Go to any location where national accounting wonks are wont to gather… a reception in the lobby of a mid-range hotel on Second Avenue and 46th street, say, during a week of sessions on Third World economic growth hosted by the UN Conference on Trade and Development… and the wonks won’t be on their second plastic cup of white wine before someone mentions the Marrying the Cook problem.
Here’s how it works: you are a middle-aged bachelor, and you employ a lovely youngish woman who comes in six days a week to roast your mutton and prepare you a nice plum duff; time goes by and you find that you would actually very much like to propose to her. So you do, she says yes, and there is a quiet ceremony– NOT, obviously, St. George’s Hanover Square; within the year the first baby comes along– a girl– and within five years she has two younger brothers, and you are happier than you imagined you would ever be.
Your sister, though, is (at first) dismayed, and her son– your nephew, who has been Living on his Expectations for several years now, ever since he was sent down from Oxford– has to hot-foot it to the colonies in order to escape his debts. (He ends up in South Africa, working initially as a journalist. By the time of the lead-up to the Great War he’s a successful mining engineer; he is recruited by Dick Hannay to keep tabs on Boche activity among the Boers, and do various other…tasks for king and country. By 1923 he’s married to a lovely English girl from Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia and has a series of commendatory letters in his file which will not, for reasons of national security, be released to the public until the mid-1960s. At which time his grandchildren will look at him in wonder, and he will smile and call for another whiskey and soda. And on his first visit back to London, for his oldest cousin’s eighteenth birthday, he goes around to his tailor and to the casino he used to frequent, and pays them both back. So THAT’S all right.)
The other person who is dismayed is your friendly local national accountant, who is trying to collect information on GDP. Because the same mutton is being roasted, the same plum duff made, but you aren’t actually paying her any more– not in a way that gets reported.
So the Marrying the Cook problem has to do with underestimation of economic activity. My question is this, and I urge anyone with the econometric chops to take this up. We have seen, obviously, a bunch of growth in GDP since– say– 1960. What percentage of that growth, though, comes from people divorcing their cooks? In other words, what percentage of the apparent growth in GDP has come because previously unaccounted-for household economic activities have (because of actual divorce or because of the end of the family wage regime and the resulting rise of families where no one has time to actually make dinner, so you’ve got to buy it) entered the purview of those national accounting types, hanging out in the lobby of that mid-range hotel on 2nd Avenue, who are by now on their fourth little plastic glass of white wine, and very uneasy about this issue?