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: