Economists in Love: Daniel Hamermesh

Economists are a romantic bunch. Seriously. To prove it, we’ve interviewed a few of them so you can see just how sexy the dismal science can be.

First up is Daniel Hamermesh, author of Economics is Everywhere and an economics professor at the University of Texas (that’s him above, on his wedding day). He’s been married for 43 years–yes, you read that right, 43 YEARS–to Frances W. Hamermesh, a partner in an Austin law firm. They have two sons and six grandchildren. In addition to teaching in Texas and countless other countries, Hamermesh is also a contributor to the Freakonomics blog.

Economics has been widely criticized for not predicting the most recent financial crisis. Do you think it can it be effective at helping us understand marriage and relationships?

Absolutely.  We can’t predict which marriages will be successful, but econometric research has pointed out some of the correlates, and even the determinants, of divorce.
Other research has indicated which individuals are more likely to match up, and what their characteristics might be. Game theory certainly applies to how my wife and I met (which is the most pathetic pick-up story in human history).  I had seen her across the way at  a Yom Kippur service, and wanted to meet her.  Three days later, I was on crutches, and she happened to walk by my dorm house.  I could ask her to carry my books, or ask her on a date. She could say yes or no.  Those were our strategies.  But I had the first-mover advantage, and realized that a better outcome was likely if I just asked her to carry my books. (I knew that if she said no, she was not the kind of person I wanted to be with–who wouldn’t carry a cripple’s books?)  So I chose “books,” and the rest is history.

Which is a better way to divide the housework: 50/50 or comparative advantage?

There is no better way in all cases.  In specific cases it should depend not only on comparative advantage in doing the housework, but also on the preferences of the spouses.  My wife may be great at cleaning toilets but she hates doing it even more than I do.  Thus, I wind up cleaning them. We pretty much use the principle of comparative advantage in doing laundry.  I am unskilled at knowing which things to dry, which to hang up, and which colors go with which in the washer. So my wife separates the dirty clothes into loads, and signals which should be hung up rather than machine-dried by turning some inside-out.  This works fairly well, although I am occasionally chastised for machine-drying the wrong things (I’ve been known to machine-dry a silk blouse!), which usually leads to temporary abandonment of comparative advantage and reliance on absolute advantage–my wife does all the laundry for a while.

What’s the most important lesson economics has taught you about your own marriage?

It has taught me the role of compromise. To quote a song by Diamond Rio, “We’ll gain a lot of ground ‘cause we’ll both give a little, Ain’t no road too long, if you meet in the middle.” It has also taught me to think about the subtleties of comparative advantage and to recognize that preferences matter too.  To wit:  I earn about twice as much per hour as my wife; and she’s a much better cook than I am.  Yet I do much of the cooking, because my schedule is more flexible, so that the cost to me of getting dinner on the table at a reasonable time is lower than it would be to her.

In your own experience, what are the opportunity costs of being married?

Every activity has opportunity costs.  In a good marriage both spouses view them as tiny and well worth overcoming.  Clearly the freedom to “chase around” is one.  So too is the freedom to determine one’s schedule by oneself.

Some people think economics is dull. Is it?

The questions you are asking illustrate themselves why it’s not dull.  And this is only one of many real-world areas where using a little bit of economics goes a long way to advancing one’s understanding of the world.  More important, there is a lot of behavior that just can’t be understood without a little bit of economic thinking. An example is my 1974 Suicide paper.  Most people believe the rich have it tough and are more likely to commit suicide.  That’s completely against simple economics, and my paper showed the fact that suicide is more prevalent among lower-income people. I think part of the reason too many people think it’s dull is that the economics course they took in high school or college was taught so badly.  But if that introductory course is taught well—-if the instructor can make it clear how interesting AND RELEVANT the essential concepts are–people won’t think it’s dull.

(Note to readers: Buy Spousonomics, it is both relevant AND interesting)

Hypothetically speaking, which theory is more appropriate to marital sex: the law of diminishing marginal utility or Becker’s theory of addiction? Or is there a third theory that we’re missing?

Both theories are appropriate; but the larger truth requires both of them. Surely the marginal utility of sex within a short period of time diminishes (ignoring even the diminishing marginal productivity of the participants in generating sexual satisfaction in additional encounters in a very short period!).  But the theory of addiction, as I interpret/explain it, is based on there being a greater marginal utility of beginning something in each sequence if one has engaged in more of it in the past.

(Note to readers: That means, in essence, the more sex you have, the more sex you want. Take it from the experts.)

Posted in economists, marriage

4 Responses to Economists in Love: Daniel Hamermesh

  1. Jim Stodder says:

    Actually, addiction still has decreasing marginal utility. Habituation is still key. Rather than increasing utility, the problem is rather that the marginal utility of addictive behaviors diminishes very quickly, while for non-addictive behaviors is relative stable. The empirical reality is that organisms ‘match’ not marginal utilities. See Herrnstein, R.J. & Prelec, D. (1991). “Melioration: A theory of distributed choice.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(3), 137–156. This implies a gross over-consumption of addictive behaviors — overconsumption in the sense that utility is not maximized.

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