradict each other whatsoever. He begins to discuss marriage as a kind of Ricardian trade agreement through which mutually beneficial trade is achieved, while maintaining his story of scarcity of women in the marriage market creating a loss of welfare for women in the marriage market.

One (1) claim is that due to the overabundance of women in the marriage market, women must compromise more to enter into a marriage:

First, because of the lower relative bargaining power that women wield relative to men in the marriage market, at the margin more women will simply strike “bad deals” and will want a way out of the marital covenantex post.

I don’t see this as automatic – while it may be true that men in the marriage market, who given their scarcity may maintain some kind of “marriage market power”, will ask prospective wives to make deals in order to accept the marriage, from an economic perspective, the implication should be that only those women most qualified to be married will get married. Any schlep who wants to get married would be able to find a wife given the overabundance of women, while even fairly qualified women could be out of luck. This may lead to increased competition among women to find a husband, but may not lead them to “strike bad deals.”

Another result (2) Reichart suggests is that as a result of this compromising by women, they lose too much of the gains of trade realized from marriage:

In the era before contraception, roughly equal numbers of women and men in the marriage market meant that men and women roughly split the gains from trade that stem from marriage. By contrast, in the postcontraceptive era women give away many, indeed most, of these gains to men.

In the same breath, he offers another piece (3) of his story:

In other words, when things go wrong relative to what was expected, women who expected to be somewhat better off because of the gains from marriage now find themselves in a position of being worse off within marriage than they would have been as single persons

The notion of gains from trade is that nations or other types of trading partners (here, marriage partners), by engaging in trade, can make themselves better off than they otherwise would be without engaging in such trade. So, in the same breath, Reichart suggests that women simultaneously get fewer (but positive) gains from trade in marriage and negative gains from trade, or losses from trade in marriage. To which I offer two responses. Firstly, why would gains from trade shrink for women? If they enter a marriage with an otherwise scarce male partner, they are likely to reap higher gains from trade as a result of the acquisition. This would justify why a woman might be more likely to sacrifice in order to enter into such an arrangement. In addition, if women were losing from marriage, some would drop out of the market – but this can take the form of divorce, a lower proportion of women entering the marriage market, delay in entry to the marriage market, or even women seeking alternative ways of satisfying their biological drives (which Reichart claims drives them to the marriage market) like single-parent adoption. Reichart’s gains from trade story isn’t even internally coherent, so it’s tough to attempt to validate it regardless. There can’t simultaneously be no gains from trade and positive gains from trade – any positive gains from trade would still, in an economic sense, justify no divorce, since gains from trade are unambiguous improvements from going solo.

Reichart then mentions (4) some social reasons for the increase of divorce, including the fact that divorce is no longer the social taboo it once was, and that there are fewer legal barriers to filing for divorce. I don’t see what they have to do with any prior points, but he throws them in. Then we get the suggestion (5) that

women have substituted labor market–rewarded human capital for human capital that earned its return in nonmonetary ways such as deeper and stronger familial relationships, mother-child relationships that result in better day-to-day moral formation of children, and community activism.

That is, more women who are looking a backup plan to get out of a marriage, have started careers, and as a result, have sacrificed those traditional investments in “stronger familial relationships” and building “better day-to-day moral formation of children.” Forget the moral preachiness of the whole bit for a second. In essence, his argument is that by fostering independence and self-worth in a career path, women are making themselves less valuable? From where I sit, a career-oriented woman is in a position to contribute financially to a marriage, and is likely to be more educated on average. This should increase the potential bargaining power of women in the marriage market, increase their welfare as a consequence, and improve the potential gains from trade in the marriage for both parties – heck, it may even attract more men into the marriage market when they observe the increase in potential gains from trade in marriage! The economics is unraveling for him.

He gets back to the idea of gains from trade one more time in another confusing attempt to explain:

The strategy is, in essence, to become more like men. Women today rarely specialize in the home, or in the family, but, rather, in marketable labor. By specializing in exactly the same thing, both men and women have eroded the gains from trade that potentially exist in marriage. That is, the principle of comparative advantage no longer applies, or at least does not apply with the same force as in the past. This, in turn, means that men and women become, quite simply, less interesting to one another. Sameness begets ennui, which begets divorce.

There are two parts to this. The first (6) is that the gains from trade are smaller – but as I mentioned earlier, even small gains from trade are still worthwhile and put one in a position more advantageous than being alone. The second (7) is that if women have jobs, and the gains from trade are smaller, marriages get boring. This sounds like a pure anti-women-in-the-workforce kind of argument, as well as a stretch from the original point (contraception, remember?).

Think we’re done? I won’t touch things like how contraception affects the housing market (8) or incentives for infidelity (9). But he also claims that

The graph (opposite) shows the incidence of abortion in the United States from 1965 to 2005, with 1990 as the index year. As the graph demonstrates, the rise in abortion after legalization was strongly correlated with the rise in the use of contraceptive technology.

So, contraception also increases demand for abortions (10). Now I may not be a scientist, but I think increased availability of contraception should directly decrease the need for abortions. What his data demonstrates may just be a spurious correlation in the data, and he is certainly a far cry from demonstrating causation. Oh, and abortions are usually paid for by women, so contraception hurts women because of this, too.

I really tried to give this article a fair shot. I thought an economic and socially neutral approach to an issue like contraception could be really interesting. Unfortunately, all I find are odd, muddled, often-contradictory arguments of the negative consequences of contraception – just flowered using economic terminology like “gains from trade”, “complements”, and “comparative advantage”. The idea isn’t bad, but the execution is. Who is to say that experiencing the sex market at a younger age doesn’t improve one’s chances of succeeding at matching in the marriage market later on in life? How are we judging the welfare gains to women in the sex market in comparison to these so called losses in the marriage market? Reichart claims the losses are greater, but this is purely normative.

In sum, using economic concepts to discuss social issues can be a worthwhile exercise – but not if the process is poisoned with social and moral bias (and iffy economics).


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