Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Economics of the Family

A new theory is being set forth by some of those researching the economics of the family.  From The New York Times:

In light of these changes, we suggest that economists need to develop a new — dare we say post-Beckerian? — model of the family:

So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production to shared consumption. In case the language of economic lacks romance, let’s be clearer: modern marriage is about love and companionship. Most things in life are simply better shared with another. … The key today is consumption complementarities — activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives “hedonic marriage.”

Read more here.


Hat Tip: SH

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Many of us have been writing for years, along with a variety of economists of all political persuasions, that Becker's description of the homemaker role as "specialization" in the domestic sphere is nuts. Instead, what Becker describes is the consequence of investment in middle class men. Before the man moved out of the home, the home (as farm or shop) was the center of production and the husband was the head, presiding over legal inferiors such as the wife, children, and the servants. After industrialization, men moved out, leaving the domestic realm to women. According to Becker,
the women "specialized" in childcare, cooking, cleaning, running errands and a variety of other tasks that when performed in the market are viewed as unskilled (and therefore relatively unspecialized) labor.

When the economy changed to reward investment in women as well as men, Becker termed this the loss of the benefits that came from women's specialization in the home, and viewed greater family instability as a result of a loss of value rather than what it is -- women's greater power to leave one-sided relationships.

Now that Becker's predictions have proved completely false -- marriage is thriving for the women with the least specialization in the home, i.e., the best off women in whom society now invests handsomely, and is in trouble for the most "specialized," i.e., the relatively unskilled -- economists are scrambling. What they refuse to recognize is that Becker's "theory of the family," to the extent it depended on specialization between market and domestic spheres, never worked on its own terms, that is, as a supposedly universal explanation of the benefits of specialization by gender roles. Instead, the theory cloaked a societal decision to organize the family to channel investment in middle class men. It therefore misses the effect of modern changes, a parallel reorganization of the family to channel investments into middle class women as well as men, and the accompanying class and gender effects.

Posted by: June Carbone | Nov 30, 2010 10:03:19 AM

'consumption complementarities' - I've never heard that term before but I like it a lot. It makes logical sense.

Posted by: Tulsa Divorce Attorneys | Sep 11, 2011 5:15:30 PM

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