Polygyny and the Global Economy

By Kate Tyler

Working at the intersection of economic and cultural practice in sub-Saharan Africa, Michele Tertilt discovers that investing in multiple wives is bad for economies

Michele Tertilt
Michèle Tertilt liked math. She also aspired to improve the world. And so it was only natural, she says, that she became a macroeconomist keen to understand how aggregate economic outcomes break down into family-level realities around the globe. To complete her Ph.D. at the University, she thought nothing of scouring anthropological journals for a meaningful dissertation topic. The result, "Essays on Social Institutions," was a pathbreaking analysis of the economic impact of polygynous marriage in developing countries.

By all accounts, Tertilt's project seemed more like the canny analysis of a World Bank economist than the debut disquisition of a 20-something graduate student. Named one of the best four dissertations by the U's Graduate School in 2004, Tertilt's written Ph.D. work helped her cinch a coveted faculty position at Stanford University. Yet her core thesis -- that in polygyny-based countries, capital goes into buying wives and selling daughters at the expense of overall economic growth -- began as little more than a hunch, as Tertilt noodled over an intriguing empirical puzzle.

"I started thinking about the extreme poverty of sub-Saharan Africa," recalls Tertilt. "It's a region of subsistence farming that has not grown at all in the last 40 years -- even as other undeveloped areas are catching up. The question was, 'Why?'" The extremities of the desert climate did not alone seem sufficient to explain the disparity. Turning to anthropology for insights, "I got to thinking about the fact that some of the poorest countries have a marriage system where men marry multiple wives," she says. "I wondered what that might have to do with economics."

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Tertilt went on to make a compelling case that countries with polygynous marriage systems can't help but be poorer than those with monogamy-based systems. Her work rests on sophisticated theoretical modeling. But she translates it so deftly into everyday language that it's easy to see why she's won praise for her teaching as well as for her research.

In polygynous countries, she explains, men buy wives as an investment, expecting that each purchase will reap a major return -- multiple daughters to be sold in 20 years or so. By the time their daughters hit the market, the male heads of household are getting older, not working much. The money -- or more typically, animals -- they get as a brideprice are a form of old-age support. Whether cash, cattle to sell, or camels to milk, the proceeds are used to meet current consumption needs, Tertilt emphasizes -- not to improve farms or otherwise invest in physical capital.

"Investment in women does not add anything to the productive capacity of the country," Tertilt underscores. Countries without good tractors, she observes, "can't produce much or support good wages. They'll stay mired in poverty while countries that are not dependent on the brideprice system pass them by economically."

Now firmly on the tenure track in Palo Alto, Tertilt is pursuing several additional projects to expand understanding of the familylevel decisions and practices that shape bigpicture economics.

One of her studies aims to isolate the variables involved in the rising number of consumer bankruptcies in Canada and the United States. Another, with U of M economics professor Larry Jones (Tertilt's Ph.D. adviser), looks at trends and fluctuations in U.S. fertility rates since the Civil War, documenting how income and occupation have affected family decision-making about childbearing and family size.

Tertilt is as eager to talk about "the wonderful mentoring I had at Minnesota" as her own burgeoning scholarly contributions. She came to Minnesota knowing only that its economics program was top-rated. The famously threadbare universities in her native Germany had not prepared her for the abundant resources and supportive environment she found on the Twin Cities campus -- nor for the cooperative ethos she found in the economics program. "Faculty members at Minnesota really believe in students and say so," she says. Especially for a woman in a competitive and male-dominated field, she stresses, "That kind of positive feedback can make a huge difference."

"I do still think I can make useful contributions to the world as a scholar," Tertilt adds. "But I've also come to see that I can have a big impact as a teacher. I hope to mentor students as well as I was mentored at Minnesota."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on June 23, 2008 7:14 PM.

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