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Interesting post. I think Big Wedding Cultures are essentially something that sprang up in an environment of poor or weak financial intermediaries but then became part of the culture and persisted even after financial markets improved. They are a feature of more traditional societies and cultures. The Big Wedding is paid for by the parents and the gifts received enable the parents to fund a "start" for their child. The parents also have to attend the weddings held by other parents and provide a gift which they then get back when their own children marry. It is therefore more like a form of "saving" via reciprocal obligations. It really is monetary economics if you consider it as a financial institution. Things to watch for: inviting only people who share the cultural values as otherwise they may cheap out on the gift part and destabilize the "financial institution"; also, what happens if you do not have any children as then the transfer is entirely one way of you keep getting invitations (unless I suppose you view yourself as part of an extended family and derive utility from that - have no kids of your own but are happy seeing nieces and nephews get wedding gifts).

Interesting post!

What if they had a small wedding but specified "no gifts, please" in the invitation? If reciprocation is part of the motivation, perhaps this will mitigate the problem.

I guess what I'm saying is if the couple has some kind of obligation to its guests, is there a way it can satisfy the guests more cheaply?

That's kind of a cultural question, even though there are economic rationales behind the cultural traditions.

What happens when you compare you compare a big-wedding culture to a small wedding culture like Scotland or many churches in Canada?

The biggest gift my brother got when he got married two years ago was a standard gas powered push-along lawn mower. My mother got a nice china set from my grandmother, her mother-in-law when she married but that was a bit too luxurious at a time when other more immediate things were more pressing and it didn't sit so well with the other side of the family.

Funnily enough, I only started thinking about "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and it's possible connection to Big Fat Greek Debt afterwards.

Thanks Livio and Phil!

History and comparative economics would help narrow down the possible models a lot, I expect. When did big weddings start, and in what sort of economies? What are the differences between economies that have big and small weddings? Not areas I'm good at. I expect I have spent more thought on exploring whether there's a Big Wedding Trap, or history dependent hysterisis, as Livio's hypothesis says. We can get stuck in an equilibrium that was once optimal buy no longer is.

"The Big Wedding is paid for by the parents and the gifts received enable the parents to fund a "start" for their child."

This works if the gifts are worth more than the wedding cost. If the wedding cost the same as the gifts (roughly) the parents could have cut out the middleman!

Phil: "What if they had a small wedding but specified "no gifts, please" in the invitation? If reciprocation is part of the motivation, perhaps this will mitigate the problem."

Sounds theoretically plausible, but practically totally implausible. Why? Does "small" mean "small number of guests"? "How come I didn't get an invitation?!!!" Maybe some guests are rich, and others poor, relative to their lifetime or expected income. So if you have a "cheap" wedding, and expect no gifts, you are breaking the chain of net transfers from rich to poor?

Determinant: my guess is (within Christianity at least) the size of wedding (relative to per capita incomes) correlates strongly with denomination along the scale from Orthodox through RC through High Anglican, Low Anglican, United, with the Wee Frees out on the other end. Does that sound right to you? (And I've no idea what my underlying measure is on that scale.) If so, I again wonder what's cause and what's effect.

Are you looking at a wedding as a set of expenditures (gifts, party, travel, etc.) on a big social event, or specifically as a marker of household formation? If the former, you could ask the same thing about retirement parties or wakes, but if the latter, then you would look at baby showers instead. I go for household formation because that is what we generally celebrate; I once went to a wedding in a small Italian town where the bride's parents transferred a gigantic fraction of their household wealth to their daughter on one day, by buying her and her husband a house, which the parents had saved for over many years. I was told this was not unusual, though I half-expected to see fresh graves for the parents dug nearby, given what they gave up.

Wedding size could be expanded to include costs of bridal and stag parties, and I suspect that where there is some correlation between size of wedding spending and size of spending on those other proximal events.

Big weddings are a way for family groups to get together and socialise. That may not seem like much in the age of skype and the internet but back a couple of generations or so, writing letters was the only form of intimate communication between people at a distance - long distance calls between people had to be booked, there was latency and buzz in the call and probably people listening in.

It also lets them celebrate their culture when in their daily lives their culture may be dominated by others.

Interesting post, really enjoyed it.

"And certain goods are more appropriate as gifts than others. $50 towards the downpayment on a house probably wouldn't cut it, even if it's what the couple needs most."

Is the couple's problem a big wedding? Or is it that - in their years of living together - they have already accumulated all of the stuff that they need to run a household? So they don't need wedding presents?

