Changing a marriage paradigm

A few days ago, I mentioned the problem in the DRC of using rape as a weapon of war. Unfortunately, that weapon’s popularity only seems to be increasing, as my twitter feed overflows with news bites of 60 women raped in the DRC, 11 women raped in Sudan, etc.

In Syria, rape is being used as a weapon of war not only to wear down and instill fear in the masses, but also in the name of shame. In Syria, like in many Middle Eastern countries, women who are raped are thought to bring extreme shame upon their families, and are often murdered in ‘honor killings’ to restore the honor of the family.

A small group of men in Syria has publicly declared their intention to marry some of these rape victims in what I’m sure they see as resounding self-sacrifice to the cause of the revolution and a new Syria. I think it is laudable that men are leading the way to change a paradigm in Syria, but it’s also troubling that no one seems to have asked the women about their preferences.

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Turning around the war on girls

A new book about the infamous “missing women” by Mara Hvistendahl is gathering quite a storm, at least if you look at it from the perspective the Wall St. Journal (subscription required, my apologies if you can’t read the article), twitter, and my inbox. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the book itself yet, as I haven’t read it (don’t worry, I will!), but there is a lot of fodder provided by the book review’s author, Jonathan V. Last, and the literature in economics.

The question of missing girls as a result of sex-selection is not a new topic, by any means. Amartya Sen, a revered development economist and Nobel Prize winner, sounded the alarm more than 20 years ago now with an essay in the New York Times claiming that 100 million women were missing in the world, mostly in India and China, countries known to show strong son preference. He showed this by pointing out that while in the US and Europe, we see women outnumbering men, this does not hold true in much of the world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and the ratios are becoming worse. He doesn’t get much into the evolutionary science that guides the numbers, but he reminds us that boys outnumber girls at birth, but girls babies are more likely to survive, leaving countries like the US (where son preference is present, but perhaps not enough to encourage sex-selective abortion or infanticide) with a few extra women per one hundred men. Despite the fact that girls seem to be a bit hardier than boys, many developing countries–particularly in Asia and particularly those with a history of government-backed population reduction initiatives–are experiencing an outsize number of male births and an increasingly imbalanced sex ratio in older cohorts. Instead of a few extra men for every one hundred women, we start to see 110, 115 or more men for every one hundred women.

Emily Oster made waves and a career when she (erroneously, it seems) claimed that Hepatitis B, not sex-selective abortion, infanticide, femicide, or the systematic discrimination against girl children, was the root cause for much of the case of the missing women. (Note to budding PhD economists, write your job market paper on a really controversial topic). Women who had contracted Hepatitis B, the story went, were more likely to give birth to boys, thus skewing the ratio of boys to girls. Her arguments have been shown to be rife with problems in a number of papers and the question of missing girls remains a hot topic in economics. Last year, a colleague attended a conference in which her session was only for papers on “Sex-selective abortion in India.” For reference, most sessions at large conferences bring together diverse papers for sessions on “Topics in Education” or “Monetary Policy”. Rarely do we see four papers on the same subject.

Without reading Mara’s book, what’s interesting right now is that there should be natural economic consequences, right? A skewed sex imbalance means that women are suddenly a scarce resource and we should see that scarcity leads to higher prices in the market. Unfortunately, this does not always translate into desirable outcomes when we look at the big picture, and it does not necessarily mean that women are suddenly more valued (culturally), just more valuable (financially, opportunity-cost wise). In the marriage market, we might expect to see dowry payments dropping, or even reversed, where men are paying a bride price instead. We should see increased wage rates for work that women tend to do. The lack of women available to do “women’s work”, should push other individuals–either children, men or older women–into that work. Older women working is probably not sustainable. While putting more children to work is certainly not a desirable development goal, it might end up being the eventual outcome for communities with strong social norms against men doing women’s work. To some extent, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of all these scenarios playing out in various communities.

An extreme sex imbalance also creates a serious problem with regard to who can get married and may even lead to increased violence. In the case that women now have more bargaining power in a relationship because they can earn more money, they are perhaps more likely to delay marriage. In the case where women don’t have more bargaining power and cultural norms dictate marrying them off anyway, we might see younger women getting married to older men (perhaps men who have gained enough standing to ‘earn’ one of the scarce wives), which reduces the pool of marriageable women for men of their age. Regardless of which scenario (or an alternate one) plays out, the lack of women entering the marriage market has the ability to create, in all these different ways, a group of young, directionless men who are more apt to engage in criminal, or merely unsavory, activities or take out their aggression on women.

One email I received concerning the book suggested that we should try to change cultural attitudes about the value of women in these societies. Perhaps, she suggested, we could provide cash payments to women who give birth to children or other incentives. It’s an interesting idea, but one that could easily backfire.

