Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Marriage Market

In a recent article in the New York Times, it is reported that Chinese billionaires are advertising for brides--specifically, virgin brides. This has been met with reactions ranging from enthusiasm to disgust. One respondent to the ads posted to an online discussion board saying, "Isn't the purpose of saving our virginity to get a good price?" Other readers promptly compared people like her to prostitutes. "I'm also a well-educated woman with a good figure, too, but I hate this kind of thing," wrote one reader. "People's beauty derives from their inner qualities, not their virginity. Those girls have sold themselves like cheap merchandise."

The model of supply and demand works great for a commodity like corn. But what about marriage? Should there be a market for brides--or grooms? Do the efficiency predictions of classical economics apply in the realm of Eros?

To answer this question, it's important to be clear about how the assumptions of the classical economic model drive its results about efficiency. In a model of supply and demand, there is a particular "good" in question, like corn. But in a "marriage market," there is no good--rather, the "product" of such a market is measured in matches, or pairings of two individuals.

The efficiency of such a market is not measured in the quantity of matches--if everyone wanted to get married, and there were roughly equivalent numbers of men and women, then everyone could. Rather, whether the pairing of people in a marriage market is efficient depends on the quality of the matches. Are spouses compatible with one another? Are the most number of people happy? Are the marriages stable?

This brings us back to the question of billionaires advertising:

1. Do these advertisements help in achieving efficiency in the marriage market? Why or why not?

2. Do you agree with the reader of the Chinese newspaper who felt that the respondents to these ads are "no different than prostitutes"? Why or why not?

3. Do people always get what they bargained for in the marriage market? Besides advertising, what methods do people use to find suitable spouses? What economic problems do these methods help to overcome?

4. Try the following exercise: Consider the cast of "Friends." Make up rankings for each of the characters, stating which of the other Friends they would like to marry. (For example, suppose Chandler would most like to marry Monica, then Rachel, then Phoebe.) Of all the possible sets of matches, can you say that one is more "efficient" than another? (Hint: you might consider a set of pairings inefficient if there is a pair of couples where each would be made better off if they swapped husbands.)

If you like this sort of thing, check out Al Roth's "Matching (Two-Sided Models)" page at Harvard.


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