Sixteen Valentines Days ago economist Herbert Stein stumbled across perhaps the ultimate question.
Why is it, he asked, that a “basic woman” is so attractive to a basic man?
He was quick to point out that he could have asked the question the other way around.
Stein had worked presidents Nixon and Ford. He was a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was 81.
The question is harder to answer than you might think.
Stein liked to ponder it as he sat at an outdoor table watching couples walk arm-in-arm up the hill leading to New York’s Kennedy Centre.
“I look particularly at the women in those couples. They are not glamorous,” he wrote in Slate Magazine.
“Some of them are pretty, but many would be considered plain. Since they are on their way to the Kennedy Center, presumably to attend a play, an opera or a concert, one may assume that they are somewhat above average in cultural literacy. But in other respects one must assume that they are, like most people, average.”
“But to the man whose hand or arm she is holding, she is not average,” he wrote. “She is the whole world to him. They may argue occasionally, or even frequently. He may have an eye for the cute intern in his office. But that is superficial. Fundamentally, she is the most valuable thing in his life.”
And then his question: “Why is this basic woman so valuable to the man whose hand or arm she is holding?”
In their new book, An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks Australian economists Paul Frijters and Gigi Foster actually attempt an answer, but at a personal cost...
Forster writes that while the prospect of understanding love is intellectually compelling, “actually witnessing the demystiﬁcation of the love mechanism is also shocking on a personal level.”
“One must ﬁnd a way to carry on after this experience as a normal individual, despite having deconstructed love (and hence one’s own loves) into constituent parts.”
They see love as a strategy, in the same way as trade and stealing are strategies. Each is about getting something we want, but love is a strategy that changes us.
Economists have long known about the other two. We are acquisitive. If we see something we want we take it. If we can’t take it we trade something for it. But what if neither taking nor trading works? What if we are powerless to get what we want?
Newborn babies are as powerless as could be. Taking things isn’t an option, they can scarcely move. Nor is trade, they have nothing physical to trade.
So they do the only thing they can. They completely subjugate themselves to a higher power.
As Frijters puts it: “Someone who starts to love begins by desiring something from some outside entity. This entity can be a potential sexual partner, a parent, society, a god, or any other person or abstract notion.”
“From a position of relative weakness, the loving person tries to gain control over this entity by incorporating the entity into his own sense of self.”
The needy person makes themselves a mere part of something larger, be it society, a religion or (hopefully) a couple.
And then they are hooked. They are no longer just themselves. It’s hard to fall out of love with something you’ve become part of. The other person, the society or the church or cult has becomes your everything.
Why is this basic woman so valuable to this basic man?
Stein says it isn’t necessarily sex, although it may once have been. He says it’s something even more primitive: human contact.
“The primary purpose of this conversation is not to convey any specific information,” he writes. “Its primary purpose is to say, I am here and I know that you are here."
And it’s being needed.
“If no one needs you, what good are you, and what are you here for?” he asks. “Other people - employers, students, readers - may say that they need you. But it isn't true. In all such relationships you are replaceable at some price. But to this woman you are not replaceable at any price.”
“So this ordinary woman - one like about 50 million others in America - has this great value to this man she is going to the theatre with. He surely does not make a calculation. He probably never says how much he values her, to himself or to her. But he acts as if he knows it.”
How did Stein, a mere economist, know it? He wrote: “My wife and I walked up that hill to the Kennedy Centre many times”.
In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald
. Easy lovers. How to understand your adolescence
. How do I get my girlfriend to...
. Looking for love in all the wrong places. The case for older women