Incentives and Marriage
Economics emphasizes the power of incentives in influencing how people behave. When I began to read economics, I found this focus on incentives very plausible, because I had seen firsthand a very strong example of how the incentives created by a system of rules was clearly influencing the way people made a major life decision – getting married.
It’s almost a cliché that people in the military get married too quickly and too young, which in turn leads to lots of divorces and broken families, with all the emotional and financial strain you’d expect. But why do young members of the military get married so young and so fast, compared to the rest of the population? It’s because the system heavily incentivizes it, both officially and unofficially.
When you complete your official training and arrive at your first duty station, you get assigned a room in the barracks on base. Barracks living is not exactly pleasant, particularly when you’re a low rank. But married Marines don’t have to live in barracks. If you’re married, you get paid significantly, often more than doubling your pay, so you can afford to live off base. Your spouse will get military health care for “free” (and in my experience, military health care is worth everything you pay for it). When you inevitably get sent to a new duty station, the military will pay to move your new spouse with you.
Imagine for a moment if other institutions worked this way. Think of a pair of high school sweethearts who have just reached adulthood. One of them is leaving for college, while the other is not. They are heartbroken to be separating. Then imagine the college announces a new policy. If they were to get married, the college would pay for the new couple to move together, would subsidize their living expenses so they could live in an apartment out in town instead of in dorms, and would provide the newly married couple with health care benefits at no additional expense. I suspect the percentage of married college freshmen would increase by leaps and bounds within three seconds of that policy going into effect. You see the same thing with new Marines rushing to marry their high school sweethearts the instant they graduate from boot camp.
But the issue goes even further than that. An extremely common occurrence was a form of outright fraud casually referred to as “contract marriages.” This was when a Marine and a civilian (or less commonly, two Marines) got married entirely for financial gain. The gist of the deal was “Let’s get ‘married’, and I’ll get to move off base and escape the grind of barracks life, you’ll get health care and other benefits, and I’ll maybe send some of the extra money your way, too.” In every unit I was in, everyone knew at least a few people who were in contract marriages. They barely made any effort to hide it either, because nobody in particular had a strong incentive to address it in the way a private company operating on profits and losses has an incentive to root out fraud or embezzlement.
Most military commanders recognize the problems that arise from a policy that encourages young and immature people to rush into marriage, to say nothing of contract marriages. But at the same time, they don’t have the ability to adjust the rules which create these incentives – the policymakers who create these rules are very far from being F. A. Hayek’s proverbial man on the spot. This means the only tool available to a commanding officer who wants to address this problem is to try to give briefings saying, in effect “Hey, stop behaving in the way that we are heavily incentivizing you to behave!” I sat through many, many such briefings during my years in the military, and they were exactly as effective as you probably have guessed.
Mar 29 2023 at 10:25am
I overheard this advice being given to a junior enlisted person by a mid-career NCO or officer – I don’t remember if they were soldiers or marines. It also included the famous part about car buying and interest rates.
Mar 29 2023 at 1:25pm
Thanks for sharing this! I had never heard about this practice. This prompts various thoughts.
Does it matter that military people eventually leave “contract marriages”? If the end of a marriage leads to “broken families” and “emotional and financial strain,” that would imply to me that people had more at stake in the marriage than a mere contractual relationship.
In short, I think we need to distinguish between the end of “real” marriages and the end of “contract” marriages. It may not make sense to compare the divorce rate among civilians to the divorce rate among current and former military personnel.
2: Or is the concern that “contract marriages” are deemed immoral, so the military is inducing personnel—people who are expected to be motivated by a sense of honor—to act dishonorably?
