Bryan Caplan  

Stack the Deck: Another Reason to Have More Kids

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Whenever I go out in public, I notice pairs of mothers and daughters. Once kids hit adolescence, you rarely see mothers and sons, fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters spending much time together. But mothers and daughters of all ages apparently tend to enjoy each others' company.

The upshot is that if you're a mother without a daughter, you're probably missing out on one of the best relationships you're likely to have in this life. Per my earlier advice, I'd recommend having another child. Maybe she'll be a girl and you'll have a lifelong companion.

But what if it's yet another boy? I've often heard women express pity for moms with a three or more boys, but I've never heard them sympathize with moms with three or more girls. In all likelihood, then, there are a lot of women out there who want one more baby girl, but don't want a 50% chance of getting one more baby boy instead. In terms of expected utility equations:

EU(one more girl)> EU(status quo)


.5*EU(one more girl)+.5*EU(one more boy)< EU(status quo)

Technology to the rescue! There is now a highly effective and surprisingly affordable way to "stack the deck," to get a baby with the gender you're looking for. It's called "sperm separation":

[T]he X chromosome is substantially larger than the Y chromosome... Since chromosomes are made of DNA, human sperm cells having an X chromosome will contain approximately 2.8% more total DNA than sperm cells having a Y chromosome. This DNA difference can be measured and the X- and Y-bearing sperm cells individually separated using a modified flow cytometer instrument.

What about effectiveness? If you want a girl, you can raise the probability to 91%. If you want a boy, you can raise it to 76%.

The price charged by one leading firm is only $3000 for the first vial, and $650 for additional vials. That's probably less than you'd spend on braces, these days.

You might think that this technology is only for people with sex-linked genetic disorders, but that's not so. The industry is happy to offer its services to couples seeking "family balancing," too.

The bottom line is that if you want another child conditional on getting your preferred gender, the market is ready to help. And while many people will object to this "commodification of human life," it's hard to see how all their grumbling can withstand the straightforward counter-argument: "Meet Jane, a person who only exists today because her parents were allowed to stack the deck."

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TRACKBACKS (1 to date)
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The author at Diminishing Returns in a related article titled All my wife's problems solved...and I'm screwed. writes:
    So my wife still wants to have another baby, and she wants it to be a girl. I, of course, do not want to have another baby (isn't 3 enough?), so I have been using the "but what if it's a boy" argument to persuade her to drop the idea. [Tracked on January 24, 2006 9:39 AM]
COMMENTS (21 to date)
daveg writes:

Bryan, the good news is that child sex selection is very unlikely to have any external effects we should worry about.

T.R. Elliott writes:

Wow. I'm always amazed how the blog posts here have about as much to do with economics as that Fox program Cavuto runs has to do with business news.

Both incorporate the language of their respective domains in order to flaunt their particular obsessions.

Paraphrasing today's post: (1) Repopulate the motherland; (2) Mothers who don't have daughters are lacking in something; (3) Some issue with fathers that I don't understand. (4) Technology will provide a solution to your lack.

But two positive comments: (1) You guys probably are getting paid at least nominal amount to produce this stuff. So more power to you. I'm not sure anyone's getting their money's worth but still, more power to you. And (2) I'm sure that the total result of these written productions will go a long ways in rectifying the enormous structural imbalances that exist in Americas economy--more than say, inventing something that actually makes money and can be produced?

daveg writes:

To be fair, Bryan was just trying to start a dialog.

I think this one was a little to over the top to be taken seriously tho. I certainly didn't.

Bob Dobalina writes:

T.R. Elliott--

I'm not quite sure I understand the reason for your vitriol. Is someone forcing you to read this blog?

You remind me of my grandfather, who used to watch CNN just for the pleasure of getting mad and yelling at the TV.

Robert Schwartz writes:

If they get the price point right this is going to ruin China and India. They already have problems with sex ratios.

Matt McIntosh writes:

Bob D just make me shoot coke out my nose. It's so true...

Matt McIntosh writes:

Errr, that should have been a capital C, just to avoid some awful confusion! Caffiene for me, not that horrible stuff...

Steve Sailer writes:

Most of the sex selection attempts among Americans, Japanese, and Britons is for daughters, not sons. (For some immigrant groups, of course, the reverse is true.) The typical user of a sex selection technology in a wealthy country is a woman with three sons and a closet full of little pink dresses bought for the little girl she hasn't yet had.

By the way, Bryan won't be surprised that one of the more successful radio format innovations in recent years are stations that play songs aimed at both mothers and daughters simultaneously.

Dezakin writes:

I certainly have sympathy for T.R. Elliott's position. It seems every time Bryan has an opportunity to start going on why having kids is great he does, trying to obliquely tie it to economics.

