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The Checkbook Jihad

Ugh. Zero substantive posts today and it's already almost 2PM. I'm not sure this counts as substantive, but it involves a David Brooks article, so I suppose it's close enough. The man thinks . . . well, it's hard to say exactly what he thinks, but it's something about married couples maintaining independent checking accounts. He thinks that's a bad thing. But he doesn't deny that under some circumstances, it could be a good thing. He just thinks it would be a bad thing if this became the normal procedure -- i.e., the one most people use. But he doesn't try to go down the list to calculate whether the considerations that make separate accounts a good idea for some people do or do not apply to most couples, or are or are not likely to apply to most future couples. So it's a bit puzzling. He also doesn't think people should be forced to maintain unified accounts. He just thinks they should be discouraged in some unspecified way.

One thing to note is the lurking presence of some actual policy issues here. Brooks writes that:

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.
Do take note that the dazzling array of novel financial devices that Brooks believes should replace the social insurance state (that would be "the ownership society") would likely lead to a large increase in the number of people who "have complicated financial arrangements that would be hard to pool." Individual health insurance plans would, in the ownership society, involve specific linkages to non-insurance financial assets (Health Savings Accounts), for example. This is not, in and of itself, the biggest deal in the world. But the larger theme of Brooks' column is that in an increasingly individualistically-oriented larger society, it's a good idea to maintain the non-individualistic ethos that (allegedly) governs ideal-type family relations.

That's fine, I guess. Michael Sandel's Liberalism and the Limits of Justice famously asks us to imagine what it would be like to organize family life around around principles of justice and fairness, rather than love and affection, and finds it appropriately distressing. But Brooks seems to feel that family life can be hermetically sealed off from the broader social system if only pundits argue loud enough that it should be. In the real world, policies have consequences. Insofar as society tries to minimize the extent to which individuals are exposed to risk, individuals can afford to be relatively indifferent to the risks entailed by the sort of collectivization of assets in marriage that Brooks advocates. Insofar as we try and create a society where individuals bear massively more risk (and this is what the Brooks/Bush ownership society would do), prudent individuals have no choice but to pay more attention to these issues.

That aside, brass tacks. Like Amber Taylor, I find Brooks' Tolstoyan image of ideal family life to be extremely unappealing: "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," says Kitty, in a quotation Brooks approves of. Now if I recall my Anna Karenina (SPOILERS AHEAD) correctly, the general idea was that a young person such as myself was bound to find this distressing. At some point, either I'll mature and learn to appreciate the wisdom of the Brooks/Kitty line, or else I'll be a wastrel like Count Vronsky and charge off to go kill me some Turks after my illicit lover commits suicide. Bleak. But I'd like to think there's a viable third way here.

As Amber also writes, "a separate bank account can be the only way for people in abusive relationships to escape a controlling spouse." Now, obviously, it would be weird for everyone to enter into marriages planning to hedge against the possibility that their husband is going to start beating them. And yet, domestic violence is a very real problem. Conservatives of the Brooks sort like measures that raise the costs of exiting a marriage. They have some good reasons for this. But one of the downsides of raising the exit costs is exposing more people (especially women, things being how they are) to severe physical violence. To avoid this, higher exit costs would have to be paired with measures designed to encourage people to act more cautiously before entering into marriages. But Brooks also (not in this column, but elsewhere) marks himself down as a fan of the idea that we ought to try and reverse the trend toward people getting married older and having kids older. The combination of more-hastily-embarked-upon and harder-to-leave-from marriages is going to create a lot of problems. There's a reason the trends have been in the other direction.

Now Phoebe Maltz argues that there would be some logistical problems. I don't really see this as a huge problem. Getting married is a serious decision. So is having kids. I think throwing a roadblock or two in the way -- forcing people to have a semi-awkward conversation about how joint expenses will be dealt with and how differential earning power will be managed -- doesn't really sound like an awful idea.

