Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ch 4: Moral Hazard, Or, The Too-Big-to-Fail Marriage

This chapter deals with the way humans tend to take risks when they think the are covered by some sort of "insurance," literally or figuratively.  This differing behavior is referred to by economists as "moral hazard," and it can wreak havoc on your marriage, since marriage by traditional definition is understood as permanent insurance against the loss of love.  This is why we need consequences for our actions.

(By the way, the big comparisons they give are to health insurance and welfare, which makes me question their politics...)

The book gives 3 solutions to the problems of moral hazard in marriage, all of them having to do with incentives, not whether the spouse is good or bad.  I take the liberty of just quoting via photo:

Pg 104.
The chapter basically just gives stories of couples who illustrate these solutions to moral hazard, and these stories comprise the majority of the book's text and tone, but there are a few other nuggets of wisdom to note in this chapter:

"Research shows that marital satisfaction plummets after the birth of a first child:" couples are at a greater risk of depression, overwhelming stress, and loss of intimacy, both conversational and sexual (114).  And if you can survive the first few years of the second child, then apparently you're home free (and that would include both of us--"Come on Jet, just get to two so daddy can get laid again!").  If you're interested in the study, it's Gottman and Natarius from Family Process 41.2 (2002).

This one I know by experience and know that it is true--Lennon, G/d love him, has just puts tons of stress on me and my marriage--I'm older, my dad died, work has sucked--but I'm hoping things are leveling out now that he's older.  We'll see.

It's also ironic that many marriages also face problems after the nest has emptied, so kids screw you in two ways...

One of the specifics the authors give about putting regulations on your marriage (Solution 2) is drawing up a contract.  It sounds good in theory, but in practice I think Melanie would rather have teeth pulled.  Unless I drafted it, it just wouldn't happen.  She does make verbal agreements, however, and she is usually good and living up to them.

Solution 3 is about incentives, which seems intuitive, but the authors also warn us against "perverse incentives" wherein the incentive has the opposite effect of what's intended.  They cite the "failure is not an option" attitude as such an incentive in which a partner does anything to keep the marriage together.  That partner is just asking to get taken advantage of or will be blindsided when the other walks out.

Just an aside, Melanie and I think that marriage itself, conceived as a promise of "forever," is in itself a perverse incentive--why would anyone work when the other person has promised to be there "through thick and through thin"?  We've talked a lot recently about why we don't believe in marriage and why we prefer to take a day-to-day approach. We prefer that the other person wake up every morning and say, "this is where I want to be right now."  I think that attitude helps keep us both honest because there's no guarantee the other may not walk out (and that's true in a traditional marriage as well, if you think about it).  Plus, it's nice to know that the other person is here because she wants to be, not because she made some ridiculous promise and has to stick to it out of a sense of duty, not love.  Now, the catch is that the cost for such incentives is a feeling of security, which we are working on.  Also, it prevents our "marriage" from acting as a "commitment device" (wait for more on them in Ch 8).

In the 3rd solution, incentives, the authors mention "co-payments" as a smarter (rather than perverse) incentive.  In other words, co-payments are ways that your partner can share costs and help you enjoy the benefits of marriage (eg, sex, fun, travel, companionship, etc).  Some of the specific examples that come from their sample couple are: working less per week, one paying for something the other wants to do (eg start a business), keeping up maintenance at home, helping with dinner, etc.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ch 3: Supply & Demand

This chapter relates sex in a relationship to "the negative sloping demand curve," which shows the inverse relationship between cost and desire:  If the cost of something is too high, you want less of it:  "when the cost of sex becomes too high, you'll opt for a mindless night of TV and jelly doughnuts" (69).  Of course, the key term is cost, and they're clear they don't mean prostitution (but let's face it, all marriages are a kind of sexual contract and are essentially prostitution).  They mean what you have to give up in order to get what you want, as in this graph of the negative demand curve below:

Demand for sex, pg. 70.

(Just a note, I think they did the graph wrong.  If you reverse the axes, and put cost on the X axis, then you get a true negative demand curve where as costs go up, sex goes down graphically.  In other words, X and O would change places).