Before we can talk about incentivizing the birth of female children, we have to figure out whether the sex imbalance is hurting or helping women, whether it is hurting or helping societies and what exactly would happen to those girl babies if they were born. As for hurting or helping, I think the general consensus is that it’s hurting, but I don’t know that we know that much about the outcomes associated with sex imbalances, yet, and it may be different in different places. Sex imbalances are still, I believe, much more skewed in younger populations than older ones, so we’re still not seeing the full effect on the marriage and labor markets of the lack of brides and female workers. Even if they are in place, there’s certainly not a consensus on what they are.

If we’re going to pay people to have girls, that raises all sorts of policy issues. On the one hand, though perhaps unlikely, it does run the risk of tipping the imbalance in the other direction. It may be that we have to wait for cultural norms to play themselves out to see a natural increase in the value of girl babies as dowry payments decline. Alternatively , there is evidence that social norms marketing sorts of programs have indeed altered some social norms and could have an effect on the value of girls, which may be more useful than paying parents.

The saddest part of just paying parents to have the girl children is that we might see more infanticide and general neglect of girls. Much of sex-selective abortion has been shown to be a substitute for infanticide and neglect of girl babies. Though certainly not relevant in every case, this also not a situation in which we can restrict abortion in order to repopulate the world with women. Cultural norms and attitudes are what economists would call ‘sticky’ and how best to change them, if we even should change them (there’s another benevolent dictator argument to be had here), or let them run their course, is a complicated question. It’s certainly one for which we don’t have all the answers.

Sex for money is about more than the sex or the money

With Canada looking to decriminalize prostitution, and Sweden touting the success of its increased penalties for pimping and trafficking (the link’s a bit old now), it only makes sense, as economists, to ask why people would engage in transactional sex at all.

Psychologists and anthropologists, I’m sure, have plenty of their own answers. Economists, surely, could come up with a theory of prostitution (if they haven’t, I should get on that). Without too much effort, most people could name the most likely characteristics of women in the sex trade–low self-esteem, from families with a history of abuse, low educational attainment, etc. But there is also reason to ask why women would stay in the sex trade, which is actually a very different question than why do women enter the sex trade. At least one recent paper has explored the relationships between purveyors and consumers of transactional sex. They found, interestingly, that complex relationships form between the two parties, even to the point of providing extra income in times when sex workers couldn’t work or were experiencing a negative “shock”–i.e. illness, death of a family member or an STD outbreak.

The authors of the paper, which comes out of Busia, Kenya, a community rife with development economists testing their theories, found that transfers, or gifts of money, from regular customers increase by 67-71% on days around when a sex worker reported illness and 124% on days around death of friend or relative. In some sense, these regular customers are providing a form of insurance against negative shocks, or events that prevent them from working. The customers are still not providing full insurance for these shocks, meaning though they’re essentially gifting money to their favorite sex worker in order to make the burden of not working or of the extra expense less burdensome, they’re not making up a whole day’s pay, or covering the entire cost of a funeral.

But the question of whether sex workers are fully insured by their relationships with regular customers is less important than whether they are covering themselves better than they would be covered in other professions. Full insurance in poor communities and developing countries is unlikely to come by anyway, so it makes more sense to compare different insurance mechanisms. Here, economics actually does a pretty good job. We are good at comparing two situations in which only one small part of the equation is different (or rather, when we can assume that only one important part is different–if the other different bits are unimportant to the story, we don’t care that they are different, we assume that they do not affect our outcomes). So long as the average amount of the gift is more than the average amount of the transfer she would get had she not been in the sex trade, there is an incentive to enter or remain in the sex trade (the authors here don’t distinguish much between entering and remaining, though I think that’s an important topic for another day). The authors also show this difference to be quite large. Even if a transfer covers only 19% of the cost of a funeral–the average amount reported by the sex workers–that’s far more than zero. On the margin, at least, the incentive seems significant enough to induce women to enter the sex trade as the only arrangement with full insurance, or perhaps just more insurance, is likely marriage.

Things we don’t know

I’m sure that many medical scholars and psychologists and psychiatrists have studied the effects of “Ferberization” or helping your kid learn to self-soothe by letting him cry at bedtime. It’s a pretty well established process that parents in America go through, although some are becoming more vocal in opposing it. Regardless, I think it’s a great example of something we don’t know about families and could be potentially insightful in evaluating children’s eventual outcomes. Perhaps even more important is that it might give us insight into parent-child relationships in and of themselves.

A significant problem with trying to analyze how our relationships affect our decision making is that there is likely a lot of endogeneity in relationships. That is to say, we make decisions that determine our relationships that determine our decisions. I don’t know if pinpointing the earliest nodes of a relationship between a parent and a child will do that much, but it does serve, if we can show it has an effect, to clear up some of that endogeneity. If we control for what happened before the relationship formed (and I know that’s simplifying perhaps to an unacceptable degree), perhaps we can isolate what is an effect of the relationship itself.

