Economists in Love: Shelly Lundberg & Dick Startz

In our third installment of Economists in Love, we talk to two economists who are in love–with each other. Shelly Lundberg and Dick Startz are professors at the University of Washington, where she studies family and labor economics, and he does work on racial inequality and discrimination. Startz also has a new book out, Profit of Education, about education policy and teacher compensation. Bottom line: They do very important work and are an extremely intimidating couple. However–they also take goofy photographs like the one above, and are willing to answer prying questions about their marriage from nosy journalists.

1. What’s the best part about being married to another economist?

Shelly: Well, there are advantages such as the ability to use terms like “production complementarities” and “incentive compatibility” at the dinner table, but these are minor (and may doom the children to becoming economists themselves). The fact that economists sometimes marry other economists is more indicative of the search process facing young academics. When you are an assistant professor, it’s very costly to meet and get to know someone in a different field. There are also substantial information advantages to sticking with economists—Dick and I found that writing a research paper together early on was a superb compatibility test.

Dick: Shelly. But since this doesn’t generalize, it may not help the reader much.

2. What’s the worst part?

Shelly: One of the potential advantages of a two-income marriage is risk-sharing—if we are in different professions, my job market may be good during periods when yours is bad.  Our portfolios, alas, are perfectly correlated.

3. Some research suggests having children makes people unhappy. But you two have children—how did economics help you survive the first year?

Shelly: Child-rearing can be a rewarding project to work on together, or a source of stress, conflict, and penury that drive you apart (or both on different days).  Some studies that looked at the connection between children and marital satisfaction found that a shift towards traditional gender roles after childbearing was implicated in the deterioration of marital happiness—couples with children were more likely to report decreased interaction and dissatisfaction with their division of labor.  The “separate spheres” household has its challenges, and wouldn’t have worked for us:  we both continued to do the work we love and split the parenting.

Dick: You obviously ain’t met our children. They were fun from day one–on most days. Fortunately, economists maximize the present value of an infinitely-lived, intertemporal stream of discounted future utility (with discount rates being approximated from the consumption CAPM), so what matters is lifetime, rather than just flow utility. By the way, has anyone mentioned that macroeconomists are overly reliant on formalism rather than intuition?

4. You (Shelly) write a lot about bargaining between spouses. Have you found that there are more effective ways to bargain, say, if your goal is to get out of doing the dishes?

Shelly: First, it’s important to have a very clear understanding of what it is you want to accomplish when negotiating with your spouse.  It’s difficult to imagine a life in which one’s primary goal, even for this evening, is getting out of doing the dishes.  A simple trade of tasks is the most straightforward approach, but somehow I sense that you don’t want to take out the garbage tonight, either.  At this point, let’s remember that effective bargaining takes the long-term into account as well as the short-term, and if avoiding the dishes tonight comes at the cost of damaging your future credibility (fibbing) or straining your relationship (whining), it’s not likely to be a smart move.  That said, my approach would be, “Honey, I really don’t want to do the dishes tonight—will you please do them?” Always works.

5. Which is a better way to divide the housework: 50/50 or comparative advantage? Or is there a third way we should know about?

Shelly: Assigning tasks according to comparative advantage is a useful beginning, but it’s also important to get the incentives right.  When the value of the work depends upon the effort applied, whoever cares most about the outcome should be responsible for the task (skill permitting).  The incentive-compatible assignment in our house is that Dick should do the cooking (he actually cares what he eats), and I do the cleaning.  There are a few tasks that fall into a grey zone in which we can’t agree on who is responsible—no one ever cleans the car because I think it’s his job (car) and he thinks it’s mine (cleaning).  The expected benefit of a clean car is not worth the cost of hashing this one out.

It’s also possible for a thoughtful couple to manipulate comparative advantage over the long-term in service to other goals (equality, joint parenting), since most domestic skills can be easily learned and don’t depend much on inherent abilities.  Dick recognized that the first few days of our older daughter’s life was a critical period in his fathering career.  Both of us were daunted by the prospect of giving a first bath at home to a slippery newborn baby, but he decided to take care of it and acquired in one evening a strong comparative advantage in the baby-bathing aspect of parenting (I, after all, had the early feeding task sewn up).  The easy default would have been for me to be the complete infant-care expert, but Dick prevented that from the start and has been the most involved dad I know.

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7 Responses to Economists in Love: Shelly Lundberg & Dick Startz

  1. Pingback: Mostly off-topic | Profit of Education

  2. Pingback: On the value of children

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  4. Pingback: Economists in Love – Smart, funny. Shelly Lundberg and Dick Startz, husband and wife, professors of economics at University of Washington, on the economics of marriage. "Assigning tasks according to comparative advantage is a useful beginning&q

  5. Belinda Gomez says:

    And how much do you pay someone else to do?

    • N. Stillman says:

      Belinda: Shelly and Dick are wonderful parents and their children are lovely. Take your bitter pill somewhere else.

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