Americans are Polygamists

This is from my recent reading of the book Elsewhere USA.  In the book it describes that similar to the African areas of Mali and Malawi, America also practices a form of polygamy.  All thanks to the laws of economics and biology.

A the book describes, one of the best predictors of polygamy in a society is income inequality.  While America doesn’t approach at all those of some African villages, we are certainly number one in the Western world in income inequality.

As Elpolygamysewhere describes:

The linkage between economic inequality and polygamy is two-way – that is, polygamy both causes and is caused by inequality.  Let’s start with the basic fact that a man can produce thousands of offspring by spreading his seed while a woman is limited to around twelve or so.  But when women choose their mates, they are not just after who can provide good sperm; they also want to make sure that a would-be father both has enough resources to support a child and will, in fact, invest time and money in that child.

Confronted with a distribution of income in which the distinctions across potential suitors is not terribly great, a woman will still try to land the best catch, but she probably will not be willing to share her man.  If there are a thousand fish in the sea; it’s not worth it to take one half (or 1/3, or 1/4) of the resources of any given man.  Better to go down a notch and enjoy the complete attention, time and money of the next richest fellow.  However, sometimes the distinctions between men are so great as to alter the calculations.  If a few men control almost all of the wealth while the vast majority have very little to offer in terms of a stable source of income, then it may be worth it to be the 4th wife of the very rich man rather than the first and only of a very poor one.  At least you can guarantee your babies will eat well.

Now that the US income is becoming increasingly unequal, we’re becoming polygamists as well. Our version however are different than the African versions in these ways:

  1. Ours is not a static, mormon-type of polygamy but rather a dynamic version.  It’s better suited for a society with fluid status and class positions like ours
  2. Ours is a polyandrous society – meaning multiple husbands
  3. America’s polygamy is both a result and a cause of inequality

The first point called “dynamic polygamy” can also be called “serial monogamy”  It’s a semantic difference.  As the author says,

If “being married” means producing offspring and/or having ongoing mutual responsibilities, then when you get a divorce, you are not really pressing the erase button, you are just building another thatched hut across town where you may set up with another wife while still paying child support, alimony, or plain old respects to the first.  It doesn’t matter if the 2nd marriage started as an affair during the first, the end result from the point of view of family responsibilities is more or less the same: you have two wives (or husbands).

Our tendency to divorce is in many ways extremely similar to the form of polygamy that’s occurring in Africa.  This results in something interesting things in America.  For instance, many women today don’t get married at all as not all men have the means to support a family. It’s been calculated that there are now 60 eligible men for every 100 women.

Over the past 20 years, other things are happening in society.  According to the book, the concept of a “starter wife” is becoming more and more uncommon whereas dual-earner mairrages (both people earn high wages) dual-poor marraiges are rapidly increasing.  The rich are getting more rich and the poor are getting more poor (two low earning folks).

It’s interesting to think of divorce as a form of polygamy.  When you hear that – how does that make you feel?  Is it fair?

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Elsewhere USA is a good book

A few months ago i read the book Elsewhere USA at danah boyd’s suggestion.  It didn’t disappoint.  While it wasn’t as good as last year’s Generation Me (which i couldn’t stop blogging about), it did have some good insights.

The point of the book is the strange paradox that is occuring in America.  People used to work and struggle so their kids wouldn’t have to.  Leiseure was something you attained at a certain income level.  Today however, this isn’t the case.  For the first time in history, the more we are paid, the more hours we work.  The rewards for working are so great they make the “opportunity cost” of not working all the more great.  The result is that there is no longer a leisure-class of elites. The rich are working harder than ever.  Now, leisure is something for the poor.  There is now a crazy measure of the income elasticity of leisure and this fundamentally changes how many of us (including me) live.   As it says in the book, elsewhere-usa-book

Obviously, this change has affected not just when we work, but also how we play, how we love, how we raise our children – how we live

Some interesting parts in the book are:

  1. There’s now a fear amoung the successful that their success isn’t geniune and an axiety that a person’s personal house of economic card is about to collapse. One interesting stat behind this is that while drinking has declined, adult use of other mind-altering substances such as Valium or marajuana has risen to the point where mature adults consume more than teenagers for the first time since these trends were tracked
  2. More and more, household income rising and falling has less to do with economic times but more about relationships.  About a quarter of American children experience two or more mother’s partners by the time they are fifteen. Over 8 percent experience three or more
  3. Similar to the African areas of Mali and Malawi, America also practices a form of polygamy.  Post coming on this soon….
  4. Religion and The Corporate man have been at odds.  A further description below:

In medieval Cathoic Europe, poverty was a virtue and to profit off one’s fellow man was considered evil.  The Protestant Reformation changed all that which led to one-on-one relationships to go and also spiritual insecurity.  This led to working harder and acculating lots of money. Success as salvation was a new incentive structure.  However, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the trade unionism eclipsed the Protestant Work Ethic in the mid 1900’s.  There was a truce found between expansive corporate America and organzied labor such that a communitarian eithos could reign supreme.

The rift remained though as Protestants valued thrift over consumption, work over leisure, and meritocracy over social connections.  But large organizations like IBM and GM put a premium on teamwork, compromise and being a “company man.”

Today these have been resolved through the redefinition of: leisure is work and work is leisure. Consumption is investment (home equity loan is savings).  Social connectoins don’t indicate nepotism but rather social capital and entrepreneurial skill.  Loyalty is replaced by value (you show your value by calculated displays of disloyalty – displaying offers from competitors).


While it doesn’t offer many solutions, the book is thought provoking and a good read.  I recommend you pick it up.