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Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

What Hath the Hedge Fund to Do with the Household?

child well-being, divorce, economics, family, feminism, marriage, social institutions, Wendell Berry No comments
By Julia Polese, Intern
Slate.com recently featured an article provocatively titled: “Help America: Get Divorced!” Author Michael Yglesias cites federal data to show that divorce rates have been falling as the economic recession continues. He writes that “the United States fell from 3.6 divorces per 1,000 Americans in 2007 to 3.5 divorces per 1,000 in 2008 to 3.4 divorces per 1,000 Americans in 2009.” As fewer couples are getting divorced – presumably because of the tremendous cost associated with the dissolution of a household – fewer new households are being formed, so fewer goods are being consumed. He concludes rather spuriously that one solution to the current recession is for more Americans to get divorced. He writes: “That’s why I, at least, will be rooting for more marriages to fail in 2012.” Yikes.
Setting aside the “correlation vs. causation” alarm bells triggered by his conclusion, Yglesias’s view of marriage as a purely economic good – he concedes that a married couple living together is “more efficient” than two people living alone – misses the “softer” benefits of the intact married family. While MARRI has shown that the family has a huge positive impact on the American economy in productive value alone and a recent estimation of an equivalent salary for a homemaker’s services was found to be almost $100,000, the all-encompassing picture of a productive household is not only measured in dollars and cents. In his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” agrarian author Wendell Berry writes about how the consumerist anti-ideal of marriage has caused a separation between men and women, husbands and wives. Traced to the devaluation of care for hearth and home for both men and women, the culture’s profound individualism disdains the value of a productive household and looks only to the ways the disconnected members of the family can compete against each other on the market as worthwhile. Now, working inside the home generates the question “But what do you do?” Berry writes: “By this [feminists] invariably mean that there is something better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, and by better they invariably mean ‘employment outside the home.’”
This attitude, Berry argues, removes a sense of belonging from the marriage, for both husband and wife and their children. MARRI’s research has shown that a sense of belonging is essential to a child’s success in school, financial well-being, and avoidance of out-of-wedlock births.  Children from intact families are less likely to get expelled or suspended from school or commit theft and are, in general, more socially developed. Divorce harms the next generation in manifold ways. The family’s functioning as a household, not simply as disparate silos of production for the national economy, has profound implications for local community and society at large. An ordered oikos means a more harmonious polis.
Yglesias sees the tenuous link between divorce and an improving economy as something worth pursuing, but he does not consider the long term implications for a breakdown in society beginning at its most basic level: the family economy. A generation of limited connectedness will not aid an ailing economy. Perhaps what the national economy needs is a new “romance of thrift” and knowledge of the true micro-economy, as G.K. Chesterton lauded, found in the houses on Main Street, not the banks on Wall Street. This vision is inextricably linked to the intact married family in which, Berry writes, “‘mine’ is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as ‘ours.’”