RE: There They Go, Bad-Mouthing Divorce Again

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From: Lisa Dusseault (
Date: Tue Sep 12 2000 - 12:33:20 PDT

> From: Jeff Bone []
> ...
> Bit of a tangent here, but...

This exactly the tangent I just went down with Rescorla...

> In most ugly divorce cases, the man is the one whose lunch
> gets eaten. (What the hell is alimony about anyway?
> I say, if you've got to divide assets in cases of
> dispute, average *each* individual's wealth accumulation
> over the time in question, find the ration of least /
> greatest wealth accumulation, and let the
> person who contributed least financially have that fraction of
> the assets.)

But that's exactly how some states and some other countries (canada) work.
In Washington, assets are divided equally. I don't believe alimony is
granted unless one partner can demonstrate that they relinquished or
diminished their own earning potential in order to help out the other
partner; or if children are involved. That it is usually the female who
stays home and transfers her earning potential to the male, then gets
reimbursed for it upon divorce, is not necessarily written into the law.

> At any rate, whichever way direction the liability flows, do we
> *really* need some standardized contract? Can't we all just
> negotiate our own contracts? Why do we even need marriage as a
> legal institution at all, anymore? Why in the world
> is the government in the relationship game? Why should
> governments, or society at large, specify by default any
> financial, sexual, or other obligations in a
> private relationship?

One way of perceiving marriage is as a package of contracts and relationship
"interfaces". Think of it as a programming problem: if I know that a
person implement the Married interface, then I know I when I need a next of
kin (if that person dies, or is in the hospital) I can call getSpouse().

Now there's no overwhelming reason why the Married interface must be
standardized by the government. It does make many gov't and legal tasks
easier if marriage is a standard interface (think of how often gov't
services and legal status do depend on marriage status: welfare, taxes,
inheritance, power of attorney). It would be much more complicated code to
have to deal with subtly different interfaces like MarriedCatholic,
MarriedPagan, MarriedJeffStyle, etc.

Almost every private employer voluntarily recognizes the standard marriage
in that if it offers benefits to partners, a civil marriage automatically
grants that magic partner status.

> What about the following: let's say I'm in what is generally a
> happy, lifelong
> relationship with two absolutely wonderful women.

If an employer offers partner benefits, they have to limit the definition of
"partner" to protect themselves from unlimited liability. The employer
would be unlikely to extend benefits to your two example women -- what if
you had three, or four? Should you be able to force your employer to
provide benefits for arbitrary third parties by signing a contract with that
third party? Thus, many employers restrict partner benefits to civil
spouses or some definition which may include living with a single other
person for a specified time. It's just part of the benefit package which
you may or may not be able to negotiate with your employer.

> And why the hell do we treat individuals involved in marriages *in any way
> differently* from others for tax purposes, either on a positive
> or negative basis?
Because the bulk of the population votes that way -- most people think
marriage is a "good thing" that should be encouraged and rewarded. But you
knew that. Note that some of the tax consequences are similar to the
consequences of having a dependent (e.g. a child, an ailing parent, or a
disabled adult relative). I personally think it's reasonable for the tax
code (under current welfare/medicare conditions) to collect less tax from a
person supporting a dependent, because otherwise that dependent may be
supported more expensively by spending everybody's taxes.

Anyway, the decision to do something non-standard does mostly rest with the
individual. You can in fact sign a contract with each of two women,
promising various services, assigning various rights, making financial
arrangements, and perhaps even specifying termination-of-contract processes
(just like many non-marriage contracts have). However, it is then your
burden to deal with the consequences of getting your non-standard contract
recognized if you want any of the benefits which private and public
institutions may offer based on the concept of a pooling of resources and
responsibility between two people.

Interestingly, the concept of a "covenant marriage", although the proponents
think it strengthens marriage, weakens it. This is in effect a drive for a
second standard type of contract, one with more severity than normal in its
"termination clauses", one which may even try to prevent termination of the
contract (although I suspect it may be unenforceable). A second type of
standard, legally-recognized marriage? well, that could lead to a third,
and so on. Why not start your own and try to popularize it in order to get
the benefits of following a standard?

For a really great rational analysis of marriage (whether or not you agree
with the basis of the analysis), read Becker -- An Economic Approach to
Human Behaviour (it also discusses crime, the decision to have children, the
economic aspects of an education, etc). Among many other points, Becker
notes that having one spouse provide auxiliary services like child-rearing,
house-keeping, shopping and entertaining may increase the other spouse's
earning potential. But by how much? If a stay-at-home spouse contributes
more to the working spouse's income than they could have earned on their
own, is it fair for the government to give a tax break to the working spouse
in recognition of their support for a "dependent"?


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