Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When the Price Is Too High

I teach basic economics to college freshmen. When the supply and demand model is first introduced in my lectures, invariably there’s a question about those poor souls who are unable and/or unwilling to pay the market-determined price. How can a situation that results in many people going without food, clothing, or cellphones be efficient when it’s clearly not socially optimal?

The same question might be asked about the relationship market (or the marriage market, as the case may be). Depressingly low sex ratios, high rates of male incarceration, and a number of other factors create a society in which women, regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic status, feel pressured to “put out” more than they would like to just to gain a nanosecond of masculine attention. What does it take to bring about a more preferable outcome?

There are a number of ways we can go about to lower the price. Eliminating the competition is one option. During the Middle Ages, many baby girls received a one-way ticket to a convent (to be used when they were grown, of course). Today, Christians admonish each other to give up the search and instead to “be content in the Lord.” Some feminist-leaning academics try to change consumer preferences by reciting all the reasons why men are defective goods. Yet, the end result is generally not decreased consumer demand. Demand stays put, and the only change is that would-be buyers feel guilty about going shopping.

Another option, of course, is increasing the supply. The market is opened up to foreign producers. Women start shopping for men outside their racial, religious, and socio-economic preferences. The requirements of “tall, dark, and handsome” are replaced with “breathing and not currently in prison.” Some women discover that what they thought they didn’t want is what they really wanted all along. Others “settle” with something less desirable. And others still leave empty handed, muttering about the prices. Why? For every new sub-demographic of men considered, its female counterpart is there aggressively bidding up the prices. Instead of finding yourself competing with two women for one man, you’re competing with ten women for three men and pretending that your odds have improved.

By now, dear reader, you’re protesting that I’ve reversed gender roles. However, please bear in mind that every buyer is a seller, and every seller a buyer. For the men, they are looking at high price tags too: their freedom. When an average woman starts singing “Put a Ring on It,” from the perspective of male shoppers, they’re being asked to “cough up a lot of dough” for a product that they didn’t really want. Solitary confinement starts looking really good.

So, we’re back to square one. There are too many men and women left single, unable and/or unwilling to pay the price it takes to find someone special in today’s unregulated market. What do we do about it? Appeal to the suppliers’ consciences, urging them to pass up opportunities to profit and instead provide discounts for low-income buyers? In other words, compel people to enter relationships on unfavorable terms in a spirit of sympathy and self-sacrifice. Men wouldn’t demand sexual favors. Women wouldn’t demand fidelity. We’d have an alternative universe filled with irrational people unmotivated by wants and profit. Any takers? I’m guessing not.

People desire intimate relationships. That’s the way we were made. Unfortunately, romantic attention is more often than not a scarce good. It’s like water in the Sahara. When the price is too high, we’re forced to either pay up or abandon the market for this basic necessity. Is it any wonder why some will risk “life and limb” to “spend an arm and a leg” for it?

This has sad implications for today’s young women. There’s nothing more heart-wrenching than being a perpetual wall-flower in the dance of life. Onlookers – often comfortably attached themselves – just shake their heads in disbelief, watching girls making unwise exchanges: (unprotected) sex for brief attentions. Yet, given the current state of things, this behavior is rational. They are freely paying the going rate – perhaps higher than they’d prefer – for something they desperately want. Unless and until key factors within the market fundamentally change, we can’t realistically expect the girls to change their behavior. Whether it’s Tickle-Me Elmo, Nintendo Wii, membership in an exclusive club, or a first kiss, it’s difficult to convince someone something precious to her is not worth fighting for.

No Wedding. No Womb.

This post was written for the No Wedding No Womb 2011 Campaign, organized by So Cal’s own Christelyn Russell-Karazin. The purpose of this mega-blog event is to spread awareness about out-of-wedlock births within the African American community and inspire black girls and women to initiate change. Head over to the NWNW site to catch other bloggers’ perspectives on this issue.