March 3, 2005 | Permalink

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» Back to the nineteenth century (again) from coffee grounds
Matthew Yglesias makes an effort at taking David Brooks' column seriously, and surprise! Brooks' argument is shot through with logical problems ... Who would have thought?... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 3, 2005 3:19:38 PM

» Tolstoy on marriage; Hemingway on non-violence from Lance Mannion
David Brooks wrote an incredibly (fill in the blank) _____________ column the other day advocating joint checking accounts as a way to ensure that the human race survives the next Martian attack, or something. I'm not sure. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 5, 2005 12:11:45 PM

» Tolstoy on marriage; Hemingway on non-violence from Lance Mannion
David Brooks wrote an incredibly (fill in the blank) _____________ column the other day advocating joint checking accounts as a way to ensure that the human race survives the next Martian attack, or something. I'm not sure. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 5, 2005 12:13:22 PM

» Tolstoy on marriage; Hemingway on non-violence from Lance Mannion
David Brooks wrote an incredibly (fill in the blank) _____________ column the other day advocating joint checking accounts as a way to ensure that the human race survives the next Martian attack, or something. I'm not sure. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 5, 2005 12:22:16 PM

» Tolstoy on marriage; Hemingway on non-violence from Lance Mannion
David Brooks wrote an incredibly (fill in the blank) _____________ column the other day advocating joint checking accounts as a way to ensure that the human race survives the next Martian attack, or something. I'm not sure. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 5, 2005 12:27:57 PM

Comments

Hmm. Both my mother and her mother (both married to staunch Republicans) were left destitute when my father and my grandfather syphoned their shared accounts into their own hidden accounts, then divorced them.

While I'm not sure it directly rebuts the argument against separate accounts, I know that my mom will never let herself be put in that position again.

Fool me once...

Posted by: Anonymous | Mar 3, 2005 2:35:33 PM

What bank accounts, what assets? It's credit cards and debts.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 3, 2005 2:40:43 PM

Since when did the marriage advice of Mullah Brooks count as "substantive"? Yikes. First he wants to tell me how many kids to have. Now I'm supposed to move everything to a joint account?

Anyway, there are other important questions. Do we need a pet? If so, which is preferred, a cat or a dog? Both? Should we have a vegetable garden or a flower garden? Or should we forget about gardening and put in a swimming pool? Of course, we could move to the "exurbs" where we will have space for all three... Surely, David Brooks will guide us to a happy decision--it's not necessarily what he practices himself, but eh... nobody's perfect.

The financial setup that strikes me as reasonable is a joint account for major expenses with direct deposits from both jobs, and then two separate accounts that each receive a personal allowance of about 1% each of the joint income. The separate accounts would be discretionary money that could be spent without any haggling. (Now if only my wife would agree; apparently, some people find social value in the need to haggle over spending joint funds.) It's ultimately a personal decision and Brooks ought to mind his own business.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Mar 3, 2005 2:41:12 PM

I'm not sure this counts as substantive, but it involves a David Brooks article, so I suppose it's close enough.

In what way is Brooks associated with substance?

Getting married is a serious decision. So is having kids. I think throwing a roadblock or two in the way -- forcing people to have a semi-awkward conversation about how joint expenses will be dealt with and how differential earning power will be managed -- doesn't really sound like an awful idea.

A number of churches require or strongly advocate this now for their own members, and a number of studies have shown that this kind of pre-marital preparation, in a secular or religious context, substantially increases the durability of marriage.

Its probably a good idea.

Posted by: cmdicely | Mar 3, 2005 2:49:13 PM

Tolstoy's marrage probably wasn't the best example Brooks could have used.

>Tolstoy himself tried to abide by his new beliefs, simplifying his life, living on his own labor, and giving up material possessions. His wife, however, did not share all of his beliefs, and their marriage suffered under severe strain during their last years together. In November 1910 relations between them had grown so tense that Tolstoy decided to leave home for good. He contracted pneumonia while traveling and died at the small railway station of Astapovo.

Seperate checking accounts might have helped out Tolstoy's wife.

"The Second Sex" has some diary excerpts from Tolstoy's wife that shows what a foolish idealization the depiction of Kitty in "Anna Karenina" really was.

Posted by: joe o | Mar 3, 2005 2:56:54 PM

I agree with cmdicely. It does seem like a weird topic to be discussing on the NYT opinion page though.

Posted by: JP | Mar 3, 2005 2:57:24 PM

I thought Brooks's example was from one of Tolstoy's novellas, not from Anna Karenina.

Posted by: Maureen | Mar 3, 2005 3:00:49 PM

Just to burnish my cred as a postmodern, 21st century dude, let me say that my wife and I pooled our assets immediately upon marrying ... and she manages the whole kit and kaboodle. So if anybody's going to bail with all the money. Matter of fact, she could probably kick my ass, too...

Posted by: Realish | Mar 3, 2005 3:07:10 PM

Matt needs to check-in with his *cough* wife -

if you click Matt's link from the 'Tapped' sidebar you get this:
_________________________________________________

This Account Has Been Suspended
Please contact the billing/support department as soon as possible.
_________________________________________________

looks like she forgot to pay the bill and went to Cabo instead :)

Posted by: MYGoodness | Mar 3, 2005 3:13:02 PM

Hmmm, you've got me thinking.