When I got married I had almost no household goods - so I treasure the pots and pans I received as wedding presents, and use them every day.

But that situation is relatively unusual in this day and age.

So I think this is a situation where there's a social institution that once served an extremely valuable function in terms of helping people acquire the capital necessary for household and other production, but is no longer serving its purpose.

Another thing I was thinking about: any society with private ownership of property faces a problem: how can productive assets be transferred to people who can use them most productively? So, for example, in Canada there are 3, 4 or 5 bedroom homes occupied by singles or couples, while families with children live in cramped 2 bedroom apartments. But people don't like moving - and that's a perfectly reasonable position.

But wedding presents can be thought of as a capital re-allocation mechanism, a way of forcing people to transfer productive assets to younger, more productive individuals.

Determinant: my guess is (within Christianity at least) the size of wedding (relative to per capita incomes) correlates strongly with denomination along the scale from Orthodox through RC through High Anglican, Low Anglican, United, with the Wee Frees out on the other end. Does that sound right to you? (And I've no idea what my underlying measure is on that scale.) If so, I again wonder what's cause and what's effect.

I had an aunt and uncle who were married in the Greek Orthodox Church. Aside from the liturgy and chanting there really wasn't much of an expenditure difference over what you would see in a United Church. They had a service and a reception. The reception was at a country club hall rented for the occasion.

The groom's mother (Greek) did the rehearsal party and must have locked herself in her kitchen and baked up a storm but that was labour, skill and time more than money.

Both the bride and groom had careers and didn't need "gift assistance". The whole event was nothing like what Shangwen described at all.

Actually aside from the liturgy and chanting it wasn't different in cost and substance than my brother's wedding in the United Church.

As a curiosity the Wee Frees are known as Evangelical Presbyterians when in Canada and there are but a handful of them here, nothing like their numbers both total and relative in Scotland.

Or thinking of Roman Catholics, Irish weddings are not known for being extravagant though the English-speaking Roman Catholic Church is strongly Irish in flavour in both the United States and Canada.

Shangwen: I don't know. I wonder if Big Wedding cultures are also Big Funeral cultures? That would be a way to test some theories.

On the cost of bridal and stag parties: Rant warning. I remember getting so PO'd. Some damn' girl would always be getting married, ask my daughter to be bridesmaid, and that would be another few hundred bucks on some stupid dress she would wear once, and shoes to match, plus expensive stupid outings to do hair and nails. Even before you got to the gift. My other theory is that the whole thing is a female conspiracy against men. How many magazines have "bride" in the title? How many magazines have "groom" in the title (not counting those about horses)? Case closed!

Megan: maybe. But why do some cultures (or did some cultures) do it very differently, even before anyone had modern communications, and even when they are minorities or majorities within a particular country?

Frances: Thanks!

"But wedding presents can be thought of as a capital re-allocation mechanism, a way of forcing people to transfer productive assets to younger, more productive individuals."

Which is like an overlapping generations model, except it's transfers from the old to the young, rather than from young to old, as in the standard OLG example of PAYG unfunded pension plans. And it would make sense if capital markets are imperfect (which they are) so the young can't rent the capital equipment from the old. These intergenerational transfers would, I think, increase the aggregate capital stock, which is the exact opposite from the standard OLG model.

Nick: On several occasions I have hinted without subtlety that non-family members who are getting married will get a flashier gift from me if they do NOT invite me to the wedding. That makes clear that I will be unhurt--indeed, delighted--to be left off the list, and makes it easier for people to do so. It still costs me less.

At the risk of being vacuous: perhaps big weddings serve (in part) as a way to announce "This is my woman! Hands off!" to the community. As with so many mating and marriage rituals pre-DNA testing, it's all about trying to make sure that the kids you're going to pay to raise are really yours. And it's it's a helluva lot better than sowing-up the girls.

I think of this as herding versus nesting cultures. In herding cultures, social ties are very important and weddings are a way to mark the herd that will pitch in when times are troubled. I think it is a form of social insurance rather than OLG.

I believe that it may be the case that big weddings are more common in societies with high densities of population but low or no public safety nets. Conversely, small weddings are more common in societies with lower population densities (with fewer people to interact with, self-insurance and limited but targeted cross-insurance may be more effective) and when there are good public safety nets (insurance provided by the state removes the need for social insurance).