As Paula and Jenny point out, we all tend to become more like Couple X as years go by, where the costs of sex are prohibitive in terms of time, energy, effort, and missed work, etc.  Couple O (ha ha) has lowered the cost by doing it right after the kids go to bed and signaling to each other when they are in the mood rather than waiting for things to happen romantically.  They do it several times a week.

At this point, however, our intrepid authors warn about the dangers of trying to compare your sex life to some other couples'.  For instance, a friend of mine who's been married over 13 years says he's always had sex with his wife about one a week.  I almost spit out my drink.  The economic term for this chatter about what others are doing is called "marked noise," and as in the stock market, you should ignore it most of the time.  Easier said than done, but it's probably a good idea.

It's also a good idea not to let your marriage become celibate:  Studies show that there's a link between sex and marital happiness.  They cite a few studies and report in their own survey that 92% of people who have sex 2-3 times a week report being satisfied or very satisfied in their relationships.  Yeah, no shit. Only 56% of those who had sex every few months reported being satisfied (That is, all the women. And the 6% who were men were either gay or impotent...rimshot).

Solution:  Have More Sex

It really is that simple.  Instead of talking about how you're not having sex, just do it, especially if you want your marriage to be satisfying.  Now the economic lesson here is to lower the costs somehow.  The book offers three ways of doing that:
  1. Be more transparent--only transparent markets work fairly and well, so let each other know what you want, what works, what gets you excited, etc.  Therapy can help air things you've been holding back.
  2. Reset your habits--get back in the habit of having sex by reducing the costs (my examples: put the kids to bed earlier, share chores to get them done faster, do it on the weekends during kids nap times, etc).
  3. Signal your desire to your partner.  Come up with a system of signals and/or recognizeable signs of being in the mood.
I think, though the authors don't emphasize this enough, is that this solution requires compromise and that both partners have to want their marriage to thrive.  They do point out that it's incumbent up each partner to realize that the benefit of have sex must outweigh the cost in order for a marriage to survive.  

That might mean doing it when you don't want to, which most marriage partners report doing at one time or another:

Pg. 90
The point here is to highlight the benefits as well as lowering the costs.

Sure, they admit, there's the issue of differing libidos--you want it most of the time, she doesn't--but economists might say that not having sex is a matter of "coordination failure," that is, "when two or more parties are faced with an identical set of choices" (93).  The outcome can benefit all parties, just one, or none. This coordination game also includes matching buyers with sellers.

This is where signaling can reduce guilt and/or rejection by advertising who's ready for Business Time:

Pg. 96

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ch 2: Loss Aversion: Or, the Upside of Going to Bed Angry

In lab experiments, economists have determined that humans hate losing so much that the fear often causes us to do strange and destructive things.  Hence, you have stockbrokers who throw good money after bad hoping to recoup losses or that stocks will rebound.  But it turns out we hate losing twice a badly as we like winning, so "loss aversion" is a powerful force in human behavior, particularly relationships.

Loss aversion causes us to act irrationally, including changing our minds on a whim, making rash decisions, choosing lesser short-term gains over greater long-term gains, feeling overconfident, and of course fearing change.  In our marriages, it causes us to stay up all night to win a fight, futily trying to convince the other to see things our way.  It urges us to dig in our heels through pride or give the other the silent treatment. And eventually, instead of cutting our losses, this vicious cycle leads to compounding loss over time.

Solution: Sleep on it.  

In other words, go to bed angry.  Get a good night's rest and return to the subject later.  Invoke the "24-hour rule" in which you agree to shelve the discussion and return within 24 hours.  Things usually seem much better in the morning.

In addition to loss aversion, humans tend to value there own stuff irrationally.  Economists refer to this as "the endowment effect."  We endow things we own with sentimental meaning that aren't supported by the market.  The example the book gives is of a wife who wouldn't give up a natty old recliner because it represented the freedom of her single days. But the principle of loss aversion gets to the heart of why compromise is hard--we hate to lose.

