Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Romantic Economist by William Nicolson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This is one of the random selections my wife brings home for me from time to time. (Why Mahler? is another one.) These book are not on my reading list, but look interesting to her. It adds a bit of spice to my list.

Author William Nicolson was an economics student at the University of Edinburgh (and is now a solicitor-in-training) when he decided to attempt to apply the principles of economics to his dating life. This book was the result.

The question that the author attempted to answer was, first of all, why a decent looking guy, with no apparent major drawbacks, was having difficulty getting and keeping a girl. Could economic theory help him understand what was happening, and could he improve his prospects?

If this sounds like a set up for a really awkward series of anecdotes, it is. Nicolson’s dry British sense of self-effacement and inferiority makes it pretty funny, though. I never thought I would read a book that made me feel like a whiz with the ladies, but there you have it.

The topics covered include such gems as supply and demand as an explanation for playing hard to get; the efficient market hypothesis to show why it seems only crazy people are left; the “you’ll do horizon,” which explains how expectations change; sunk costs and why people stay in bad relationships; and a number of others. Yes, this is completely nerdy, but also interesting. While economic theory doesn’t explain individual decisions perfectly, it does work pretty well to explain the aggregate decisions of groups. (See The Logic of Life for more on this.)

Not only does economic theory shed some light on the psychology of romance, but the issues presented by the dating scene also help explain economic theory.

I’ll also give a mention to “hiding the crazy.” In the author’s view, women in particular go along with a lot, until they are sure that the guy is hooked. Then they embark on a “boyfriend improvement project.” Or, as Henry Higgins (from My Fair Lady) puts it: “BUT, Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through, she'll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome,
and then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you…”

I might also quote the sage observation of my father. “Women get married thinking that the man will change. Men get married thinking that the woman won’t. Both are wrong.”

In addition to feeling more competent at romance than expected, I also was reminded of all the reasons why I never really relished the idea of joining the dating scene. I am not a game player. (Literally and figuratively.) The entire enterprise seems remarkably full of games. Some can be explained using economics, while others seem to be mind games played by those who like to do that sort of thing. I think the author shares my irritation, which is why he tries to understand things from some rational point of view. This is why, when I was in my early teens, some elements of the Courtship movement seemed attractive. I didn’t want to invest time and money just to play games. My goal was always to find a spouse who was also a best friend, and do the whole “happily ever after” thing. I like the idea of dating with a purpose. Of course, I never had girls throwing themselves at me, so I guess I never knew what it was like to be fought over.

(For those who wish to read about it, this post tells about about my own experience. While I liked the purposefulness of “courtship,” I never embraced the “don’t fall in love until after you have committed” idea, or the reality of inappropriate parental control and interference that many others experienced. In effect, Amanda and I dated. But we were each other’s first significant other, for whatever that is worth.)

Up until the end, the book was mostly about the misadventures of the author. His theories may have been true or not, as applied to his situation, but the one thing they did not do was improve his love life.

Where it gets interesting is at the end, when he decides to adopt a Keynesian approach to romance. Earlier, he had worked at maximizing his returns, and minimizing his costs. While this might be a general explanation of the macro view of free enterprise and capitalism, it doesn’t work well for individual relationships. (I might also note that it doesn’t work well for small businesses either, because of the importance of relationships. Another thing I learned from my dad was that the best deal was one in which both parties were happy.)

I have since learned that not only is this a morally dubious way to treat girls, but it is also economically inefficient. Being completely self-interested, concerned only for my own emotional satisfaction and self-preservation...left me wholly unsatisfied. I became overly concerned that I wouldn’t get back from a relationship at least as much as I put in, so I started to put in less.

This led to a romantic “recession.” Less input from both led to less happiness overall. The problem with the whole approach, as he notes, is that if both parties are defensive and withdraw, then the relationship fails needlessly.

The Keynesian approach would be that of investing without fear of deficits, in order to create confidence. “We will invest so that you can feel confident in investing too.” One can debate the merits of this approach in the realm of macroeconomics. (Of all the political debates going on over the last 50 years, this is one of the few that is actually interesting, requiring actual thought. Not that there aren’t plenty of inane talking points on both sides, but there is actually intelligent writing on both sides, if you look it up.)

What is less debatable is that this is exactly what is needed for successful relationships. And, it is the one thing most lacking in unsuccessful ones. (Future blog post: the role of entitlement in failed marriages as seen by a divorce attorney.)

If both parties stop worrying about what they get out of the marriage, and just invest anyway, good things happen. This applies to the mushy stuff, but also to financial issues, housework, and so much else. If I have experienced anything in my 13 years of marriage, it would have to be that if both spouses dedicate themselves to making life easier for the other, that investment leads to an overall higher return than if the parties instead try to limit risk. (We are back to game theory here: the best result is investment by both parties, but that requires confidence that the other will likewise invest.) For the one (since that is who we each are), we must take the risk of heartbreak, in order to have the potential gain of a loving relationship.

In that respect, what is truly offensive about the rhetoric of the Courtship movement is the promise that it avoid heartbreak. The goal is the same as that of the dating scene: minimize risk and maximize the return. Experience has proven this to be laughably false, of course. Heartbreak is unavoidable. But if the promise were true, the lack of risk would lead inevitably to a lack of real love. Love cannot exist in the absence of risk.

Unexpectedly, the book closes with one of my all time favorite quotes, from C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

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