Isn’t it romantic?

February 11, 2010

Advertising on the London underground seems to follow distinct trends. Several months ago, a huge amount of advertising space was being dedicated to products that could rid your hands of germs, a nice marketing technique when the entire city was paralised with fear over swine flu. In the past month or so, the same advertising spaces have been replaced with a product that’s hoping you want to  get closer to your fellow human beings, not further away: online dating. The diversity in the ads is fantastic: my favourite was a dating site marketed exclusively for South Asians. But the one that caught my eye, and inspired me to write a Valentine’s Day post in its honour, was one for the American website eharmony.

Why did it catch my eye? Because it had an outrageous statistical claim (I am a social scientist, remember): 236  eharmony members get married a day in the US alone. According to company, that comprises 2% of American marriages. That seemed to me incredible. How could one single online dating site possibly account for such a large percentage of total marriages?

So, being the dork that I am, I checked the facts. According to the National Vital Statistics System (run by the Department of Health and Human Services), there were 2,162,000 marriages in the US in 2008. Assuming that eharmony’s stat means, as it seems to apply, 236 eharmony members get married every day, that does indeed work out to 2% of US marriages.

But as I started to do the math, the fact that the statistic was given in terms of the number of people (i.e. members) rather than the number of couples made me realise why the statistic was dodgy.  The statistic actually tells you nothing about what it is you really want to know, which is how many people find true love  using eharmony. All it tells you is that lots of people who are members of eharmony get married. Nothing about whether they marry other eharmony members, or instead whether they signed up to eharmony at 3am on a Saturday night as a drunken dare with their friends and never looked at the site again, and sometime later met the man / woman of their dreams while riding the tube and married them. In fact, given that the first step in the eharmony process (filing in a profile and becoming a member) is free, it’s easy to understand why this number might be exceptionally inflated.

What the statistic does tell you that at some point in their lives, lots of adult Americans are signed up to eharmony (about 2% of the actively marrying population). But whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends a bit on whether you think that finding Mrs Right is like finding a needle in the haystack, or a different challenge entirely.

Though it sounds romantic to spend Valentine’s Day in Rome, I imagine that the ministers attending this weekend’s G7 meeting there will find their task – crafting a solution to the global economic crisis – a sufficiently cold shower to kill off any amorous feelings the setting might have generated.   And if the topic alone weren’t enough to dampen the romance, the infighting amongst G7 governments about what to do to get us out of this mess suggests that this will be a less a Valentine’s Day love-in than something akin to a gathering of dysfunctional and divorce bound married couples.

Let’s start with the Italians, who hold the G8 chair this year.   Their surprising announcement about a month ago that they would seek a  a new legal approach, indeed a “legal standard,” for international finance will have left the UK and several other European governments feeling a bit like jilted lovers.   While Italy is holding court in the G8, the UK holds the reigns in the G20 Group of Finance Ministers, a group with an identical mandate but a wider membership, incorporating a number of large developing countries.   The problem is of course that the G20 has been tasked with coming up with solutions for the financial crisis (and singled out by the previous American administration as the appropriate forum in which to pursue this), but that their meeting is not being held until April.

The Italian finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, appears not to have consulted with the UK (or indeed with other European counterparts) before floating his idea of a legal approach to the Financial Times.  It’s notable that since this announcement, the Italians have been forced to say that they will extend invitations to G20 members to the G8’s big summer meeting in La Maddalena (Sardinia).

This whole story seems to me to suggest two important things about global governance.  First of all, the Europeans absolutely must begin to better coordinate their positions on matters related to finance, even if the underlying European architecture is complicated.  I’ve written about this in the context of the IMF previously, but the inability to even informally coordinate positions for summit meetings seems to me to be pathetic given that France, Germany and Italy (3 out of 7 G7 members) share a currency and a Central Bank.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s time to do something about the proliferation of G’s. By creating the G20 but allowing the G8 to continue to exist, inefficient overlap and competition occur between the two.   All of the original G7/8 members are in the larger club, and they are routinely forced to invite an additional 5 developing countries – China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa – to make the meeting meaningful (though as the leader of one of those countries commented, they are really just invited to the coffee breaks).   It’s time to seriously think about dismantling the G8 in favour of the G20.  Or creating a G13, leaving out some of the smaller G20 members.  Anything but two equally non-transparent international institutions doing the same thing at different points of the year.

Maybe it’s time to extend the mandate of Saint Valentine, whose patronage includes loving couples and bee keepers, to the G20 and G8.  With an appropriate prayer and a little help from Cupid, maybe something would get done this weekend that moves global governance in the right direction.