Moreover, this goes beyond weddings. In herding cultures, multiple generations and siblings are encouraged and often live with each other/support each other. In my culture, my parents expect to live with me after they retire (this could be OLG) and my sister too expects me to help out financially if times are bad for her (this can't be OLG). So herding cultures make use of idiosyncratic differences in income streams to smooth out consumption over time and across states of nature through informal arrangements. In nesting cultures, parents expect offspring to leave home and build their own nest - independence is treasured and individual incentives can take precedence over familial incentives if there are adequate insurance opportunities provided through the state. In such cultures, the consumption stream is either smoothed by the state or there is little opportunity for adequate consumption smoothing to begin with.

I think that when the state provides welfare safety nets, there is more opportunity for agents to optimize individually and that results in more efficient aggregate outcomes although one could argue that some of the positive externalities of herding (community building) are lost.

And of course there is the issue of hysteresis - cultures take time to evolve so simply transplanting herders into a society of nesters will not change the herders' behaviors overnight.

Also, this difference between herders and nesters can bring out the discrepancies you point out in attitudes towards saving too.

Just as no public safety net versus high public safety net, ceteris paribus, encourages people to save more (to self insure), nesting cultures versus herding cultures, ceteris paribus, encourages people to save more (to self insure). But of course all these variables (type of culture, provision of public safety nets, and savings decisions) are mutually endogenous and co-evolve over time.

Determinant: OK. Sounds like my simple "Big Wedding correlates with denomination" conjecture was wrong. Oh well!

Shangwen: must remember that. Not that I get invited to weddings much, thankfully!

Patrick: OK, but then why would some cultures worry more about paternity than others? And does that correlate with big weddings? (The story goes that the English aristocracy were very concerned about the paternity of the first couple of sons, who would inherit. But once the dutiful wife had produced "an heir and a spare", everyone would turn a blind eye. And isn't marriage more about women claiming dibs on men than vice versa? Again, how many men do you know who read "Groom" magazine? Have you ever seen a copy of "Canadian Groom"? ;-)

OMG! I just Googled "Canadian Groom" and found this:


"Yeah! A boy! we don't see too many boys on here, so excuse us if we get a little excited!"

"Canadian Bride" gave me nearly 100 times the number of results. Men are just accessories at a wedding. Any economic theory of weddings must, I think, be a theory of rational female choice. (I'm also hearing stories of girls who have booked their much-desired wedding locations a couple of years in advance, before they have chosen the boy.)

anon2: that sounds like a coherent sort of theory. I missed out the social insurance aspects. Presumably that would have an impact on precautionary savings motive too (third derivative of the utility function).

"Nesting cultures" is a new one on me. I've heard the distinction between pastoral (herding?) vs farming cultures. Perhaps that's the same?

anon2 "But of course all these variables (type of culture, provision of public safety nets, and savings decisions) are mutually endogenous and co-evolve over time."

Yep. Important point.

I don't think the terms 'herding cultures' and 'nesting cultures' actually exist. I just made those words up to suggest how a herd of animals (say elephants) differs from a nest of birds (say sparrows). I don't know much about animal societies but at least as far as popular representation is concerned, the larger group is the dominant social unit (although individual families exist) among elephants while the individual family is the dominant unit (although flocks exist) among sparrows. When I think of the dominant social group in the culture I'm originally from, the herd comes to mind while when I think of the dominant social group in the culture that I currently live in, the nest comes to mind.

I think you are on the right track that marriage is more important to women than to men, but it can hardly be about rational female choice, as traditionally the bride's family pays more than the groom's. I should think that the importance of marriage is linked to economic and political disadvantages of women in societies that prize "big weddings." You might do better to think in terms of commitment. A big wedding is not merely a statement of commitment (hundreds of witnesses) but a commitment device: it raises the social cost of divorce or abandonment.

The explanations you have devised along the lines of inter-generational transfers founder on the problem that historically the married couple have been the beneficiaries of the transfer; they lose by "defecting."

anon2: got it. Makes sense.

Phil: are you saying the value of the gifts exceeds the cost of the wedding? Or that its the parents who pay for the wedding? If the latter, the parents could simply make a transfer to the couple.

Nick: "And isn't marriage more about women claiming dibs on men than vice versa?"

Nick, why do you say things like this?

Marriage is so complex. Yes, if you read Jane Austen, you will find women obsessing about finding a husband - but that's because *historically women's economic rights and opportunities were so limited that a woman needed a husband, father, brother or other male to survive*.

And there's the basic biological fact: a woman can be sure her children are hers; a man can't. This also explains social institutions.