Solution: Reframing

Recasting losses in terms of gains (or vice versa) can often change people's perspective on a conflict.  The wife above might think to herself, "Am I losing a La-Z-Boy or gaining a happy home?  Am I losing something sentimental or gaining a chance to buy something beautiful?" (53).  Our willingness to compromise often hinges on whether we see our action as resulting in a loss or a gain.

A phenomenon that feeds loss aversion in relationships is nostalgia and the rose-colored glasses of memory (my phrasing, ha).  We often look longingly back at the honeymoon, new-relationship-energy period of our relationship and see the present as loss. This problem in economic terms is called "status quo bias." This bias causes us to "strongly prefer the known and familiar over the unknown and unfamiliar.  Any change means losing, and that's something our monkey minds aren't very good at" (61).

Solution: Focus on the Present

Wait, they didn't write that.  But I have to mention it here, since it's implied, and I wouldn't be a Buddhist worth his salt if I didn't point out that focus on the past causes suffering because we want something that no longer exists.  In Zen, the future too is a fiction, but for these authors, it's a useful one because it can be a useful incentive (but more on that in Ch 4).  Suffice it to say here that re-imagining the future can help us reframe our status quo bias.  Instead of thinking about how the fire is gone out of your sex life, focus on what your relationship has gained in terms of intimacy, knowledge, and commitment.  Let the past go, no matter how great you think it was (and it probably wasn't that great anyway).

Solution: Active Decision-Making

Obsessing about a past that has disappeared can not only get relationships in a rut but can create problems that don't exist.  "Take an active role in the decisions that affect your life," Paula and Jenny write, "rather than sitting back and letting those call the shots for you" (65).  Passive decision making, just allowing things to happen, is what causes ruts and makes us miss opportunities for gain.

Reframing and focusing on the present are both active decisions that can help you control your aversion to loss, but there are others.  If you aren't having enough sex, then decide to have more sex.  If you sex life is in a boring rut, spice things up.  If you think that happy days are all in the past, sit down with your spouse and write out a comparison like this:
From pg. 67

The authors rightly point out that the list on the right isn't comprised of losses--those items are merely different--we apply the value of better or worse (pun) to them based on what?  Hollywood?  And this kind of listing can lead to other active decisions, like the choice to "resurrect" some things from the list on the right.

Chapter 1: Division of Labor

 Many marriages founder on the rocks of how household chores are divided--it's often third on the list of what couples argue about behind sex and money.  Use the theory of comparative advantage to help decide whoshould do what around the house. “Comparative advantage” says that “it’s not efficient for you to take onevery single task you’re good at, only those tasks you’re relatively better atcompared with other tasks" (6).

Listing tasks and time (17).

Create a list of all household chores and compare who isfaster at doing it.  Even if youare slower at everything, it is more efficient for you to do the thing yourfastest at and let your spouse do the thing your slowest at.  The more efficient you are atspecializing your labor, the more leisure time you’ll have to hang outtogether.
How comparative advantage saves time (18).

When an economy is failing, like a marriage, economists“don’t blame the market, [they usually] blame lack of a market” (24). When changes happen in your life (eg, kids) you have to re-evaluate yourdivision of labor.

By efficiency, the authors mean “Pareto efficiency,” asituation in which “nobody can be made better off without somebody else beingmade worse off” (27).  This oftenmeans that chores aren’t divided 50/50; it’s up to each couple to determine,through open discussion of labor, when things are Pareto efficient.  Until you achieve this, you’re marriageis screwed.

Of course, Pareto efficiency and comparative advantage arethe only factors—things work better when each has an incentive to do something,namely, that they like the chore. In a marriage, the incentives always involve the spouse caring about the results of the labor.

Because life is always change, you sometimes have to investin new specializations—try new tasks—in order to achieve comparative advantage.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Spousonomics, by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson

OK, so we're not exactly reading this book together, but I'm hoping that my postings may entice you to.  If not, at least you can get some of the info from it, as I wanted to make this outline anyway for my own benefit.

I’ll start by giving a summary of the book while offering a brief analysis and evaluation.  In short, I’ve been drawn into to this book not just for what it says about relationships but for the unique way it offers wisdom about human behavior.