With our new individual risk society, where we are each responsible for our social security (through $1k/annum private accounts), lifetime responsibility for debt (via republican laws favoring voracious lenders), health (via forced high deductable insurance plans), etc.

It seems that we shouldn't want to risk marriage and would want to keep all accounts separate to prevent unforseen events (layoffs, illness) from asserting addition risk on our partner.

Living in sin will be the way to win.

Posted by: Steve | Mar 3, 2005 3:14:30 PM

yo, dissing Tolstoy. Stop. Of course the Levins were idealized, that was the point and directed at the larger point. And there is no middle ground. Or an infinite variety, all bleak. I like bleak.

We live in a period, tho every period may contain this movement, where a faction is in control of gov't amd media that weirdly believe that if they recreate the structures of some nostalgic idealized past, the substructural culture will re-emerge spontaneously.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 3, 2005 3:14:56 PM

Bah, there goes the deeply creepy Brooks trying to social-engineer our lives again. What is up with that? Don't we have enough substantial policy problems to talk about?

I think throwing a roadblock or two in the way -- forcing people to have a semi-awkward conversation about how joint expenses will be dealt with and how differential earning power will be managed -- doesn't really sound like an awful idea.

Seriously.

Posted by: Saheli | Mar 3, 2005 3:17:52 PM

Maureen is right. Brooks is quoting from Family Happiness, not Anna K. Very different story.

See http://www.ccel.org/t/tolstoy/family/home.html

Posted by: ostap | Mar 3, 2005 3:18:16 PM

As someone who just celebrated my 40th anniversity with my trophy wife I think having separate accounts is a horrible idea. You are partners -- try acting like it. If you are not ready to do that you have no business getting married.

Posted by: spencer | Mar 3, 2005 3:28:25 PM

My wife will get the allowance she deserves and like it. :)

Posted by: Chad | Mar 3, 2005 3:30:34 PM

We should immediately demand an end to all credit card soliciations, on grounds that they tempt spouses to open a separate account. Ahem.

Posted by: David W. | Mar 3, 2005 3:30:57 PM

Speaking of Brass Tacks, and correct me if I'm off a bit (or a lot), but, in that late salvo, doesn't David 'One Size Fits All/Where Can a Brother Spend 20 Bucks on Dinner in This Red State?' Brooks presume, uhhh, errr, two incomes, at a minimum?

Posted by: rickhavoc | Mar 3, 2005 3:32:51 PM

My wife and I have totally seperate accounts. We seem to do just fine. *shrug*. Brooks should mind his own goddamn business.

Why is it the small-government types are the ones always nosing around trying to tell me whom I should marry, and what kind of checking account to get, for Christ's sake.

Doesn't he have something better to do?

Posted by: Morat | Mar 3, 2005 3:41:48 PM

Because there really no "small government" types out there. Everyone thinks the world would be a better place if only they had enough power to improve it, and most people think the best way to gain that power is to arrange for government to become more powerful.

Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 3, 2005 3:48:56 PM

Brooks may have a point here. We should all support measures that make the institution of marriage stronger. Besides, two passwords are preferable to one.

Posted by: bncthor | Mar 3, 2005 4:14:48 PM

Is David Brooks making a bid to become Carolyn Hax or something? such commentary seems more appropriate to the style section than op-ed page, IMHO.

That said, I think this statement is poorly thought out:

"But Brooks also (not in this column, but elsewhere) marks himself down as a fan of the idea that we ought to try and reverse the trend toward people getting married older and having kids older. The combination of more-hastily-embarked-upon and harder-to-leave-from marriages is going to create a lot of problems. There's a reason the trends have been in the other direction."

Matt seems to be equating getting married younger with getting married hastily, but the two are hardly the same. He's a bit younger than I and a guy, so he may not have encountered the phenoma, quite common to the DC area, where single women in their mid thirties suddenly decide they must get married and procreate ASAP, embark on a frantic search for a mate, and seemingly rush into marriage with the first remotely acceptable guy even though their friends all think he's a schmuck. This is a detectable pattern among a good number of my friends, and one I'm hoping I'll have either the dignity or good luck to avoid following, though I've got a few years to go before that point. On the other hand, my (younger--pathetic bid for sympathy on my part here) sister, who is getting married this summer at the age of 23, didn't rush into marriage. She was friends with her fiancee throughout college, they dated one year in college and one year after before getting engaged, and have a yearlong engagement.

