I’ve been musing recently about LDRs – those long-distance relationships that I keep hearing about but have never actually experienced myself. Recently, I saw it mentioned again in Tim Harford’s “Dear Undercover Economist,” in which he analyzes its utility, and found myself profoundly enlightened.
First, some definitions. The Wikipedia entry is frustratingly vague in that it defines an LDR simply as “an intimate relationship that takes place when the partners are separated by a considerable distance.” But what kind of distance is considerable? And even if you lived far apart, if you still saw each other once a week, is that an LDR?
I offer a more specific definition: an LDR is an intimate relationship in which the parties involved can not physically see each other more often than once every two months on average, without incurring prohibitive costs. (I believe that the concept of “distance” in “Long-Distance” is so ambiguous and relative that I’ve avoided including it in the definition altogether.)
Under the proposed definition: if you were living in Manila and your boyfriend was in the States, it would not be an LDR if either of you could afford to fly over and visit regularly. Likewise, even if he were somewhere closer, like say Baguio, that would fall under the definition of an LDR if it were too costly for him to come down more than once every 8 weeks. (Keep in mind that “costs” are a broad umbrella term that includes money, time and other personal resources. He could, for example, be deathly afraid of wheeled transports, and insist on walking the whole way – an unreasonably high personal cost.)
Why two months, instead of, say, one? I have to admit it’s an arbitrary number: if both parties are busy individuals, seeing each other once a month can sometimes be all they can manage. That would not necessarily mean they were in an LDR, it just means their respective calendars are often full.
Using this definition, what does the science of economics have to say about LDRs? Well, a lot, as it turns out. The Alchian-Allen Theorem, commonly known as the “third law of demand” offers a great analysis of how to carry out your infrequent encounters. Here’s the nose-bleed version: “the Alchian-Allen Theorem is often associated with the phenomena in which a common fixed transportation or shipping cost added to the price of a high and low quality good results in a relative increase in consumption of the high quality good.” Fun, huh?
The layman’s version is elegantly clarified by economist Tyler Cowen:
“The theorem [...] implies that Australians drink higher-quality Californian wine than Californians do, and vice versa, because it is only worth the transportation costs for the most expensive wine.”
LDRs, or the notion of being in an LDR, act like the most stringent of filters. No one really prefers being in one – it is a situation borne of unfortunate circumstance. And so it happens that during those few, happy moments that you are able to spend with your partner, you will not stand for anything but the most scintillating of conversations, the finest restaurants, the most vigorous of sexual encounters. You need to maximize the fixed costs of shuttling one (or both) of you back and forth, after all.
The converse can also be said to be true: when our partner is in close proximity, our standards tend to be lower. There’s very little effort involved in seeing a partner who lives 15 minutes from you, so vegging on the couch in front of your television suddenly becomes an acceptable activity.
(The Alchian-Allen Theorem, btw, also explains why countries like the Philippines only get mainstream movies in its cinemas, and very few of the arthouse variety. The costs of shipping of either the Hollywood production or the independent release are the same, and in the interest of generating the largest profit margins, the former is the most rational choice for the majority of theater owners.)
Economics does not, unfortunately, put forth an opinion on whether an LDR is a good idea or not, although I imagine that they are bound by the same free-market rules as everything else: Because it’s the higher quality stuff that gets traded over long distances, only LDRs involving truly exceptional parties will usually last any significant period of time. Anything else would simply not justify the costs.