Here's the opening:
No matter who wins the 2008 presidential election, pundits will afterwards hypothesize feverishly about why the country is so divided into vast inland expanses of Red (Republican) regions versus thin coastal strips of Blue (Democratic) metropolises. Yet, judging from 2000 and 2004, few will stumble upon the engine driving this partisan pattern, even though the statistical correlations are among the highest in the history of the social sciences.
The Republicans lost the popular vote in 2000 while advocating a "humble" foreign policy, and won in 2004 while defending a foreign policy that Napoleon might have found bombastic. Yet, all that happened from 2000 to 2004 was that virtually every part of the country moved a few points toward the Republicans. The relative stability of this Red-Blue geographic split suggests that more fundamental forces are at work than just the transient issues of the day.
Neither Jane Austen nor Benjamin Franklin, however, would have found the question of what drives the Red-Blue divide so baffling. Unlike today's intellectuals, they both thought intensely about the web tying together wealth, property, marriage, and children. Thus, they probably would not have been surprised that a state's voting proclivities are now dominated by the relative presence or absence of what I call "affordable family formation."
First-time readers of Pride and Prejudice frequently remark that Austen's romance novels are, by American standards, not terribly romantic. She possessed a hard-headed understanding of how in traditional English society, wedlock was a luxury that some would never be able to afford, an assumption that often shocks us in our more sentimental 21st century.
Economic historian Gregory Clark's recent book, A Farewell to Alms, quantified the Malthusian reality under the social structure acerbically depicted in Austen's books. The English in the 1200-1800 era imposed upon themselves the sexual self-restraint that pioneering economist Thomas Malthus famously (but belatedly) suggested they follow in 1798. By practicing population control, the English largely avoided the cycles of rapid growth followed by cataclysmic famines that plagued China, where women married universally and young. The English postponed marriage and children until a man and woman could afford the accouterments suitable for a respectable married couple of their class.
In the six centuries up through Austen's lifetime, Clark found, English women didn't marry on average until age 24 to 26, with poor women often having to wait until their 30s to wed. And 10 to 20 percent never married. Judging from the high fertility of married couples, contraceptive practices appear to have been almost unknown in England in this time, yet, merely three or four percent of all births were illegitimate, demonstrating that rigid pre-marital self-discipline was the norm.
Remarkably, a half century before Malthus's gloomy and Austen's witty reflections on life and love in crowded England, Ben Franklin had pointed out that in his lightly populated America, the human condition was more relaxed and happy. In his insightful 1751 essay, Observations concerning The Increase of Mankind, Franklin spelled out, with an 18th Century surfeit of capitalization, the first, nonpartisan half of the theory of affordable family formation:
"For People increase in Proportion to the Number of Marriages, and that is greater in Proportion to the Ease and Convenience of supporting a Family. When Families can be easily supported, more Persons marry, and earlier in Life."
He outlined the virtuous cycle connecting the Colonies' limited population, low land prices, high wages, early marriage, and abundant children:
"Europe is generally full settled with Husbandmen, Manufacturers, &c. and therefore cannot now much increase in People… Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short Time save Money enough to purchase a Piece of new Land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family; such are not afraid to marry …"
Franklin concluded: "Hence Marriages in America are more general, and more generally early, than in Europe."
The Industrial Revolution broke the tyranny of the Malthusian Trap over food, but the supply of and demand for land never ceased to influence decisions to marry and have children. As America's coastal regions filled up, affordability of family formation began to differ sharply from state to state (disparities partially masked over the last few years by subprime mortgages and other financial gambits). CNN reported in 2006:
"More than 90 percent of homes in [Indianapolis] were affordable to families earning the median income for the area of about $65,100. In Los Angeles, the least affordable big metro area, only 1.9 percent of the homes sold were within the reach of families earning a median income for the city of $56,200."
When I lived in the Midwest, from age 24 to 34 I attended numerous weddings, but as my social circle matured, the invitations naturally dried up. Yet, when I moved back to my native, but now much more expensive, Los Angeles in 2000, I suddenly started being invited to weddings again. Like male characters in a Jane Austen novel, four of my seven closest friends from my high school class of 1976 got married and bought houses for the first time in their early forties.Similarly, the cost of childrearing varies more across the country than ever before. A study of Census data by the New York Times found that "Manhattan’s 35,000 or so white non-Hispanic toddlers are being raised by parents whose median income was $284,208 a year in 2005."