Why Do Economists Urge College But Not Marriage?

Source: Acton PowerBlog.

From an economics perspective both getting a college degree and getting married are beneficial for one’s earning potential. So why do economists promote the college wage premium while downplaying or ignoring the marriage wage premium? As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says,

In contemporary societies, there is a strong college wage premium. That is to say, people who go to college make more money on average than people who don’t. While a minority of economists (including Cowen) have questioned why this premium should exist, the majority of economists generally take the existence of this college wage premium to mean that college is good and important, that more people should go to college, and that public policy has some role to play in promoting and subsidizing college attendance. I would bet a goodly sum of money that if you picked at random ten tenured economists from top-20 economics departments, and asked them to list what an 18-year-old should do to increase his chances of getting high wages, a majority would say “go to college.”

There also exists a marriage wage premium, which is roughly as significant and as consistent as the college wage premium. To say that the marriage wage premium doesn’t get the same amount of attention is an understatement. Economists recoil at the idea of praising marriage and supporting public policies that increase marriage. They are much more likely to dismiss the marriage wage premium as reflecting selection bias (it’s not that marriage makes people earn more money, it’s that people who would have earned more money anyway tend to get married) or intone that “correlation is not causation”–criticisms that apply equally to analyses of the college wage premium. I would bet a goodly sum of money that if you picked at random ten tenured economists from top-20 economics departments, and asked them to list what an 18-year-old should do to increase his chances of getting high wages, none of them would say “get married and stay married”–even though the data on the marriage wage premium supports this conclusion to the same extent as it does going to college.

Gobry posits that the reason is bias: economists have an education bias because to become an economist requires numerous years of higher education and they have aliberal-cosmopolitan bias against government encouraging people to make intimate choices.

I think this is generally correct. Almost every marriage promoting economist I’ve ever seen has been politically conservative and/or Christian. In other words, they have pro-marriage biases that are as strong, if not stronger, than their education bias. I also believe this is why the heated debates in our country over social issues have a parallel in the economic realm. The “Culture War” is a heated clash while the economic-social is still a Cold War struggle. But they both are rooted in modern society’s two primary principles which are, as James Matthew Wilson says, autonomy of appetite and free consent. Because marriage and family limit our autonomy of appetite (and our free consent in engaging in the modern sexual buffet), it is considered by many elites to be gauche, if not downright immoral, to imply that people should voluntarily restrict their intimate choices by signing up for a (potentially) life-long commitment.

This also explains why, as Gobry notes, economists tend to “almost exclusively focus on productivity growth and completely ignore population growth” despite the fact that population growth leads to economic growth.

Economists have countless ideas on how government might do things to improve productivity growth, but the idea of using government to improve population growth is, quite simply, taboo. If economists are biased by a perspective which finds the idea of natalist policy squeamish, this makes perfect sense. If economists are dispassionate analysts, it doesn’t.

Of course, economists with a liberal-cosmopolitan perspective could certainly not openly endorse, much less propose, pro-natalist policies. That is why their preferred method is population growth is increased immigration: they want to take advantage of other countries pro-natalist attitudes.

We’re unlikely to change the minds of economists who have biases against getting married and having babies. But we need to be aware that such biases exist. By understanding that certain policies aren’t preferred solely because they are the optimal option, we can counter with our own preferred—and admittedly biased—approaches to economic and social policy. We may not be able to take bias out of economics, but we can at least insure the right biases are put in.

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  • JamestheThickheaded

    At some point, even economists need to get paid. One does not bite the hand of one’s masters. Read Steve Keen’s book on Debunking Economics: If he’s right, most economists in the US are professionally illiterate and incapable of calculus. Reading neo-Classical economist’s take on Keynes for example… and you get the distinct impression they’ve never read him.

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    • http://palamas.info Fr Gregory Jensen

      James,

      Thanks for the comment! God willing, someday I will read Keen’s book.

      Your major point is worth considering. LIke everyone else, economists have their own prejudices. In the current case that would presumably mean encouraging college–and so jobs for economists–rather than marriage–which would add little, if anything, to the material well-being of university professors whatever their academic disciple.

      I will defer to others more knowledgeable than I about the academic deficits of neoClassical economists and their understanding (or not) of Keynes. What I would offer though is this. Having done a great deal of work in personality theory, I appreciate the value of solid empirical research. I also am aware that such research is rarer than we might wish to think. We are better served, I believe, by a well thought out anthropology than calculus.

      Again thanks for the comment!

      In Christ,

      +FrG

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  • Oohrah

    Why does it have to be either college or marriage? People can do both. But if one must choose then i say it’s best to go to college first, then get married than the other way around. The latter can be quite the uphill climb. That I know from experience.

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    • http://palamas.info Fr Gregory Jensen

      Oohrah,

      Thank you for your comment and please forgive my delay in responding!

      Clearly college and marriage are not necessarily opposed. My wife and I both went to college (and graduate school) and have been happy married for going on 29 years. Whether or not marriage or college comes first depends I think on a range of life circumstances but probably in general better to be married after college than before since (as you point out) marriage before college is an “uphill climb.”

      All that said, the economic value of college relative to marriage again depends on a whole host of factors. Unfortunately, the economic (as distinct from the personal) value of college is diminishing. More and more men and women are graduating college with a large student loan debt and with an income potential that has not been improved. If this situation continues it may very well make better sense for future students to forgo a four year degree in favor of technical training if not (necessarily) early marriage.

      In Christ,

      +FrG

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