A Very Interesting Paragraph From …

Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy, by Viviana A. Zelizer, an economic sociologist at Princeton:

Suppose for a moment that this is the year 2096. Let’s take a look at American families: although by now money often takes postelectronic forms unfamiliar to the twentieth century, in the “traditional” home, “housewives” and “househusbands” receive monthly stipulated sums of money as salaries from their wage-earning spouses. Salaries are negotiated yearly; fines are imposed for sloppy cleaning, incompetent cooking, careless child care, or indifferent lovemaking. Midyear raises or cash prizes are awarded for exceptional performance. An arbitration board solves domestic financial disputes. In other forms of households, spouses have separate accounts, distribute domestic and emotional tasks equally, and pay cash for the performance of any extra chores and activities: from housekeeping to child care to sexual relations. In all households, children have a piecework scale for their various domestic responsibilities. Good report cards bring a bonus, and bad grades a deduction. As they enter college, children sign a contract to repay all their parents’ expenses within a stipulated number of years after graduation. (p. 136)

The book is a compilation of Zelizer’s research over the past 30 years, much of which has long fascinated me. Some section headings in the book: “Valuation of Human Lives,” “The Social Meaning of Money,” and “Intimate Economies.” I finally had occasion to interview Zelizer, for tonight’s Marketplace radio segment on holiday gift-giving and deadweight loss (a segment that you all helped out with as well: thanks!).

Zelizer also informed me that she is the maternal half of the first-ever mother-and-son faculty team at Princeton, where Julian Zelizer is a prominent young political historian.


At least one of those predictions is happening already. My sister-in-law is paid by her wage-earning husband to stay home with their two boys. She earns the same salary she would if she were working in her profession (teacher).


Interesting - yes.

Even vaguely plausible - no.

Human nature doesn't work nearly so neatly as all that. Perhaps some few households might work like that, but the VAST majority are not and would not be interested in having that sort of relationship.

We could have that exact sort of situation now - it is technically simple and eminently possible to accomplish. No one does it now, and I can't imagine what could so change the mass of humanity that it would adopt that sort of relationship arrangement.


Sounds practical. And also perfectly dreadful.


This is an extremely cynical view of relationships. Quid Pro Quo is a very business-like way of dealing with things, but not at all applicable to loving relationships. I love my wife. I do things for her because I WANT to do them because they will make her happy. I do things for my friends because I like them and want to do nice things for them. Getting something in return for these things cheapens the relationships and the significance of those actions. Viviana apparently has never experienced a loving relationship with anyone. That is very, very sad.

Eric M. Jones

Of course people already have innumerable varieties of domestic relationships. Where have you guys been? I think the idea of "typical" is just some sort of arithmetic mean instead of a commonly occurring mode.

Much of domestic relationships grow to promote what people think is important, and this changes slowly. But technology can change it overnight...witness the birth-control pill, cellphones, computers, whatever.

Progress moves people towards greater variety and freedom to express differences.

I hope.


This is fundamentally unworkable, both for all the reasons mentioned above and one rather larger one: the math doesn't work for the vast majority of the population.

In general, the appropriate wage for a house spouse would be their opportunity cost of not working outside the home less (or more) their preference for staying home. Because people will, on average, marry people with similar earning potential, house spouse salaries would often be roughly equal to earner salaries. This means the only households could reasonably do this are the very wealthy, for the most part.

Not to mention it'd probably be vastly more efficient to hire a live-in housekeeper and pay your spouse only for sex and other such services. You'd be able to get a lot more bang for your buck if you specialize and forgive the pun.


economics gone wild...and boring.

Love doesn't pay the bills

@Dave (#4)
I think you have both missed Zelizer's point and attributed an extrapolation from sociological trends to her personal feelings (and neither you nor I know what those feelings are).
In regard to that loving relationship--I WILL speak from personal experience:
I was a stay-at-home mother, a choice made possible by my husband's income and our mutual decision. It was a choice I am grateful to have had.
I value the time I spent raising children, working for my community, and maintaining a good quality of life--it has any number of intangible rewards. However, when I reentered the workplace, I had no retirement, no social security, no job track record, and no recognition that anything I had done in the preceding years mattered.
THIS is what Zelizer's scenario was about--not a prescription.


this sounds absolutely miserable... and completely ignores the partnership in marriage. The money my husband earns isn't "his" money, that then he pays me out of - it's OUR money, and we spend it together to benefit our household and family. The money I earn isn't mine to pay him for sex (!), it's OURS. Sex, in particular, should never be transactional, and children should learn to do domestic work because it is good for them to know how to do, not because they're getting paid for it.


Preposterous. Sounds like the sort of bloodless short-term (4 or 5 year) contract marriages that writers like Asimov or Clarke predicted in their Sci Fi decades ago.

There are regions of human society that are impervious to economic efficiency.

A different Dave

Must economists always see everything as an economics trouble.

Add me ot the list of those who think this sounds completely unrealistic and, if implemented, likely to impose a significant emotional cost on relationships and correspondingly on levels of happiness (if everything must be phrased in the form of an economics problem).


Children now sign contracts? I thought they were expected to sell shares in their future incomes.


What is interesting about capitalism is that it's biggest proponents are for socialism in the household-"from each according to his ability to each according to his need." Or just "for the good of the family." It works because there is love to soften the inequities of equality, people don't need a strict quid pro quo like a salary to help out the family.

This idea seems to want to completely do away with this structure. For better or worse.


I wonder why far-off visions of the future (except those in the utterly dystopic/apocalyptic vein) often seem to involve this very left-brained, uber-efficient and harmonious, reason-based uniformity a la "Looking Backward." I'm sure in this quid pro quo domestic culture, we're all agnostics and replete with matching, silvery jumpsuits too.


No one sees this already in our society?
1.My grandparents gave money for good report cards. I think it was $10 for an A, $5 for a B, and nothing at all if you got a single F. (That was in the early 80's) We learned that education is valuable.
2. My grandparents also taught us to keep separate finances when we got married. I talked with my wife before we were married and we worked out an arrangement we were both happy with and we haven't argued about money in 7 years. (That arrangement is we each get the same amount of discretionary money to spend regardless of who brings in what. Is that so dreadful?) . I believe there is far more love in my marriage for having simplified those issues.
3. My parent paid me to take on extra chores to teach me the value of money.
4. Most of us will take care of our parents in their golden years. This is how we pay them for all they have done for us.

In summation: Just because it isn't in a notarized contract doesn't mean we aren't already doing it.



Why is no one seeing the satire in this piece? It is as though everyone were berating Jonathan Swift for suggesting that we eat babies.


Dan Ariely has a very good chapter in his book "Predictably Irrational" explaining Market Norms vs Social Norms that I think would help someone understand why the above scenario wouldn't really function, unless you enjoy treating your spouse as a maid/nanny/prostitute.


That may work ONLY IF there is any disposable income in the family. That is if something is left after the mandatory expenses on housing, transportation, food and clothes are met.
Otherwise it will be silly to "pay" your spouse to stay home and then get a cut of that to pay the mortgage ;-)

Cody F

I agree with 16. This seems to me to be somewhat satirical, with an important underlying point that economists have worried about for years: housewife/husband work is not counted in any measure of productivity (GDP, etc). Something like this addresses the issue, and as 8 said, gives "stay at homes" proof that they did something while they were absent from the work force.