Monday, September 24, 2007

HOMAGE TO SHERLOCK HOLMES AND PHILEAS FOGG. Megan McArdle on some silly Times story on women who are uncomfortable dating men who make less money than they do:
Speaking as the Emissary From Your Thirties, you know that amazing guy who just got back from Africa and tells hilarious stories and dates, like, everyone you know? The one your best friend quit her job to go to Tuvalu with? The one who's been working on a really titanic novel for four years that he never quite finishes, and can't seem to hold down a long-term job? His dating prospects start heading rapidly downhill by his thirtieth birthday. By his late thirties, his studio apartment is getting very lonely at night. If he does get married to a woman more successful than he is, it's likely that their relationship will be controlling, resentful, and involve enduring quite a lot of contempt from her friends and family.

But it has nothing to do with money. [? -ed.] Men with some measure of success in their chosen fields have no problem finding spouses. And successful women have no cause to complain, either. After all, they have a bevy of unsuccessful but charming men to choose from, who will be more than happy to date them if they can overcome their biases. The unsuccessful men, on the other hand, are pretty much frozen out.
This is why I keep a cat.

McArdle's post is an odd mix of libertarian harshness and romanticism. On the one hand, it features a market explanation which seems to strike her as just. But the talk about loneliness and diminished prospects comes from some different kind of moral tale, perhaps a pamphlet or a children's story. One would hardly guess that our society is filled with people who, by her standards, are moral and economic failures. McArdle does acknowledge the existence of poor folk in a previous post on the same subject, but there the language reverts to econo-nerdspeak:
There is a growing male/female education and income disparity. But it is occurring several rungs down the SES ladder from the precious princesses in the story, clipping off price tags and hiding shopping bags lest He realize that she shops at Prada. This problem is afflicting mostly poor women, particularly black and latino women, who have seen their earnings prospects improve dramatically relative to those of the men in their communities.
In this demimonde, women suffer from the "problem" of improved earning power, while in the surface world we have companionless loser males with their Soup for One dinners and unfinished novels, clinging forlornly to precious memories of Tuvalu. It seems win-win, or lose-lose, depending on your perspective.

For all its confusion, this analysis clearly posits marriage as the ultimate prize. I wonder if the many citizens who fall in and out of marriages, and in and out of economic stability, see it that way. No doubt many of them do -- which is why they keep trying -- but some may have determined that life's a bit messier than that. If the prospect of penury and an unattended deathbed disturbs them, so too might the prospect of a job they despise and a "controlling, resentful" relationship. One of the glories of a free society is that we may pick and choose our regrets. In econometric circles, where marriage, income per capita, and procreation are exalted data-points, this does not signify. But if you have found some happiness in this world despite your lack of resemblance to the ideal, you may know what I'm talking about.

UPDATE. Jules Verne character name corrected; thanks, Anon.

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