The Optimal Solution Is Two for Me and None for You

This old post from Megan McArdle came up in a conversation with a friend:

In his books Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks talks about status-wealth disequilibrium; the wealthy coastal cities are crowded with people who have money made in un-fun jobs, and people who have fun jobs that don't pay so well. The ideal, Brooks points out, is for members of one group to marry the other, to even things out, but unfortunately it generally doesn't work out that way.

From ten thousand feet, this seems to make sense. But the flaw becomes apparent as soon as you start to think about it: The reason this doesn't happen is that the person with the fun job brings nothing to the table. The rich person can share his money, but the advantages of a fun job can't be shared, and go exclusively to the person doing the job. This evens out wealth inequalities without evening out fun inequalities, which actually increases inequalities in total utility.

All else being equal, just about everyone would prefer to have a spouse who makes a lot of money. Granted, there are many men--me, for one--who would prefer not to make less than their wives, but I suspect that virtually all men making $X per year would prefer a wife who makes $0.8X per year to one who makes $0.2X. And so we get assortative mating: Lawyers marry lawyers, and starving artists marry starving artists.

The primary exception to this rule is when the person with the fun job is an attractive woman. But what she brings to the table here is her looks, not her job--an attractive woman with a high-paying job is still preferable to an attractive woman with a fun job.

I guess another exception might be when the couple plans on a traditional family in which the wife stays home and takes care of the children--if she's not working, it doesn't matter what kind of work she's not doing.

It's possible that McArdle is misstating Brooks' thesis--she refers to a status-wealth disequilibrium, so maybe Brooks had envisioned a scenario in which a high-status, low-paying job somehow confers status on the worker's spouse. I can't think of a good example though.

In any case, the solution as summarized by McArdle is one only a journalist could love.

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