As for the modern day wedding business - there's also corporate interests at work. It was the DeBoer diamond company's marketing campaigns that made diamonds the stone of choice for engagement rings. And those relentless advertising campaigns saying that some number of months' salary is an appropriate amount to spend on an engagement ring are also financed by diamond producers.

Religion is a very, very complex subject. In immigrant societies like Canada where there is no single dominant denomination and now different religions are rubbing shoulders (I know one church in Oakville is now neighbours with a Hindu temple next door) there is a lot of mixing and matching of ideas and practices.

Further, although an economist would think marriage is an incredibly important social and economic institution, as a church practice it has the weakest supporting theology of any sacrament (most Protestant churches don't count it as a full sacrament due to the Reformation) and it is thus the most amenable to change. As a person whose parents made a living in the marriage trade, most clergy will view the straight liturgy, vows and strict legal and religious requirements (a very short list, actually) as their purview, the rest is the couple's choice and it's really a cultural/family expression which the minister obliges.

are you saying the value of the gifts exceeds the cost of the wedding?

I am saying the value of the gifts exceeds the cost to the couple.

Or that its the parents who pay for the wedding?

They do not pay the entire cost; the guests contribute gifts.

the parents could simply make a transfer to the couple.

But that would not fulfill the social commitment function I proposed; I therefore view that as evidence in support of my interpretation and against yours, and I don't understand why you think the opposite.

Nick, I think that's part of it, for sure (women laying claim to resources).

I remember reading that in some species the females use indeterminate male parenthood as a way to snag more resources for their young and to reduce infanticide.

Thinking about a friend who comes from a Big Wedding culture ... A big part of it was the parents impressing their friends and the community in general: "Look at how well we've done - we can have a gigantic big wedding for our daughter!". And also "Look at what a great alliance your son has made! His wife brings access to connections/resources!" - sorta Jane Austen in reverse. Signally they are good for the dowry?

Makes me wonder what my wedding was signalling. Court house, reading from the QC civil code, 15 person reception in *my* parents backyard, and we did all the cooking (actually my wife did most of it). She should have run for the hills!

Working on the road with a " mobile computer" ( our own can't leave the college for "security reasons"), I don't have all my references. However , afew years ago I read ( and stored) an article showing how going from a bride price, where the groom transfer wealth to the bride's parents, to a system where the young couple gets the goodies led to a slight increaase in economic growth rate ( a few tenths of a percent) that may have been determinant in the long term growth of the west.

That's the kind of post that should start introductory economics at the cegep or freshman year. Once the students are hooked , you can bore them with supply curves....

Bride price versus dowry is a whole other conversation!

South-Africa seems to have a "Big Funeral" Culture... think about that one. Your largest expenditure ever is your funeral.

The point is - when an economy becomes monetized and making moonetary debts becomes easier, the cultural idea that you use your resources to the breaking point for you 'Big Wedding' starts to etend into the future. Not just the one-year future (as would be the case in a non- or partly monetized nomad culture or a partly monetized agricultural society, where stocks are exhausted) but into a ten or twenty year future....

By the way - skip 'utility', it's soooo refuted (try to find a real scientific definition which enables measurement!). I know, thinking about the real world is hard and thinking about 'utility' is easy - but that does not make the last thing scientific. In the case of the wedding which nobody wants - we're in a very literal sense somebody else without the other. Other parts of the brain take over. What you call 'utility' changes. We're not stable. Or consistent. But, according to Victor Lamme (famous neurologist) there is a part of the prefrontal neo-cortex specialized in telling us that, in spite of all the contradictory evidence, we're stable and rational after all. It erases 'inconsistent' information. It makes up things, to make us believe that our actions are consistent after all. And it led economists to develop the fairy tale of homo economicus. Google "Victor Lamme".

Phil: "But that would not fulfill the social commitment function I proposed; I therefore view that as evidence in support of my interpretation and against yours, and I don't understand why you think the opposite."

I wasn't really arguing. Just trying to clarify and understand what you were saying.

Add Phil+Merijn together. A big wedding is a signalling equilibrium. Better capital markets reduce the private cost of making the signal bigger, because it's easier to borrow more. Which makes everyone worse off in equilibrium. Like student loans just mean that students go deeper into debt to send the same signal about their relative ability. Maybe? Awful thought, for those of us in the wedding/education business.

It's always funny to see people read back into history their idea of why something happened and do it thorugh the eyes of their present moment rather than through the eyes of someone that existed at that time. And marriage has certainly evolved over time. So the idea of "big wedding culture" is really sort of weird because, historically, all weddings were "big" weddings at one time or another.

