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.


  1. So in this particular post you are taking the pragmatic, amoral approach?
    It seems that step one would be helping girls raise the valuation of certain choices to "no matter what the cost" - ideally as a core moral choice, but not neglecting the natural pragmatic consequences.

    The othe issues certainly need addressed, and key among them is what both sides value most.

    A main issue is short sightedness, and indeed it would seem that many are still settling, being a single unwed mother in poverty is several degrees worse than a lack luster, but stable marriage.

    Some good food for thought in your post.

  2. No, this model doesn't assume away morality. Consider Proverbs 6:30-31 about a thief stealing to eat. It's obvious to everyone why he believes he has no choice but to break the law. This is what I'm talking about here: Girls are relationship starved. Even when they genuinely believe that doing certain things are immoral and/or a risk to their health, they'll choose to do them. This shouldn't surprise us.

    A romantic relationship is a basic necessity for them. You're suggesting that we convince them that it's not. I discussed some problems with that approach in the post. I'll add that if you were successful in convincing girls that a relationship wasn't worth much, then you'd probably end up causing additional problems. But on the whole, valuation is entirely subjective. Even if you don't think a relationship is worth everything, there's no reason to expect anyone to agree with you.

  3. Jenny, good post. Thought-provoking.

    “Girls are relationship starved.” Excellent description, and I would add, true for men as well. The view of the relationship may be fundamentally different for men and women, but the starving is still real.

    When I do premarital pastoral care and preparation, I do not start with Ephesians 5:21-33 (the husband-wife passage), but with Ephesians 4:17-32. That section focuses on how Christians develop relationships; the theme of Ephesians is “being in Christ,” and this section puts flesh and blood on the theme. Until both man and woman can understand and live in that context (anger, communication, and forgiveness), the husband-wife relationship will suffer.

    I will be sharing this with my teenage grandsons and granddaughters.

  4. So what solution would you propose?

  5. exegete77: Thanks!

    Zabeth: LOL Maybe I'm waiting for someone else to think of something. I just don't think turning off one's sexuality is a viable "solution."

  6. "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets." -Shakespeare, As You Like It

    Market principles certainly apply to relationships, as my wife and I have frequently joked with each other. Great point about every buyer being a seller.

    Another observation is the way the "sex rank" lines generally cross for women and men at an early age...women reaching the peak of their sexual attractiveness to men while men are beginning careers etc. and becoming more attractive in many ways to women.

    With cautions that it may well offend some folks, there are some interesting things to learn from the "game" and pick-up-artist (PUA) stuff from some years back, including a book called "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists." Namely, as a "seller" what "buyers" are actually looking for. Besides the book, here are plenty of web sources as well discussing the subject. In a nutshell, short-term physical attractions and long-term emotional bonding are fueled by different characteristics.

    Speaking from the guy side...plenty of guys have attributes on one side or the other but not both. One set of guys are great at being cads, while others are great at being dads (that rhyme was inadvertent)...problem being that guys in the latter group aren't attracting women the same way as the first group.

  7. matthew: Thanks for your comment. I was going to continue on, discussing inferior goods, substitute goods, price discrimination, etc., etc., but decided to quit while I was ahead. :D

  8. " Some feminist-leaning academics try to change consumer preferences by reciting all the reasons why men are defective goods." -- actually plenty of us feminist-leaning academics DON'T do that.

    also you might want to check this article out,1

  9. Brother OMi: That's why I said "some"...I know of a few cases, but I was thinking particularly of the bad solution proposed by Caroline Heldman of Occidental College, who was recently featured in the documentary Miss-Representation. Did you see it? I heard her additional views during a post-screening Q&A at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

  10. Brother OMi: Ah, I remember that article. I have always said - although perhaps not on this blog - that the problem for white women is just as serious or even worse as the problem for black women. No argument there. As for the over-35s being married, my Demographics professors would've failed me if I'd ever claimed that an older cohort's statistics will be duplicated by a younger cohort. For example, no one's asking when those older women got married. No one's asking what other factors have changed since. We need to focus on the situation that young women today find themselves in, not previous generations' experiences.

  11. What an interesting perspective on this topic! I really enjoyed this post :).


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