Different Kinds of Famlies

The NYT is running a series profiling the lives of New Yorkers. Today’s story was of some interest as it reflects the rapidly changing demographic that is the ‘family’ in the US today.

The article is not particularly well-written, in my opinion, but the first page or so offers at least a picture of how a non-nuclear family is working. It highlights the need to figure out new ways to measure and count households and individuals and couples and families. In addition, we have all of these extra relationships to examine. I’d certainly think that your relationship with your non-romantic (ever), gay father of your child is going to affect your decision making, and probably differently than would your relationship with your romantic partner/father of your child.

On not getting divorced

Divorce, we all know, is traumatic. Even if we are the lucky few who managed to watch our parents lovingly stay together our entire lives, we realize that we are the lucky few. Children of the 70s and 80s are all too familiar with divorce. We consoled our friends through it, we had dinner at friends’ houses in tense, uncomfortable situations and we likely see divorce as the norm. Perhaps people aren’t meant to stay together forever.

There is a lot of research that says that children of divorce have worse outcomes than children of parents who stay together. The causal link is tenuous, at best, which was the primary motivation for one chapter of my thesis. Surely, we know that couples who decide to get divorced are different than those who stay together, but that doesn’t mean all couples that stay together are the same, and it doesn’t mean they are happy or that they shouldn’t get divorced. In short, we have all this information about how divorce affects children, but in reality, we know that it isn’t likely the mere act of divorce that might hurt children, but rather how parents’ behavior and decision-making change when they’re thinking about divorce and moving toward divorce, even if they never get there.

While presenting this paper, as I’m sure other scholars of divorce and children have experienced, I’ve been asked, several times, whether the policy implication is that people shouldn’t get divorced. Should we be spending more money on marriage promotion or free couples’ counseling or something to encourage couples to stay together, for the good of the children? I think that my goal, in some ways, was precisely the opposite. Not that we should encourage divorce, but rather that concentrating too much on divorce as being bad for kids ignores everything that happens leading up to a divorce, it ignores the fighting and bargaining and trauma that results when parents are unhappy, regardless of whether they get divorced. It may be even that we’ve vilified divorce so much that parents who likely should get divorced, don’t.

The New York Times today offers some evidence of a backlash of sorts against divorce. They cite a marriage study that shows that those same children of the 70s and 80s, my generation and those a bit older than me, are less likely to get divorced than our parents. While the divorce rate hovers around 50% for the population, the rate for recent college-grads within 10 years of marriage is closer to 10%. Despite the fact that we’re not seeing these people through the whole of their marriages and lives yet, that’s a big difference. It should be noted, however, that fewer women my age are getting married at all. The same study showed that women aged 25-29 were much less likely to have ever been married, in fact, half of all women in that age range had never married. So, we’re dealing with a smaller base, here as well. It might be that the marriages that are occurring are just better marriages, as other people are waiting.

Regardless of how exactly the numbers play out, the Times used these stats, and anecdotes and books, to show that divorce has become almost taboo among some segments of society. The article tells horror stories of storybook wives and mothers being outcast from the social spheres once they decided to divorce, a decidedly different take on divorce than the feminist, liberating, now-you’re-free state that they say ruled earlier generations.

Though it’s easy to toss out theories of social pressure in middle age as bunk, there is evidence that social networks (and I mean communities, not facebook) can have a profound effect on the decision to divorce. One recent paper found that having a friend or family who divorces makes you much more likely to divorce. Contrary to how this may sound, it doesn’t appear that divorce is actually contagious, like the measles. Rather, it is likely that seeing someone else get divorced changes perceived costs and benefits of divorce. If a friend goes through a divorce, you may see how hard it is on her and her family, but you also see the benefits later on of her new situation. And if she has already done it, you benefit from not being the only one.

In communities where divorce is looked down upon–be it for religious reasons, or ‘for the kids’, the costs for divorce likely remain very high, even if you know someone who has done it. It is precisely situations like these where economics trips up. In modeling divorce or investments in children, we control for what we can, but knowledge of a community’s stigma about divorce likely remains unknown. In the case where such a stigma is correlated with race or income, we might ascribe effects to race or income where they don’t belong.

Friday Thoughts on Fatherhood

Justin Wolfers, an economist, fellow studier of happiness, and father, reflects on fatherhood as an economist. They’re two roles that are surprisingly difficult to reconcile, he says, which is really a central tenet to everything I’m exploring here and in my thesis.

Key quote: “While the economic framework accurately describes how I choose an apple over an orange, it has had surprisingly little to say about what has been the most important choice in my life.”

There are several models that try to determine how many children people will have. We often talk about the “quantity-quality” tradeoff. I know that sounds crass, but the idea is simple, with limited resources, you can allocate more time and money to fewer children and help them achieve better outcomes, or you can have lots of kids. Again, crass, I know.

By way of anecdote, many friends (at least American friends), tend to say they want as many kids as they were in their family, except the only children. They all think their kids should have siblings to beat up, I mean, play with.