The uncomfortable truth here is that women were property, and by themselves, had no means. Their means came through their husbands. So it's all about the bride because it's a celebration of her doing well and not being eternally dependent on her family, as she would be if she never married...unless she was born as Elizabeth I, and she didn't marry precisely because she knew she'd be subordinated to a husband. It's also a community event and ritual just like death practices. How many belong to a culture where after burial the family of the deceased tosses a big party not unlike a wedding reception? (called a collation by some)

So the fact that people still do it now is to preserve tradition rather than for any practical reason and, most likely, when older generations die off, the practice will be scaled down...as it has in the "smaller wedding culture" now. I recently was a guest at a wedding in Eastern Europe (certainly what was once a big wedding culture!). It was held at a venue not unlike we do here in the US where many couples are sharing different rooms. I noticed that the weddings were all smaller, more intimate, but that traditions played a big part in the proceedings (as well as the absense of any church personnel). But it was not unlike a wedding here, including such things as the chicken dance, tossing the boquet, the garder thing etc. So there's no economic benefit anymore, and I think the new realities will make weddings much different as the old timers die off.

I think big weddings discourage breakups. If you went a lot of trouble and expense to get married, you're less likely to get unmarried.

I'm not sure if someone has mentioned this already, but I think historically Presbyterians had an aversion to showy expressions of personal wealth and status, which would include big weddings. This would suggest that the wee free churches in Scotland, the high churches in Scotland, the United Church of Canada, and the Swiss Presybetrian church (I'm not sure what it's called) are likely "small wedding" denominations. I'm not sure if this is a doctrinal issue or attributable to something else.

It's the Swiss Reformed Church, Reformed = Presbyterian in Europe. Actually churches in Switzerland are canton (state, more the size of a county) based, like the Church of Zurich or the Church of Geneva.

The United Church has 14 French-speaking congregations, all in Consistoire Laurentien in Montreal & Ottawa Conference. French-language Protestantism is not a big club and much of our French-language resources, hymns and other things come from Geneva.

I was getting at the fact that flashy weddings are against the culture in Scotland. Actually until the 1820's you didn't need to get married in a church at all. An "irregular" marriage was fully legal and all it required was a declaration of intent to marry in front of two witnesses, no troublesome banns with their calling for objectors needed. Gretna Green famously made an industry of elopement this way. Scots marriage law was much easier than English law and moneyed/aristocratic couples who wanted to marry against their families wishes would take the stagecoach North. Gretna Green was the first Scottish burgh across the border on the shortest stage route from London. The blacksmiths did a roaring trade in Irregular Marriages and would strike the anvil to signal the marriage of a new couple.

Westminster moved against this system in the 1820's.

In Scotland marriages were often conducted at home instead of in a church anyway, marriage was not considered a "full" sacrament and thus not totally fit for a church.

In the United Church of Canada there are both really, really plain church and some rather quite high and decorated ones. The United Church is Methodist too and there were strains of Methodism, the Wesleyans and the Methodist Episcopals who were not opposed to ritual and decoration and went for it moderately (compared to some Anglicans and the Roman Catholics). Fancy places like Metropolitan United in Toronto or St. James United in Montreal originate in this stream.

My parents presided at some large and fancy weddings but they were always the exception.

If you want to have a test for how fancy the United Church could get, track down the weddings of the Eaton family. The Eatons were Methodist and still are United Church. Timothy Eaton Memorial United Church in Toronto is another fancy United Church. The Eatons had both the money and the background to be as fancy and all-out as you are ever likely to see in a United Church and their weddings were "events".

" Unless positional goods somehow distort our rate of time preference, our telescopic faculty, this means we consume too many positional goods, and too few non-positional goods (including leisure?) both today and in future."

My experience is that positional goods do distort time-preference. Positional goods are often used to secure higher income by impressing people in positions of power. Friends of mine from India talk to me about how they met their future boss at their wedding.

The wedding becomes a way to show off how you can organise a massive event and maintain control of it and yourself in a stressful and emotional situation—along with providing the future employer a good time...

Daniel: interesting. Your positional goods are positional investment goods rather than consumption goods. I can't quite get my head around this though: there will be overspending on those investment goods, but that investment will be less productive collectively than individually, so in one sense the *value* of investment will be too low??

Compare: if investment in education is really just signalling, and has zero value collectively, does that mean there is too little "real" investment? I think it does.

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