Tuesday, March 01, 2005

You'll Pry My Checkbook From My Cold, Dead Hands

I've never been a fan of David Brooks's columns in the NY Times, but he just keeps publishing such irredeemable tripe that I end up reading them just to see what everyone else is so ticked about. His latest assertion: separate checking accounts are anti-family.

I should have known the column would be infuriating when he led in with a reference to Tolstoy, one of the main reasons I quit studying Russian (one of the few holdovers from my Objectivist days is a strong aversion to certain works of literature based solely on the sense of life they embrace--if I lived in Tolstoy's world, I'd kill myself).
[Tolstoy's couple is] married but grow apart. She likes parties, while he doesn't. Then one day they are sitting at home and her heart suddenly grows light. She looks around and realizes that the courtship phase of their relationship has ended, but it has been replaced by something gentler and deeper:

"That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time."

Tolstoy's story captures the difference between romantic happiness, which is filled with exhilaration and self-fulfillment, and family happiness, built on self-abnegation and sacrifice.
This, among other reasons, is why I am never having kids. Having 50 years or so of my life dedicated to self abnegation? It's like voluntarily emigrating to a totalitarian communist state. And what must it be like to be married to someone who sees your relationship as based on sacrifice, not mutual benefit and joy?
(Another thought: doesn't this sound like the tale of every sad married sack who complains about how much his marriage lacks "passion" since the kids came along, or of every woman who can't understand why her husband ran off with the secretary? Relating to your husband as the father of your children and not as a romantic partner sounds like a great way to destroy a marriage--but of course Brooks ignores this age-old wisdom in favor of his self-sacrifice schtick. Because that's always sold well.)
It also illustrates how the family is a countervailing force in society. Public life is individualistic. It's oriented around goals like self-development, self-advancement and personal happiness. (This is, of course, even more true in America today than in the Russia of the 19th century.) The goal of family life, on the other hand, does not revolve around individual choices but around the unconditional union of souls. When we get married, and then when we have kids, we learn, sometimes traumatically, to say farewell to the world of me, me, me.

Tolstoy's novella came back to me while I was reading, of all things, The Wall Street Journal. The paper's Work and Family columnist, Sue Shellenbarger, had a piece last week reporting that the number of couples who now have separate checking accounts is rising rapidly. Roughly half of all married couples now keep multiple accounts, according to a Raddon Financial Group survey.

Some of the reasons for separate accounts are entirely reasonable. People who marry at older ages or who are forming second families may already have complicated financial arrangements that would be hard to pool. Some couples have found after long and bitter experience that they have different spending philosophies; instead of fighting, it's easier to give each spouse a little personal space.

But some of the people quoted in Shellenbarger's article seem unaware that there may be a distinction between the individualistic ethos of the market and the communal ethos of the home. A Texas woman celebrated her family's separate accounts, remarking, "It's so freeing to be your own person, and not feel like someone is looking over your shoulder." It's not clear whether she's talking about a marriage or a real estate partnership.
Maybe she views her marriage as a partnership between two people; maybe she realizes that even if your souls are united your wallets are not. "What's yours is mine and what's mine is yours" only goes so far when you are two physically distinct persons with disparate interests. And maybe she recognizes that giving herself and her partner a little independence--a little "me money"--can be psychologically healthier than depriving married partners of all capacity for individual action.
I'm not saying that people with separate accounts have marriages that are less healthy than anybody else's. I'm saying we should pause before this becomes the social norm. Private property is the basis for our market democracy. But private property in the home is an altogether trickier proposition.

For one thing, separate accounts can easily turn into secret accounts. A person's status and resources inside the home shouldn't be based on how much he or she is making outside it. A union based on love can easily turn into a merger based on self-interest, where the main criterion for continuing becomes: Am I getting a good return on my investment, psychic or otherwise?
Secret accounts are only a problem if you have a spouse who breaks your trust, and if that's true then your banking arrangements are the least of your worries. (Alternatively, a separate bank account can be the only way for people in abusive relationships to escape a controlling spouse.) And yes, if the higher earning spouse held his superior salary over the head of the lower earning spouse it would make for marital discord, but again, that's more a function of interpersonal problems between the spouses than the accounting. The same situation could arise with joint banking.

Since so many couples fight about money, why shouldn't we nip those arguments in the bud by having a social norm that personal expenses are made at a personal level? Then the couple can work out an initial contribution scheme and any future disagreements could only stem from problems meeting joint expenses from a joint account. Why glorify a state of affairs that has the potential to turn marital finance into a zero sum game in which every Pay Per View wrestling event means no new high heels? Negotiating every little daily purchase is fodder for conflict. Unless, of course, one party demurs like a sweet little self-abnegating wifey should.

I can see that in community property states, the separate accounts arrangement might have fewer advantages, and if one spouse can destroy the credit rating of another, it might behoove the couple to monitor each other so neither have spending slide out of control. But attacking private property in marriage as such is deeply troubling, because regardless of Brooks's pretty platitudes about a union of souls, a marriage is still an arrangement between two people, and power over their property can only be exercised by one of them at a time. How convenient that it would probably be the man (who, after all is probably the higher earner, since according to Brooks we younger women should be taking time off from the career treadmill to have babies right now) who makes these decisions. Tolstoy would approve.

UPDATE: I have another post on this topic here.
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