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Love in the time of inequality

Could love be capitalism's next casualty?

May 21, 2014 12:30AM ET

It’s well known how capitalism unleashes creative destruction when left to its own devices. Could love be its next target for disruption?

As French economist Thomas Piketty points out in his best-seller “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” we’ve been tolerating — even encouraging — more and more inequality since the 1980s, to the point that we find ourselves hurtling toward a future in which the best chance of success may depend on getting ahead the old-fashioned way: being born into money or marrying into it. According to the estimates of economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the very wealthy’s share of the pie is already back to Gilded Age levels, so we’re well on our way. Welcome to love aboard James Cameron’s “Titanic,” where betrothals are matters of finance and romance is a luxury that few can afford.

To illustrate this phenomenon, economists, including Piketty, refer to a thought experiment known as Rastignac’s Dilemma, a reference to Eugène de Rastignac, a character from Honoré de Balzac’s novels. In “Le Père Goriot,” Rastignac, a law student, lives in a top-heavy 19th century world where inheritance means much more than skill or talent for a young man eager to make his way. Rastignac’s parents have no money. What, then, is his path to prosperity?

He has two options: He can work hard as a lawyer, a path that will bring him 10 years of drudgery and endless groveling to secure an elusive judgeship. Even then his income would be middling. Or he can look for a Paris Hilton in petticoats. The second choice appears much more reasonable. What’s love got to do with it? Not much. 

Gold diggers

Rastignac’s thinking may seem more fitting to the Anna Nicole Smiths of the world — gold diggers, as they are known. But the power of inherited fortunes is visible all around us, from the Forbes 400 list, full of Waltons and Kochs, to ABC’s new reality show “The Will,” set to entertain us with the spectacle of potential heirs competing for a large estate. Today’s Rastignac, saddled with student debt, facing job insecurity and subject to countless other economic pressures, may well decide that cozying up to a Walton is the best course of action. (Note: Walton heiress Paige Laurie Dubbert offers generous spousal support if the marriage crumbles.) Human values like altruism, affection and loyalty get tossed over in favor of hardheaded pragmatism and greed.

But America’s Rastignacs will have their work cut out for them. It’s not easy to score an heir or heiress — or stay married to one long enough to ensure a fortune. (The rich are notoriously litigious, and prenups may deter fortune hunters.)

Nowadays, the poor remain poor by marrying in kind, and the rich seal their dynastic unions.

Jeremy Greenwood, a macroeconomist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that an American’s chances of marrying outside his or her income caste have been steadily decreasing since the 1950s — a trend known as assortive mating. During America’s brief burst of egalitarianism in the postwar period, social distinctions between income brackets were not as dramatic as they had been or have become since. Nowadays, the poor remain poor by marrying in kind, and the rich seal their dynastic unions as they attend Ivy League colleges together as legacies or enjoy exclusive fêtes at the White House.

There are even signs that marriage itself is becoming a luxury. In their new book “Marriage Markets,” June Carbone and Naomi Cahn explore how the top and bottom economic classes are going in different directions when it comes to coupling. While those with higher incomes can afford the kinds of things that make marriages successful — such as child care, outsourcing of domestic chores, good schools for the kids and even therapy if things go awry — those with fewer resources are often priced out of fulfilling marriage and family life. 

Rianna's dilemma

What does love look like when you’re at the lower end of the economic ladder? Let’s explore what I’ll call Rianna’s Dilemma. Rianna, a high school graduate, makes less than $30,000 a year, if we set her wages at the median income level for her education cohort. Instead of a law student, she is health care aide, and though this job market is better than others, layoffs are still a threat. Even if Rianna can keep her job, an unexpected bill or emergency could easily tip her financial boat and force her to move back in with her parents — not exactly the ideal setting for romance.

Who should Rianna marry? Does she even want to? Uncertainty about work and finances is known to cause chronic stress, and it doesn’t do much for your sexual desire, as researchers have learned. Once upon a time, Rianna could have expected that a husband with a high school diploma could land a good job that paid enough to support a family. But nowadays, many of Rianna’s prospective partners might be members of the “precariat” — stuck with unstable, short-term gigs rather than long-term jobs, much less careers. (Most new jobs created since 2001 are of the gig variety.)

If Rianna marries, she has to worry that her husband will not be able to find or keep a job. There’s also a good chance that she makes more than he does, a state of affairs he might resent, creating stress in the relationship. If Rianna has kids, she may decide that having a husband without steady work is just one more mouth to feed. And if the marriage doesn’t work out, she knows that scarce resources will have to be split. Like many poor and working-class women, she may decide that marriage is just not worth it. According to Carbone and Cahn, fewer than one in five couples are married in the bottom income quintile. At the top? Four out of five.

As inequality increases, Rianna’s Dilemma is working its way into what’s left of the middle class, where even the college educated must deal with hurdles to coupling that their parents never faced. Love and marriage may begin to part ways for all but the lucky few.

The more our society is broken down by inequality, the more of us will be left with broken hearts. If America wants to encourage love — and the positive values associated with it — then the race toward concentrated wealth must be stopped.

Lynn Stuart Parramore is a contributor to Al Jazeera America, Reuters, Huffington Post and other venues.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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