Why Ending Relationships Is Good

On Monday, I had a post about the economic determinants of marriage. In it, I rehearse the argument that declining economic prospects for men near the bottom and improved economic prospects for women across the board has facilitated more relationship quits than before. That piece attracted some attention that I would like to respond to here.

Wage Adjusting

First, Scott Winship notes that if you use different inflation indexes than the one I used, choose different years, and exclude non-white men, you can come up with lower magnitudes of male wage declines near the bottom or even possibly find wages ran totally flat for the last 4-5 decades, at least at the 25th percentile.

There is a lot to quibble with here if you want. Inflation indexes are highly contestable approximations and there is no "best" one. At the most granular level, every single person has a different level of inflation because they buy different baskets of goods. I used the index IPUMS recommends, CPI-U.

You can find indexes that tell a rosier story than I did, though even then not so great. At the same time, you could find indexes that tell a darker story.

A few years ago, Evan Soltas had an interesting piece about a now-defunct CPI-P index that specifically focused on the price inflation seen by lower-income people. Soltas revived that index and calculcated that inflation was actually 12% higher under the CPI-P than the CPI-U, since 1967.

There are other points to be made on index stuff (especially around the pitfalls of PCE), but I'll leave those aside for now and focus on other issues. For instance, Winship's year-picking stuff (which he's copied over from his aguments about employers) does not exactly make sense in the context of the marriage point. If wages are still way down nearly 8 years on from his preferred end point (2007) because of the recession, that might be something you don't blame individual employers for, but potential mates don't necessarily wave it away as a business cycle phenomenon. Men still feel it as well. It still affects actual relationships.

The same goes for all of the other years of wages below 1969 levels that were not buoyed by the very tip of the bubble-fueled 2007 economy, which appears to have featured the highest year of post-1969 male wages in the time series. If that was the back-to-1969 wage level for lower-income men, that means every year or nearly every year prior to it was below 1969 levels (this is me backing it out from my series, since he did not graph his). People actually lived and tried to form relationships in those decades, and that was not helped along by one brief blip of parity in 2007 (again even under the rosiest of accountings).

In any case, I don't really think the adjustment game really matters in all of this. If the best arrangement you can put together says the 25th percentile broke even in a period where the economy more than doubled (which based on my series would suggest that below-25th percentile saw declines), it's still clear that the economy left these men behind, which is perfectly adequate for the declining-attractiveness theory since mate attractiveness is relative to the society you find yourself in (drop a man from 500 years ago who makes $300/year in this society and he's going to have a rough go in the dating market).

Relationship Quits Behind the Veil

The second response comes from Ross Douthat. Douthat's response is long and a lot of it actually falls into the same traps that I originally identified, e.g. arguing again that marriage is affecting certain things, but not doing so in a way that protects against reverse-causation counters or overcomes the inherent proof problems posed by selection effects.

Although none of that stuff is particularly interesting (not at this stage in the debate at least), there was one bit that was interesting and I believe very wrong:

One way to look at this, perhaps, is too put it in the language of Bruenig’s Twitter avatar: Social conservatives think that if you put most people behind the veil of ignorance and held everything else equal, they would want to grow up in an intimate community with both of their biological parents … and that, indeed, even if you didn’t hold everything else equal, the desire for the goods associated with that particular kind of intimate community would still trump a great many others.


We also think that they would desire that those parents not divorce immediately upon their turning eighteen, that the lines of intimacy might run as straight as possible across the generations, that they might see their children’s children and peace upon Israel — you know, all that old sentimental stuff, which only the fortunate get to experience fully (I can promise that my own family does not embody this ideal), but which some societies, some eras, and some moral/cultural systems seem to deliver more successfully to more people than do others. And since our society, these last forty-odd years, has been delivering those goods to considerably fewer people than it did before, and particularly to fewer people in communities that are already disadvantaged in other ways, social conservatives think it would be fair to call this a serious social problem no matter what other problems happened to attend it.

The basic problem here, as I pointed out in the first point of my marriage argument, is that you can't hold everything else equal because relationships end for specific reasons, often related to how miserable, abusive, unreliable, and neglectful they are.
Perhaps given the option between a two-parent family where the spouses pummel each other and a one-parent family where the parent violently harms themself, a child may take the two-parent abuse fest. But given an option between a violent two-parent family and a peaceful one-parent family, they'd prefer the latter. I use abuse here to make the point, but you can fill it in with other points of relationship strife as well. Additionally, people qua adults or future adults would surely weight highly the ability to quit toxic relationships.
It is true that you can set up your institutions to prevent this kind of thing. For instance, a wife who was severely beaten and raped 60 years ago was so abandoned by our intitutional regime (nowhere to go economically and marital rape was actually legal) that she probably stayed in the relationship. If our institutions towards women more closely matched those of Saudi Arabia, she'd probably stay in the relationship even now. But that's a bad thing. The emerging ability of women to quit these relationships is a good thing. It will mean a lower equilibrium of coupling, but higher equilibria driven by the inability of people to quit bad relationships are abhorrent.
All of which is to say: Behind the veil, you'd prefer an institutional regime that didn't effectively imprison you in bad relationships, lest you find yourself in one as a child or adult.
As a final note, I want to make a somewhat related point that I haven't a had a chance to yet. Douthat's paragraph speaks of marriage and relationships in general terms, but in fact they are very specific things that contain within them very different people. Of late, conservatives have rallied behind the pithy line that people need to "preach what they practice" regarding marriage. But, in fact, people of Douthat's ilk do not practice what they preach. They preach the importance of marrying poor and working class people, but they don't actually marry any of these people.
They certainly could marry someone from those classes. Many a person would take up a spouse who makes six figures banging out a few blog posts each week. But they choose not to.
After rigging the institutions to capture the majority of the national income and basically all of the national wealth, segregating themselves residentially, intermarrying almost solely in their rich enclaves, and even sealing off their schools from being accessed by the unwashed masses, these rich social conservatives turn around and implore others to marry people that they wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, people they can't even bring themselves to make even the most minimal of community with.
If this all was really that important to them (the most pressing issue in the entire country by their accounts), why don't they marry any of these people? What is it about them that they find too unattractive to couple with? One really has to wonder.