Vanity Economics: An Economic Exploration of Sex, Marriage and Family – by C. Simon Fan

May 6, 2014

Economics and Finance

Couple Shopping

We live in an era of consumerism. Influenced by a powerful media, many people indulge in the purchase of ever-expanding varieties of goods and services. A new word, “oniomania,” was created to describe some people’s compulsive urge to shop. However, most consumption activities are simply for “vanity” rather than for biological needs. Back in 1899, Veblen put forward the theory of “conspicuous consumption”, which argues that economic behaviour is socially determined and driven by the human instincts of emulation and social comparison. Similarly, John Maynard Keynes argued that an important aspect of our desire for the conspicuous consumption of goods is “in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows.” Dave Ramsey puts it more vividly: “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don ’t like.”

However, there is a fact that is rarely noticed: most people’s major source of “vanity” is not the commodities they buy in shopping malls, but their spouse and children. For example, if a woman has a tall husband and two beautiful intelligent children, she will be the envy of her neighbors and colleagues, even if she does not have much money to spend on clothes and handbags. This kind of observation motivates my book, which demonstrates that vanity plays a fundamental role in male–female relationships and intergenerational issues

The book introduces a large number of original ideas, while it is based on the literature and my own extensive research and publications on family and social behaviours. Its basic conceptual framework stems from Gary Becker’s path-breaking contribution, which, in particular, introduces economics into the analysis offertility by assuming that parents conceive their children as “durable goods”.As with any luxurious “durable good”, children may bring pride to their parents. This book extends this approach by arguing that people may also conceive their spouses as “durable goods” and hence an important source of vanity, which provide a new angle in investigating male-female relationships.

Vanity EconomicsThis book follows Becker’s tradition and footsteps, and analyses various issues of sex, marriage, and fertility more deeply, broadly and concretely. For example, it analyses the importance of female virginity. From the perspective of a husband, whether his wife is a virgin or not may matter greatly to his vanity. The exact value of this “vanity of possession” depends on a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, which explains why it is highly valuable in some societies and of little value in others. It is just like the market price of a famous painting. If many people thought that Van Gogh’s Starry Night was worth $1 million, then its market price would be $1 million. If they thought the painting was worth $100 million, its market price would likewise reflect that. The logic is essentially the same for female virginity, or any other matters in male-female relationship, such as men’s height, women’s breast size, etc.

This book is also based on evolutionary theory. In fact, a contribution of this book is that it extensively explores the implications of evolutionary theory in explaining various issues related to sex and family. For example, it shows that evolutionary theory explains the origins of beauty standards for men and women and ancient people’s obsession with female virginity. Also, the concern with the survival of the “fittest” implies that men tend to be promiscuous, which is elaborated as follows.

From an evolutionary perspective, a male animal should lose sexual desire towards a certain female after mating with her for a short time. If ten days are sufficient for the female to become pregnant, sex on the eleventh day is purely a waste of resources for the male. Even worse, it presents a great risk: a fierce animal (such as a lion or tiger) may take the opportunity to prey on them during their mating. Thus, the loss of a male’s sexual appetite for one female after a short mating period is simply an evolutionary advantage. Even though, after thousands of years of human civilization, a man’s sexual desire for his wife should be much longer than the period required to impregnate her, this desire does dwindle over time.It explains why some men lose interest in their wives quickly, and engage in extramarital affairs.

However, evolution is not sufficient to explain human behavior, a fact illustrated by the unpopularity of sperm donation. In most countries, a man is usually paid to donate his sperm, a practice that is clearly against the argument that men’s main aim is to maximize the survival of their genes. Otherwise, every man would compete to donate his sperm for free. Meanwhile, every man would compete to offer incentives to those women who will accept his sperm to conceive a child. However, in reality, this is not true. For example, if a wealthy man like Bill Gates is mainly concerned about the survival of his genes, he would not donate most of his wealth to charities. Instead, he would give the money to those women who would use his sperm to have offspring, which might enable him to have thousands of children and would substantially enhance the probability of the survival of his genes.

This book provides a new explanationfor the incentive of human reproduction: the vanity of possessing one’s own children. If everyone believes that a society assigns a high social status to couples who have children, then this belief will be self-fulfilling. Thosewho are childless will have low social status, which motivates them to have children despite the high cost and hard work involved. It also addresses why parents care about the quality of their children. Some critics comment that the issue cannot be well explained from the perspective of evolution, as better-educated children tend to have fewer grandchildren. This book provides an alternative answer: if having children is itself a form of vanity for parents, the ‘quality’ of their children is naturally also a form of vanity. In other words, if parents conceive their children as “durable goods”, which bring them pride, the quality of the “durable goods” also matters greatly to their vanity.

Based on evolutionary theory,Richard Dawkins argues that humans are machines created by their genes, precisely like all animals. This book argues that humans differ from animals in an important respect: humans crave vanity, while animals do not. In other words, humans are both vanity machines and gene machines. In the modern world, people tend to pursue more and more hedonistic pleasures and individual freedoms (including sexual freedom), and are concerned less and less about the “survival of their genes”. Against this trend, vanity induces people to make tremendous sacrifices, happily working like “slaves” to bear, raise and educate children, thereby ensuring the continuous development of human society.

This book consists of 28 chapters, and all of them are highly innovative. It demonstrates from numerous perspectives that vanity plays a crucial role in male-female relationships and intergenerational relationships, which challenges the conventional frontier of economics and contributes to other social sciences.

While this book makes substantial academic contributions, it is written mainly for general educated readers. After all, as Albert Einstein insightfully pointed out, “the whole of sciences is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking”. Popular readers will enjoy reading this book, which touches upon very important and sensitive topics with a scientific approach.

FanimageC. Simon Fanis a professor of economics at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He got his PhD at Brown University in 1994, and he contributed theoretical and empirical research on various issues of the economics of social and family behaviors. He has published over 40 papers in important academic journals, such as International Economic Review,Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization,Journal of Public Economics, and Review of Economics and Statistics.

Vanity Economics is available in hardback and to subscribing libraries on :elgaronline_small

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