Spousonomics, by two journalists who cover economic issues for WSJ and NYT, applies principles they have learned about economics to marital relationships.  They define marital relationships as any committed relationship, but it is clear that they are talking about people who have promised fidelity to each other, which covers most couples in the US.  Furthermore, they are clearly writing to an upper-middle class, urban (eg NY) audience, judging by the kinds of details and examples they provide.  Fortunately, this bias includes you and me, bourgeois as we are, but it makes sense because this group is probably as invested in (and have benefited the most from) the capitalist principles put forth in the book as anyone.  Given all of that, it’s one of the most rational and helpful books on marriage that I’ve come across, and it is mercifully free of much of the men-Mars, women-Venus stereotypes that pervade the genre.

In my next few posts, I'll be breaking the book down, chapter by chapter, to provide what I see as the main points and concepts of the book.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Grant, not as much to say about this chapter, and I read it twice. Lots of exposition and the possibility that Padma the bully represents the reader.

A few things I enjoyed:

Body fluids as an early leitmotif: “Drainage above and drainage below.” People “leaking into each other.”

The analogy between preserving fruit and memories.

Our erectily dysfunctional narrator’s body cracking apart like the drought earth he describes in 1942 India. “And I like them expectorate and rise above fissures.”

More wonderful character imagery: Naseem as a smug spider, a woman with presence and bulk, a fortress. Her iron grip. Her devotion to G-d and reliance on the filler “whatsitsname.” Her refusal to lose face in the battle over the religious tutor.

The English general’s car knocking over the spittoon of expectorated beet juice, like the massacre from the previous chapter spilling Indian blood.

The only part I cringed at was the story of Mian Abdullah and the six crescent knives. Is that magic realism, Grant? If so, I think I dislike it as much as you. The humming of a perishing man draws attack dogs to vanquish the assassins?

I look forward to the next chapter.

Saturday, April 30, 2011


This chapter jumps around so much but is clearly leading up to the Amritsar massacre. Again, I am not knowledgeable about Indian history, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. Peaceful protesters gathering to contest the current regime? Sounds a lot like the middle east today. Once again, Aziz’s nose plays a prominent role, this time saving him from being killed with the others.

It also introduces us to Aziz and Naseem as a young married couple and the centrality of the bedsheet. I enjoyed getting to know Naseem the way Aziz did, one body part at a time. Her father and the lady wrestlers are hilarious. I loved Ghani’s support of their early get togethers in the name of the “doctor-patient relationship.” And the “move, I mean, like a woman” quote made me laugh.

And once again, I like how he jumps back and forth temporally. Page 28-29 takes us from the writer’s grandparents wedding, to his unfortunate encounter as a child with their consummation bedsheet, to the contemporary Dung discussion with Padma, to the April 1919 political events.

But what about nonlinearity on pages 24-27? This confused me, Grant, and I had to reread. Tais’ decision not to wash, Aziz’s parents’ deaths, back to the perforated sheet, the bus with Ilse Lubin’s picture, Ghani pushing Aziz and Naseem closer, talking with Ilse about Oskar’s death, Aziz’s job offer, admitting to Ilse he’s in love with Naseem, back to Aziz and Naseem, proposing to his father-in-law, to Ilse drowning. He’s making some connection between Naseem, Tai, and Ilse. But I’m not sure at this point what that connection might be.

I am a still appreciative of his excellent character descriptions: Padma. She’s a pig, no? Rushdie never says she is one, but he uses the P alliteratively in the first sentence and describes her as a plump jolly “bitch in the manger.” So illustrative. I love the “Dung” interlude on page 29: “the nether end of cattle” made me laugh. I wonder what role she will have as the book progresses.

I wonder why he used Mercurochrome as the chapter's title. It’s a topical antiseptic, and for sure, he makes a point of it being indistinguishable in color from blood. But what does it have to do with the larger narrative?

Just another comment about my writing insecurities, Grant. I am a scientific writer. And not even really – I’m a surgery junkie who likes to pretend like he can write scientifically. I write this blog and sense my pseudo-scientific dribble coming out on the page. If you’ll forgive me for this, I’ll continue blogging because I’m having fun.