Now, you may say that it's a bad idea to marry so young because of the personal growth that occurs in one's 20s, and I'd largely agree, particularly for myself. But I wouldn't say my sister's behavior is hasty. She and her fiance have known one another much longer and, I dare say, better than a lot of my 30-some marrying friends.

What really bugs Brooks and other conservatives is this middle period of dating, or really more a combination of hooking up with a number of people and/or living together, that is probably the norm for most people during their 20s between becoming adults and marriage. For one thing, lots of them think premarital sex or at least casual sex is immoral. For another, they're concerned that young people's energies are going into enjoying themselves rather than raising the next generation of great Americans. I have no sympathy for the former complaint (none of their damn business) and very little for the latter.

Brooks and his ilk would prefer a world where starting with high school graduation, young people believe that their major task, in addition to preparing for and building a career (or above it, in the case of women) is the finding and nailing down of a good lifelong mate, that this should be the focus of their social lives and any kind of dating, and that marriage, while not entered into hastily, should be done as soon as one is reasonably sure about a partner's acceptability, without any messing around with trying different options or living together first.

Personally, I think that both models could work for some people, and I do feel sorry for people I know who really do just want to get married but are instead trying to negotiate hook-ups, and living together, and men who have no interest in committment until they're in their late thirties, dump the woman they've been living with for five+ years, and six months later marry their 23 year old interns. On the other hand, I'm damn grateful that I have the variety of options about how to arrange my life that I now do.

Posted by: flip | Mar 3, 2005 4:15:16 PM

I can offer a specific reason why Brooks should disqualify himself from the whole discussion of finance. In his book about "Bobos" (Brooks's "new upper class", which he paradoxically identifies as "bourgeois", which I thought meant middle class) he spends a good deal of space musing about Bobos mishandling their money. I wish I had a quote handy, but he describes the Bobo concept of money as sort of a continuous flow from high-paying pundit positions, and at the end of the year Bobos wonder what happened to the million or so they made on paper.

Brooks self-identifies as a Bobo, or having some Bobo characteristics anyway, and I got the impression that he was doing a great deal of projection in this description. Hence, I would listen to nearly anyone else's suggestion of how best to manage joint assets before listening to Brooks, who no doubt has more money than he needs combined with a rather breezy attitude toward his financial responsibilities.

As far as I can tell, everything Brooks has to say is purely a projection of his personal fantasies. E.g. he's obsessed with the NYT weddings announcement page and seems to think everyone else is. He'd really do a lot better writing for some kind of entertainment rag than posing as a serious columnist. In fact, think he's a reasonably engaging writer, but he seems to be unaware that he's mostly just making sh*t up.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Mar 3, 2005 4:18:21 PM

bob mcmanus: We live in a period, tho every period may contain this movement, where a faction is in control of gov't amd media that weirdly believe that if they recreate the structures of some nostalgic idealized past, the substructural culture will re-emerge spontaneously.

Bingo. The myth of the Golden Age is alive and well. I like your description a lot. It reminds me of Richard Feynman's analogy to the "cargo cults" -- Pacific Islanders after WWII who supposedly thought that if they put up symbolic landing strips and so forth, that the planes bearing all the nice cargo would start coming back. We are now witnessing government by cargo cultists.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Mar 3, 2005 4:27:08 PM

A number of churches require or strongly advocate this now for their own members, and a number of studies have shown that this kind of pre-marital preparation, in a secular or religious context, substantially increases the durability of marriage.

In Minnesota, you can get discount on a marriage license if you go in for premarital counseling. Unfortunately, you're required to do 12 hours, which is kind of a lot to save like 50 bucks. My wife and I went through a more modest counseling regimen (through a church, although we're not members) and I would definitely recommend it to anyone.

Posted by: chilly | Mar 3, 2005 4:34:35 PM

As someone who just celebrated my 40th anniversity with my trophy wife I think having separate accounts is a horrible idea. You are partners -- try acting like it. If you are not ready to do that you have no business getting married.

That's a bit broad, isn't it? We had separate accounts before we got married, and think it's easier to maintain them for spending money instead of double-checking every half-hour to make sure it's okay to buy a sandwich from the joint account. It doesn't mean we don't freely share our assets.

If we're still married 38 years from now, I'll be back here to say, "in your face!"

Posted by: chilly | Mar 3, 2005 4:38:17 PM

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