A Little Economics for Your Valentine

Beautiful couple having  romantic dinner at restaurant
Beautiful couple having romantic dinner at restaurant

On this Valentine's Day, of course, bring flowers, make a special meal, dine at your favorite restaurant, or just be extra-special loving. But while you're at it, take a little time to talk to your beloved from an economic perspective. Ask yourselves how you might change your relationship to increase well-being for both of you, not just for right now but also for the future. It may be the best Valentine's Day ever.

I know this because for more than 40 years I have been teaching a course on work and family at Stanford University, most recently at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and year after year students tell me how much an economic perspective has improved their relationships.

The division between economics and love is unfortunate, reminiscent of Descartes' insistence on the separation between mind and body. In the years since Descartes, we have come to understand that far from being separate, mind and body are inextricably interwoven. Similarly, it's high time to explore the connections between economics and love.

Although economics was dubbed the dismal science more than a century ago, in fact it is not dismal at all. It is concerned first and foremost with well-being, and it assumes that when two people "fall in love" and decide to make their relationship permanent (or even semi-permanent) it is because each thinks the relationship will make them better off -- economically as well as psychologically.

When our economy was based largely on agriculture, this was not a tough sell; it was taken for granted that marriage was a financial as well as a psychological relationship, and indeed the financial was often emphasized far more than the psychological. Today, however, many consider it ill-mannered to discuss the economic benefits of marriage, and we use disparaging terms such as gold digger or trophy wife to describe women who seem to be marrying "just for money."

In most first marriages, neither party has considerable income or assets, so the economic question is generally about potential. What I tell my students is that while they can certainly allow themselves time to enjoy the frenzy of being in love, once they begin to think about making their love relationship permanent, they need to ask themselves some tough questions: Are they able to regularly and deeply discuss their career and family ambitions with their potential partner or spouse? Are they convinced that their potential partner or spouse will support their career and family ambitions? Do they believe this relationship will make them better off not only today but also in the long run?

At the end of the school term, I get emails from students telling me how the class affected their lives. Most of them are about opting out of the workforce, and some of the most poignant come from men who are Sloan Fellows in their late thirties who have not encouraged their wives to work while raising young children. Each says that when he first had children he told his wife that whether or not she worked was completely up to her, but that now, coming from an economic perspective and realizing how much his family will lose over time if his wife remains a full-time homemaker, he has told his wife that he will participate more in housework and childcare if she will return to work. They report that their wives are astonished as well as delighted (no doubt the ones whose wives are not pleased don't write to me), and that they have shared with their wives the class discussions about how to return to the workforce after a long absence. An unusual but much appreciated valentine.

The women who write about opting out are concerned more about the future. Many of them came into the class thinking that having children (which almost all of them want) will require that they leave their demanding MBA jobs for several years. But now, as a result of the class, they understand that women who opt out of the workforce pay a financial penalty not only while they are at home, but even after returning to work, and now they don't want to opt out. What they want are husbands who will be equal partners in raising children while both parents have careers. Realizing that child care is key to their success, they have become ardent advocates of high quality-child care. And understanding that child care has benefits for our entire economy, they have become supporters of universally available child care, subsidized for those who are less well off. A valentine to families everywhere.

Invariably, some of the emails I receive tell me that the class helped them to dodge a giant mistake, that using economic thinking they came to understand that their significant other did not support the kind of career or family they hoped to have and so they ended the relationship. Although they are sad, the overall tenor of their emails is relief. One doesn't generally associate Valentine's Day with ending a relationship, but perhaps preventing future pain is the most loving gift of all.