Friday, March 24, 2006

Two Girls for Every Boy

HBO put plural marriage back on the map with its new show Big Love. It’s time for Aplia Econ Blog to jump on the polygamy bandwagon. Though banned in the United States, polygamy--the practice of having more than one spouse--is not so uncommon in other countries, and in the greater animal kingdom, it's par for the course. So what's the big deal about big love?

Two columnists, Robert Frank (an economist at Cornell's Johnson School and author of Luxury Fever) and Tim Harford (a journalist at the Financial Times and author of The Undercover Economist), recently tackled the economics of polygamy. Both drew some interesting conclusions about shacking up with multiple spouses.

Check out Harford's column first. Note that Harford makes some useful distinctions between the types of plural marriage: polygyny means more than one wife and polyandry means more than one husband.

1. Polygyny often occurs in societies where women have few, if any, of the rights enjoyed by men. According to Harford's tongue-in-cheek take on polygyny, why might women in polygynous, rather than monogamous, societies have more bargaining power in the marriage market?

2. According to economist Kerwin Charles, how does the incarceration rate among black men in America affect the quality of men that black women face in the marriage market? What's the effect of the incarceration rate on the bargaining power of black men who are not in prison?

3. What's the parallel problem in China? Assuming the Chinese government doesn't legalize polyandry (two boys for every girl), what's the dark side of the surplus of single men?

Now take a look at Frank's column in The New York Times.

1. Frank agrees with Harford that polygyny can benefit women, as a small percentage of men would take multiple wives under legalized polygyny. For women prefering monogamy, this leaves an ample supply of men to choose from. According to Frank, men suffer most when men are allowed to have more than one wife. Why?

2. In what way is a "positional arms race" in the marriage market costly to society? What does Frank endorse: laws allowing for plural marriage or laws banning it?

Topics: Polygamy, Marriage market, Supply and demand


  • At 4:08 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Dr. Tufte said…

    An alternative economic view is that polygamy is about changing the terms of a contract after it has been agreed upon. It is a hold-up problem if 1) one party of the a contract tries to gain by changing the contract in their favor and 2) hoping that the other party will go along with this because they will still receive some (albeit lower) benefits from the contract. In polygamy, the husband and later wives do this to earlier wives. See my post on this.

  • At 5:16 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Julia said…

    Though not an economist, I have two considerations to make:
    1) have polygamy and its effects been taken into account in studies about violence in Islamic countries? Is polygamy widespread enough there to have considerable effect?
    2) I do not quite understand why no one of the articles considers the co-existence of polyandry and polyginy. Is it even arguable to hypothesize on the legalization/practice of one but not the other in a country like the US? I do not believe so, and in my opinion this makes the second article, specially, somewhat more philosophical than economic/practical.

  • At 4:56 PM, March 28, 2006, Blogger Dr. Tufte said…

    I think you're right, but I was responding to Frank's initial article, so mine might not stand well alone.

    I think one of the biggest signs that polygamy is both a worthwhile thing to understand, and a problem for society, is the preponderance of men with multiple wives over women with multiple husbands.

  • At 9:27 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Scott said…

    One possible explanation for the incentive for women to particpate in polygamy could lie in the idea that men on average are less amenable to being tied down in marriage and less interested in raising or supporting children. So a guy who likes kids and is willing to support multiple spouses is a better deal even if you have to share him with another woman than being married to a drunken, abusive lout who was the alternative.


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