Wednesday 22 November 2017

Review: Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson

James Pressley

HUMANS respond to incentives, as every economist knows. For evidence, consider Howard, a hypercompetitive lawyer with a volcanic temper.

Howard would come home so stressed that he'd go ballistic about bicycles in the drive and toys on the floor, write Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson in 'Spousonomics', a geeky guide to finding marital bliss through economics.

His tantrums had to go. So he and his wife Jen, a fellow lawyer, sought ways to check his anger. Counting to 20 didn't work. Nor did deep breathing. Desperate, they created a game in which Jen called out "red flag" when he looked ready to explode.

"If Howard went three days without a red flag, she'd have sex with him," the authors write. As puerile as that sounds, the game worked, restoring peace to their home and rekindling their sex life: a classic economic trade-off, to hear Szuchman and Anderson tell it. Or was it a coup for a manipulative male?

Szuchman and Anderson interviewed US couples to explore the underpinnings of gross domestic puzzles, from division of labour (who has the comparative advantage in mowing the lawn?) to moral hazard (are you bailing out a deadbeat hubby because your partnership is too big to fail?).

Armed with the findings, the authors sat down with couples. Anonymity was granted. Two by two, the couples described marital clashes reflecting economic dilemmas including burst bubbles (remember those torrid nights before we had the baby?). Sounds farfetched? Random House editors verified the veracity of the cases, says publicist Karen Fink.

There are chapters on supply and demand -- "or, how to have more sex" -- and "intertemporal choices", jargon for decisions made today that have consequences in the future.

For advanced couples, there's even a chapter on game theory, which brings us to newlyweds Mike, who had just started a hedge fund, and Ingrid, who worked in crisis communications.

Mike was what economists call a free rider: he let Ingrid do the laundry, empty the cat litter and plan their weekends. So Ingrid systematically reduced his temptation to freeload by keeping him off guard. One weekend, she made plans for herself and left him home alone. The next week, she didn't do laundry, leaving him without clean underwear and socks.

Soon, Mike began picking up some slack, which is great, though it makes me wonder how his hedge fund is doing. Wouldn't a Ken Griffin just pay someone to separate his lights and darks?

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