Sub-prime marriage

May 19, 2009 at 9:35 am 3 comments

One of the things that’s been making the rounds is the story of the NY Times financial writer who is losing his house (and of course, writing a book about it which was just excerpted as an article in the NY Times magazine). The interesting thing is that what at first looks like a case study in the culture of debt (what idiot/shyster gave him a mortgage?) is really all about divorce.

Basically what happened is this guy and his new wife (until that point a housewife) divorced their respective spouses and married each other. His ex got roughly 2/3 of his (fairly lavish) income as alimony and child support. His new wife had been out of the labor market so long that she was only minimally employable, especially because she was mostly interested in taking a prestigious and intrinsically rewarding knowledge worker type job of the type that a) people tend to self-subsidize and b) she was no longer competitive for. Despite a massive income shock they were both accustomed to their old bourgeois lifestyles and ended up in the red by over $1000 /month.
I find this story to be interesting in part because we’ve suspected since Moynihan (and known for an absolute fact since McLanahan and Sandefur) that many of the problems of the lower class are related to the breakdown of the bourgeois family (especially the increasing number of households with only one adult), but this story illustrates how it’s no picnic for upper middle class professionals types either. I should also note that much of the commentary is flat wrong. For instance if you read the comment thread on this post, most of it is misogyny directed at both women in this story (i.e., the ex is bleeding this guy dry and the second wife had no right to have remained a housewife in her first marriage as soon as her kids were in kindergarten) to the effect that marriage is biased against men. In fact all the research shows that men benefit more from marriage than women, mostly because we start acting responsibly after we get married. After getting married men have more stable employment histories and are much less likely to use cocaine or abuse alcohol. As far as can be determined (through longitudinal studies) the association is mostly causal.

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Collaborative code Are institutions cyclical, counter-cyclical, or non-cyclical?


  • 1. racheltk  |  May 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Thank you for posting about this story — I also heard this guy talking on NPR and was pretty much appalled from the first sentence when he mentioned the ‘injustice’ of his divorce settlement. He also repeatedly referenced that ‘finally’ he was with ‘the love of his life,’ now, which I found incredibly objectionable.

    I also read the comment thread at the Times and was, again, appalled at the venting toward divorce laws/settlements and the viciousness towards his ex-wife, whom frankly I think managed to dodge a major bullet by getting rid of this guy.

    I also find it somewhat poetic justice that he is losing his house (he confirmed this on NPR).

  • 2. gabrielrossman  |  May 19, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    the “finally … love of his life” comment is revealing as it implies that one of the major reasons for divorce is an idealization of love that assumes that a romantic relationship is supposed to remain perpetually passionate. ironically if you actually read his NYT article you’ll see that his second marriage has been incredibly stressful, mostly because of the financial strain brought on by his trying (and failing) to support two middle-class households. it may not occur to him like this, but my bet is that he probably would have been much happier on a day to day basis if he had remained in his first marriage which no doubt had less sex but also had a lot less (as in zero) calls from collection agencies and repo men.

  • 3. Mike3550  |  May 19, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    This is a great post — I have to admit that I haven’t read the story yet (on the list of post-dissertation things to do), but my wife told me about it. It’s funny that the other take-home that I have heard (again, not having read the story) is that the normative line that this whole mess was caused by stupid, lazy people applying for sub-prime loans when they couldn’t afford it is basically ignorant of all of the other structural forces that pull in people who should know better. And I have a pretty strong guess about the type of person that people imagine when they say those things (hint: not a middle-class, white, professional).

    It’s interesting how the sympathy then shifts toward him and how, really, it’s all about how his despicable wives are out to get him.

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