3: I had never heard of employers offering to double a salary or grant better housing for employees who get married. But I had heard of employers offering similar incentives.
a) Many employers offer low-cost group health benefits to employees—and to their spouses/children. Why? I think there are tax advantages, and few “adverse selection” burdens. That is, notwithstanding the incentives that these insurance policies create, insurers expect that few people pick marriage partners or children that are disproportionately likely to need expensive health care. (Indeed, I expect that being physically healthy makes a person a more eligible marriage partner.) In short, employers/insurers don’t think the policy will strongly influence people to engage in cost-generating behavior. Alternatively, they think that the kind of people who engage in these cost-generating behaviors (e.g., getting married, having kids) are the kinds of people the employers want to attract.
b) The novel/film The Firm describes a law firm that works for organized crime. The firm incentivized getting married and having kids—because the mob wanted its associates to have vulnerable loved ones to be threatened, if necessary.
c) Finally, I’d read an account of a military that arranged dating events for certain elite soldiers who were leaving the service. The military had concluded that these soldiers tended to engage in a disproportionate amount of antisocial behavior (e.g., crime, violence), so society might benefit from “domesticating” these guys by turning them into family men.
Mar 29 2023 at 2:02pm
Kevin, I did my basic at NTC, San Diego in 1960. Two boots married their high school girl friends at the base chapel during training. Our Company Commander, Aviation Boatswain’s Mate, 1st class, arranged both nuptials. He advocated the unions for similar reasons.
Mar 29 2023 at 10:17pm
Is this something unique to the Marines or is this new? When I was a Navy Corpsman (long ago) I moved off base getting BAQ and COMRATS within 2-3 months of arriving at my first duty station. Almost everyone did back then. Years later when an officer in the Air Force I lived off base when both single and married and IIRC the enlisted, single or married, mostly lived off base.
What happens when these guys get divorced? I can see someone willing to marry for money also willing to try to fleece someone for every penny they can in a divorce. The military pay system is very responsive to requests for garnishment.
Mar 31 2023 at 11:35am
Hey Steve –
I wouldn’t say it’s unique to Marines, but it’s certainly more prevalent. One of the driving forces I alluded to in my post was a desire to escape barracks life, and barracks life on Marine Corps bases is usually much less pleasant than what other services provide. I recall the first time I ever set foot on an Air Force base and saw what their barracks life was like (or “dorms”, as they called them). It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that, from the perspective of a newly enlisted Marine, even low ranking members of the Air Force had accommodations that looked to us to be about on par with a five star hotel. Everyone had their own room, which was modern and well built, whereas on our base just a few miles down the road, all the barracks were basically brutalist concrete slabs, where the air conditioning and hot water were always broken, and it was common to have three to four people per tiny room.
Regarding your experience of most people moving “off base getting BAQ and COMRATS within 2-3 months” – I don’t know if that’s a difference in era, or a difference between the Navy and the Marines, but that definitely never happened during my time. In order to be approved for BAH and BAS (the current terms for what you’re calling BAQ and COMRATS), you needed to be either married, an officer, or an enlisted at or above the rank of Staff Sergeant, E6, which in the Marines takes around 8 years to achieve. At most commands in the Marines, officers and Staff NCOs have the option to choose living on base or out in town, and their on-base accommodations are usually much nicer. This is why the problem I’m highlighting means the incentives to rush into marriage disproportionately land on young, newly enlisted Marines. The difference in quality of life you experience between being married or unmarried as an officer is much, much smaller than what you experience as a Lance Corporal.
Mar 30 2023 at 2:50pm
The research of Brad Wilcox has lead me to believe that though people who marry young divorce more, marrying young is not causal but rather there is a selection effect. That is those who marry young are more likely to divorce for other reasons. One reason may be that they would not have married but for the military benefits.
Apr 4 2023 at 7:48pm
It’s not just the military where incentives apply – and matter. The so-called “family law” that applies in civilian life was enough to convince me to stay the heck away from marriage and children altogether. It’s hard to even count the ways in which it creates perverse incentives and outcomes – including, of course, divorce (approximately 2/3 of which are initiated by the spouse who is enabled, by family law, to take financial advantage of the other). The fact that so many people, especially people who have invested in their careers still get married – after watching two generations of breadwinners get financially devastated by “dependent” spouses – is frankly astonishing to me.
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