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The Economics of Long-Distance Relationships:

Economists Tyler Cowen and Tim Harford provide an important insight into the dynamics of long-distance relationships:

Here's Harford (quoted by Tyler):

Economist Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University, has pointed out that the Alchian-Allen theorem applies to any long-distance relationship.

The theorem, briefly, implies that Australians drink higher-quality Californian wine than Californians, and vice-versa, because it is only worth the transportation costs for the most expensive wine. Similarly, there is no point in travelling to see your boyfriend for a take-away Indian meal and an evening in front of the telly. To justify the trip's fixed costs, you will require champagne, sparkling conversation and energetic sex. Insist on it.

And Tyler himself:

[To make a long-distance relationship work] you must confront the Alchian and Allen Theorem. The higher the fixed cost, the "higher quality" a trip you will both tend to seek. . . . More concretely, who would fly across the country for a mere kiss on the cheek?

But moving too fast is dangerous and ill-advised. And in the longer run you will each "expect too much" from each visit. Remember the old question: "Are We Having Fun Now?" The quest for continual high-quality excitement is not conducive to casual down time together, which is the glue which binds relationships together in the longer run. The Alchian and Allen Theorem is a potent enemy of the all-important "low expectations" and that alone is one good reason to keep transportation costs low in your life.

In general, I'm not sure that economists are the best people to go to for dating advice (lawprofs are probably even worse). In this case, however, I think that Harford and Tyler have definitely hit the nail on the head. The Alchian-Allen dynamic certainly helps explain the failure of quite a few long-distance relationships I have observed (obviously a scientifically representative sample:)). If only I'd had the benefit of Tyler and Harford's insights at certain earlier points in my life.

I'm far less certain about the validity of Tyler's proposed solution to the problem:

Do something else with part of your trip to the west (east) coast. Lower expectations for the visit. Meet another friend too, or set up some business, or give a paper at a scintillating academic conference. Yes you will have less time with your potential beloved, but the remaining time will get you further toward where you want to be. How much time does one need to fall in love anyway?

Doing two things on your trip almost always further increases the cost, and therefore might actually raise the expected utility needed to make the trip in the first place. Moreover, it will probably reduce the time you get to spend with your significant other from an already dangerously low level; this poses several threats to the viability of the relationship that are probably too obvious to describe in detail. You may not need much time to fall in love, but you do need it to stay in love.

On the other hand, I don't know anyone who has empirically tested what we may call the Cowen Corollary to the Alchian-Allen Theorem. Maybe it actually works! If you run a foundation that funds academic research, perhaps you would like to give George Mason University a grant for the purposes of studying this important issue. Think of the many doomed long-distance relationships that could be saved! Sadly, I don't think that relying on Head Conspirator Eugene's "romance of engineering" is going to solve the problem....

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. It Is Their Care in All the Ages
  2. The Economics of Long-Distance Relationships:
  3. The Romance of Engineering:
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Once flew cross-country, with elaborate preparations (years of tracking a lady's great-great-grandfather to an "unknown" grave in Arlington), and got a peck on the cheek.

Didn't plan it that way, mind you.
11.27.2006 8:53pm
S o t W (mail):
I've tested it. One anecdote towards data:

It's a great way to piss off your S.O., who will wonder why you're frittering away time that could otherwise be spent with them at relatively low cost.
11.27.2006 8:56pm
MR:
Perhaps another solution is to plan longer trips. My wife and I had a long distance romance, and we planned long trips together as well as 3 or 4 days at a time, which gave us plenty of downtime together.

Even so, she sometimes comments on how I don't woo her like I used to.
11.27.2006 9:03pm
Nate F (mail):
Sitting here, almost two years to the day removed from a long distance relationship, (and no, not that fixated on it, I would have no idea what the date was had it not been the day after another date of importance to me), this seems pretty plausible. I agree though, Cowen's suggestion is weak, except perhaps for the part about consciously lowering expectations (assuming you can deal with such matters rationally). MR's suggestion is better, although as a student, it wasn't really feasible for me.
11.27.2006 9:12pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Here is the trick to long distance relationships:

(1) Arrange your 3L schedule so that you only have class 2 days a week.

(2) Spend remainder of week back home in New York with your fiancee.

Quite simple, really.
11.27.2006 9:38pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Thank you for perfectly capturing the problem I'm facing in my love life. For various practical reasons I'm usually the one to visit her during the school year and she comes out and stays with me during the summer. Unfortunately she doesn't seem to understand why I get upset when I come to visit for a week (say over thanksgiving) and she wants to casually hang out (as opposed to say getting a substitute for teaching that week and doing something) just like we do when we are living together.

I'm going to send her this link, this post is a wonderful explanation. And yes she is likely to be more convinced by the theorem than my explanation of my emotions, that's why I like dating her.

Thanks for a not only interesting but also eminently useful post.
11.27.2006 9:50pm
Ilya Somin:
Thanks for a not only interesting but also eminently useful post.

Glad to be of help:).
11.27.2006 10:14pm
Kovarsky (mail):
I had a friend who decided that he was going to have phone sex on his "roam" setting, because he thought the idea of incurring the higher charge would send the signal (so to speak) that he was willing to spend the big bucks on his lady.

it's the thought that counts, i guess.
11.27.2006 10:19pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Corollary: Long-distance relationships are unlikely to survive unless the people ar either end are each extraordinarily desirable with respect to the opposite-sex (see note) population in the residential location of their significant other.

