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“Tradition” Has an Economics Problem: A Response to Lauren Southern

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 12:34
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Conservative vlogger Lauren Southern has a new video out encouraging Millennials to embrace a “traditional” lifestyle, and promises viewers, “This lifestyle leads to happiness in love life, work life, and overall fulfillment.”

But, she says, “Do the research yourself. Delve into this stuff.” Well, I think I will.

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First, what does Southern mean by “traditional lifestyle?”

Southern is scant on specifics, but does mention a few hallmarks. First up is “A white picket fence and a dog named spot.” Also in her mind, “Being traditional,” requires “family, community, vocation, and faith.” She favors a feminine housewife and masculine breadwinner.

Lastly, she talks about “hard work, honesty, and decency.”

“Basically picture the attitude of a pre-powers Captain America. Just a genuinely decent person. The old traditional vision of a man.” It’s unclear to me why hard work, honesty, and decency and being a genuinely decent person are necessarily associated with being a man and not, you know, a person. It would seem to me that women are also traditionally hardworking, honest, and decent.

In the spirit of doing the research myself, let’s delve into this stuff.

Marriage and the nuclear family

The American Sociological Review, according to Southern, reported that more egalitarian marriages are linked to lower marital and sexual satisfaction for women. A UCLA study conducted between 2001 and 2004 showed the opposite. Couples who agree in advance who is doing what domestic labor are more likely to feel satisfied in their relationship than those who assume the woman will take care of the home.

Southern claims that men who display more benevolent sexism have higher overall life satisfaction and women are happier in relationships with these sexist men. But a Rutgers study of over 500 individuals in 2007 found that both men and women with feminist partners were more satisfied in their heterosexual relationships.

Researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that never-married older women’s reported happiness levels were indistinguishable from married, older women. But older women who’d never been married reported higher happiness levels than women who’d been widowed or divorced.

Married people tend to earn more money and live longer. However, it’s not at all clear that it’s marriage that makes these people happy. There’s nothing less “traditional” than living in sin. But a 2012 Journal of Marriage and Family study reported being married had few benefits over long-term cohabitation.

More damning to Southern’s contention is the clear data showing that wealthier people are more likely to get married than poor people. It’s not that marriage makes people richer. Instead, wealth makes people get married. In fact, marriage actually cuts a woman’s earnings. In her book All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister cites sociologist Michelle Budig, who found that the average man sees a 6% wage increase after having kids. The average woman sees her wages decrease 4% for each child she has. Traister found that unmarried, childless women in cities between 22-30 earn 8% more than their male counterparts. Nationwide, the wage gap is almost nonexistent for childless, unmarried women, who earn $.96 to that average man’s dollar. Married mothers make $.76 for every dollar a man makes in the same job. Women who marry in their thirties earn an average of $18,000 more per year than women who marry in their twenties. Early marriage is associated with bigger paycheck for men.

“When kids enter the picture, millennial men get even more happy and fulfilled,” Southern claims. Not so fast. Childless married and unmarried couples are happiest according to a 2014 Open University study of 5,000 people of all ages in long-term relationships.

When economist Erik Hurst looked at 21-30 year old men with less than a bachelor’s degree he found that 18% weren’t working at all during prior year. In 2000, that number was 8%. And yet reported life satisfaction for 21-30 year old men with less than a BA has gone up from 2000 to 2015. These men are far-and-away unmarried, childless, and living at home with their parents. They don’t seem to need a wife or kids to feel happy and fulfilled.

Southern advises women to find a male breadwinner and stay home to take care of the kids. The problem with this advice is that there simply aren’t enough male breadwinners to go around. According to the New York Times, more than a fifth of American men between the ages of 20 and 65 had no paid work last year. Of those 20 million men, seven million of them between 25 and 55 aren’t even looking for work. And by 2050, a third of between the ages of 25 and 54 without college educations could be out of work. As women have increased their labor force participation, men have decreased theirs.

Monogamy

Southern tries to claim that being promiscuous makes you unhappy by citing research that indicates that people who are promiscuous are more likely to suffer from depression. The problem is that the research shows the opposite causal relationship. Being depressed makes you more likely to be promiscuous. Which does not at all indicate that being celibate or monogamous will make you happier. Rather, it indicates that if you’re happier you’re more likely to be celibate or monogamous. Southern attempts to claim that having more sex partners can cause psychosis and manic episodes, which doesn’t even make sense. What makes perfect sense, and is supported by the literature, is that it works the other way.

Mania is diagnosed in part on the basis of engaging in risky behavior. People having manic episodes tend to overspend their money buying things they don’t need, take trips instead of doing their work, and, of course, engage in risky casual sex. Again, neither the shopping nor the risky casual sex caused the mania. They result from it.

To see how useless correlative data is for establishing causation, consider the 2004 paper “Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study.” The authors found that having sex once per week instead of once per month increases average happiness by the same amount as getting paid an extra $50,000 per year. Will choosing to have more sex make you as happy as a $50,000 raise? Maybe, maybe not. More likely happier people bone more often.

People who report more sexual partners are less happy during their marriages. Again, we have a cause-and-effect problem. The most likely explanation for this correlation is that people who are less well-suited to long-term monogamy also report more sexual partners prior to marriage.

Church

There’s an undeniable link between community and happiness. Sure, but that’s not an argument for church specifically. I get “strong social relations and feelings of connectedness to my community” from any group I form close bonds and weak ties with. That could be a BDSM group, a polyamory meetup, a hiking group, or any activity where I’m willing to invest materially, connect people professionally, and provide emotional labor. It also ignores the way most churches have traditionally excluded gays and divorced women from their communities.

In conclusion

“We’re not just ignoring these traditions,” Southern states. “We’re doing the opposite of them. Men are being taught to hate themselves for their gender. To serve and grovel to women. To serve and be weak.”

Maybe. Or maybe the economy has shifted from high demand for low-education, low-skill, high-physical strength labor to high demand for high-education, high-skill, people-based labor and men simply haven’t been able to adapt to it as well as women have. That’s certainly the contention of most economists.

Maybe widespread male unemployment and low earnings have made the male-breadwinner model of marriage unattainable for people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and that’s why people with higher incomes and more education are more likely to get married.

Maybe people are doing the opposite of these “traditions” because they’re poorly supported by empirical evidence and difficult to pull off in the current economy.

“The problem that none of these people can escape is that conservatism and tradition (like as general principles in the macro, not as micro snippets) completely fly in the face and are counter to progress, innovation, and overall change,” Alessandro Aragona wrote in response to the video. “It’s at a point where these people seem to really struggle trying to proclaim a love of markets on the one side of their mouth, and a love of tradition and conservatism on the other side of their mouth.”

Unlike Southern, I got married young. I had a white picket fence. I went to church every Sunday. It didn’t work for me. I wasn’t happier in my love life, work life, and overall fulfillment than I am now. Maybe she’d argue that it didn’t work because I didn’t buy the whole package. Well if some is worse than none, then telling people to try to live “traditionally” is terrible advice. Because most people won’t be able to buy the whole package for reasons totally outside of their control and that have nothing to do with teaching men to serve and grovel to women and everything to do with demand for labor in a market economy.

Economic realities are such that Charles Murray himself has come out in favor of a universal basic income, having realized that demand for male labor is too low in the market economy to support his vision for “traditional marriage.”

The thing I want Southern to grasp is that life is complicated. There’s no formula for happiness. Different things work for different people. Yes, that’s “confusing” for Millennials. But better confused and finding your own way than killing yourself trying to stuff yourself in a box that isn’t right for you, and even if it were no longer exists outside of conservative wet dreams.

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