It’s almost as though God wanted to answer Megyn Kelly’s prayer.
You recall that Kelly, in a now-famous rant, excoriated Erick Erickson in these terms: “Who died and made you scientist-in-chief.”
I posted about the kerfuffle yesterday.
Since Kelly was obviously on the lookout for a scientist-in-chief to answer her questions about female breadwinners, The New York Times has provided a column by Richard Thaler. You may know that Thaler is a University of Chicago professor who was one of the founders of the new science of behavioral finance.
Naturally, Thaler has to show that he is not a conservative Neanderthal so he makes the customary asides about how this whole breadwinner problem is all a matter of social norms.
He would be more persuasive if he could trot out a few human communities where women are primary breadwinners and where the communities are not afflicted with multiple social pathologies.
Otherwise, we are going to have to learn how to emulate the fine example set by bonobo communities. Great scientific minds seem to believe that those primates have set the standard in female breadwinner families.
Thaler understands well that explanations are not facts. Thus, he reports the facts fairly and objectively.
In particular, he shares the research of several of his colleagues. Their study show how real men and real women react when a woman out-earns or might out-earn a man.
Such developments should encourage aspiring young women to believe that social norms are changing, and that barriers to success are dropping. But a new study reveals that women’s gains on the economic front may be contributing to a decline in the formation and stability of marriages.
One reason for this decline may be that women with greater earning power have greater economic security that allows them to leave bad marriages. Yet another possibility is that many men seem to be clinging to a social norm from the “Mad Men” days: that the husband should be the primary earner in a family.
On one point I am disappointed. Thaler is far too intelligent to repeat the mindless bromide about how the male breadwinner role was an invention of the American 1950s.
The study performed by his colleagues shows that when women earn more than their husbands it is bad for their marriages.
Theoretically, Thaler says, married couples should be happy to see more money flowing into the family coffers. They should not care who is bringing home the bacon or the filet mignon. In the real world, couples do care:
Suppose that both men and women are happier — all else being equal — the more money their spouse makes. In such a world, couples wouldn’t care whether the man or woman earns more, so the population of couples would have what we call a “normal distribution,” and would be captured in a bell-shaped curve. But that’s not what we see in the real-world data.
Instead, there is a sharp drop in the number of male-female couples at exactly the point where the woman starts to earn more than half of household income.
You can blame this on social norms and outmoded gender identity expectations. What if social norms reflect a behavioral constant that cannot be eradicated with just a little nudge.
What if gender differences are so deeply ingrained in human nature that those who defy them are likely to pay a price.
Thaler is quite correct to point out that men who slack off in school should not be surprised to see women surpassing them in earning power. He does not mention that the school system, as currently designed, encourages girls to succeed while it systematically keeps boys down.
Be that as it may, the data suggest that when women earn more than men the rate of marriage declines:
This may be one of many reasons that the share of young adults in marriages decreased 30 to 50 percent across various racial and ethnic groups from 1970 to 2008. Clearly, a choice to marry later in life explains part of this decline, but Ms. Bertrand and her co-authors estimate that the trend in the percentage of women making more than men explains almost one-fourth of the marriage rate’s decline in the 40 years ended in 2010.
Of course, couples find ways to adapt to a woman’s greater earning potential. Thaler explains:
What happens when a man marries a woman who has the education and skills to earn more than him? The couple can avoid violating the “man earns more” social norm if the woman works part time or leaves the labor force altogether. The authors found evidence of both choices. But what if the woman stays in the labor force and does earn more than her spouse? How does this affect the marriage? The findings here are striking. In such couples, surveys show, both wife and husband generally report being less happy about the marriage.
Female breadwinner marriages are also more likely to lead to divorce:
Given these findings, it isn’t surprising that when a wife earns more than her husband, the risk of divorce rises, too. To study this, the authors used a survey conducted in two waves, 1987-88 and 1992-93. (There were no more recent data available for this particular test.) Then they investigated the likelihood of a divorce in the five-year interval. For this sample, some 12 percent of all couples were divorced during this period — a sobering fact about the stability of marriages in general. But the divorce rate rose by half, to about 18 percent, for couples in which the wife earned more than the husband.
Similarly, a British study showed that in female breadwinner marriages, the male is more likely to have been prescribed Viagra while the female is more likely to have been prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medication.
It is well known, but it is useful for Thaler to point out that female breadwinners also do more of the housework.
Sheryl Sandberg is out there happily promoting her vision of a brave new world where half of the executives are women and half of the homemakers are men. Apparently, when women become high powered executives and professionals they still do more of the housework.
The reason has more to do with male pride than with social norms, but apparently behavioral economics has not quite gotten a grip on the male pride factor.
Thaler hints at it when he writes:
Is there any way to tell whether it’s the wife or the husband who becomes unhappy when the wife earns more? Does he think that she is threatening his manliness, or does she think that he’s a slacker?
The best answer is: all of the above.