(note) make appropriate mod here for homosexual individuals
11.27.2006 10:47pm
Fub:
Ilya Somin quotes Prof. Cowen:
But moving too fast is dangerous and ill-advised. And in the longer run you will each "expect too much" from each visit. Remember the old question: "Are We Having Fun Now?"
Then comments:
If only I'd had the benefit of Tyler and Harford's insights at certain earlier points in my life.
Just be glad you have some youth still left. Upon reading of Tyler and Harford's analysis here I realized I once wasted decades by relying on another analysis so near it and yet so distant: by asking "Are We Having Fun Yet?"

No more romance induced road trips for me!
11.27.2006 10:52pm
Stephen C. Carlson (www):
Well, there's always the CSNY principle: And if you can't be with the one you love / Love the one you're with.
11.28.2006 9:42am
Houston Lawyer:
I have always thought that long distance relationships were great for men who didn't want to commit. You are dating, get to have sex occasionally, and then she leaves and you get your place to yourself for the next few weeks. Plus there's the cost of relocating and getting a new job to consider before proposing. These factors tend to allow a prolonged relationship with little chance of commitment.

Notwithstanding all of that, my neighbor, whom I will miss, is moving to New York next month to join his fiancee. But he had reached that time when he was ready to commit.

I agree that the author's advice will upset the travelling member of the couple.
11.28.2006 10:50am
Chumund:
Anecdotally, I have addressed this problem in my own life by arranging to see my long-distance partner almost every weekend (which may require not being too distant, although a 1-2 hour plane flight can cover a lot of ground).

I'm not sure how to analyze this strategy economically. On the one hand, it actually increases the costs of maintaining the relationship. Nonetheless, anecdotally at least, it seems to help prevent the need to make any given trip "special".
11.28.2006 12:41pm
NDGagnon (mail):
Tyler states that "The quest for continual high-quality excitement is not conducive to casual down time together, which is the glue which binds relationships together in the longer run." While I do agree that casual downtime together is the glue that binds the relationship together, I strongly disagree with his implication that "high-quality excitement" offers a higher return on the individual's investment than "casual down time together". As any individual who has experienced long distance can attest, "normalcy" in the form of casual downtime is a highly sought commodity, and is equally, if not more important than, the "high-quality excitement" Tyler references. Somin is correct in stating that diversifying your trip by including a second purpose will raise the expected utility required. Additionally, spending more on "high quality excitement" will have a similar effect. Travel is a fixed cost, and variable expenses in the form of expensive dinners, costly entertainment, and dual purpose travel engagements will only further increase the required expected utility. And if the individuals gain the most utility from simply being together after separation, then there will likely be a declining marginal utility for all activities beyond casual downtime.

The obvious fault here is in trying to quantify happiness and calculate a return on investment. Not only is it arbitrary and difficult to discern, but it differs from couple to couple, as each person's needs, desires, and "utility expectations" are different. But to demand higher expectations out of every visit is a recipe for disaster in long distance, and longevity is predicated on the norm, and couples should not mislead themselves into thinking that a life together will be all champagne, sparkling conversation, and energetic sex (though all are certainly welcome). As with anything in life, success is found in balance. And as any couple knows, the key to long distance is not so much how the time is spent while together, but rather how solid your communication is while you're apart.
11.28.2006 1:41pm
Allison:
I was in a long-distance relationship for almost a year and a half before I moved to NYC to do a graduate program and reside in the same city as my boyfriend. It was hard, and I sometimes did complain that we didn't spend enough time together doing the things that make a couple what they are. It's far better now that I'm in the city, but now we have a new dynamic to overcome: whether we're actually compatible, without the excitement of long-distance. Jury's still out.
11.28.2006 10:55pm
Eric James Stone (mail) (www):

Doing two things on your trip almost always further increases the cost, and therefore might actually raise the expected utility needed to make the trip in the first place.

But the marginal increase in cost can be slight compared with the marginal increase in utility.

I haven't used this in the context of a romantic relationship, but I usually combine my visits to family members with attendance at conferences or events nearby. Being able to do both things makes me feel it's worth making a trip that I probably wouldn't have made for either thing alone.

As an example, assume that round-trip airfare for the trip to visit someone is $300. That means I need an expected utility of at least $300 from that visit. Now let's say I add attending a science fiction convention (yes, I'm a geek) to the trip. $50 for con admission, another $50 for car rental so I don't have to bug the person I'm visiting for a ride. So my total cost for the trip is $400 -- but if I get $200 worth of utility out of con attendance, then I need only $200 worth of utility from the person I'm visiting.
11.29.2006 1:53pm
NDGagnon (mail):
The real difficulty is accurately assigning utility to each event. In terms of diversifying your activities while on a business trip, the utility gained from visiting family members or doing something to further your level of personal satisfaction will likely be greater than the cost. But in the context of a romantic relationship, the primary motivation for the visit is to spend time with the other person, and decreasing time spent towards that end by adding commitments to other activities makes the utility required from those activites that much greater.
12.2.2006 12:27pm