What about the economic externalities of sex selection? Right now most people prefer boys to girls globally and it will have a giant dent in the population and cause problems later; But this isn't 'Another Reason to Have More Kids'

John Thacker writes:

Well, I like the idea of this much more than the "ultrasound and abort" procedure so common in India and China.

spencer writes:

Its cheaper to have a sonogram and an abortion then this procedure. So why not advocate that solution. It is widely done in Asia to select the sex of their children.

spencer writes:

daveg -- in China they have a very large surplus of young men that propabably will never marry.

so your comment that sex selection will not have adverse impacts is open to discussion.

Tom West writes:

What I find amusing is that Bryan advocates both having more children so that you have company in old age and an economic system focussed on innovation rather than security. Many good things about such a system, but it means that capable people will likely spread to where economic opportunities are, quite possibly continents apart.

There's every possibility of raising 4 children and having none of them within a 1,000 miles. But at least you will be wealthier, if alone.

mobile writes:

Are daughters better than sons? If you have a son, then you have one little boy to worry about. If you have a daughter, then you have all the little boys to worry about.

Bill writes:

Keep in mind that mother-daugher relationships when the daughter is an adolesent is extremely unstable. One day your mother and sister leave to go to the mall to pick out an outfit for the dance and they are both excited. They come home and they are arguing fiercly, taking cheap shots at each other, and refusing to speak to each other for days. When I came home from college I couldn't believe the fights my mom and sister were having. It wasn't like a parent-kid fight either, it was like a two former best friends who became mortal enemies having a huge argument.

Michael writes:

Hmm it seems that your "meet Jane" argument is false for the same reason that the Happy-Wal-Mart worker with health insurance is wrong. Its easy to point to Jane and say she wouldn't have existed but for this procedure. However, you don't see "John" who doesn't exist but would have but for this procedure. I also would suggest this technology is very "Gatica."

Zac writes:

I will add my support to Bill's contention that mother-daughter relationships are extremely unstable, particularly in adolesence. My own observation is that mother-son and faughter-daugher relationships are the closest emotionally.

To those commenters claiming an ultrasound-and-abort option is "cheaper," I suggest you speak to someone who has had an abortion and ask them to quantify, in dollar terms, the cost of the experience. If you get an answer at all (many might say the cost is unquantifiably high) I think you would be surprised. Without performing any survey, I can say with a high level of certain that you'd find it is a number (far) greater than $3000.

Michael: Your argument doesn't hold water because Bryan stated in the "bottom line" that it would only apply if you were going to have children conditional on a gender. So we can assume there is no John, never was going to be a John, etc.

Tom West makes a valid point. In a global economy free from restrictions, as Bryan advocates, we'd expect the family unit to become weaker as units spread out geographically to seek the best opportunities. However, economic growth and innovation reduce the cost of travel and communication. Moving away from home these days isn't the same as it was before the telephone, the internet, video conferencing...

I will take an opportunity to register a complaint about the "have more kids" blog series.. I find Bryan is a little overoptimistic about the chances that kids will be of great benefit to their parents. Obviously he recognizes kids represent very real, unavoidable costs. But I am sure we disagree on the probability they will give you a very high benefit. Yes, there is a chance you will have kids who you love, who love you, who are successful, who have kids of their own and bring you lots of grandbabies, but there seems to me a high probability you will have kids who disappoint you, who are unsuccessful, who loathe and resent you. They may or may not have kids of their own, and they are likely to be nasty little brats rather than sweet grandkids. When deciding whether or not to have more kids, it seems Bryan is comparing the costs with certain benefits, rather than probability-modified benefits, which changes the complexion of the argument.

An interesting question: given your first kid turns out, on the whole, good or bad, what is the probability that other children will be good or bad? Obviously its not independent. Should you wait to have more kids beyond the first until you can make some judgement on how your kids will turn out, based on some qualitative measures of the first kid? Of course, time is of the essence.

Patri Friedman writes:

I like the idea of family balancing, but note that $3K is just the cost for separating the vial. It does not include the costs for IVF or IUI. The latter looks like about $3K-$5K per cycle, with an average success rate of 17%/cycle. So on average you need about 3 of those cycles. We're talking more like $15,000.

But presumably it will get cheaper.

Ann writes:

A sex-selection clinic opened in Hong Kong about a decade ago. Is this really just now coming to the US? The HK clinic stressed that it might possibly be used to try for a girl, but that was a small part of their expected demand.

The shortage of marriage-age women in China goes back more than two decades, since birth and survival rates have been skewed since the Great Leap Forward. Female infants and young children have two strikes against them during times of famine - they're both young and female, in a society that reveres age and males. A legendary role model of filial piety was a woman who allowed her baby to starve so that she could instead breastfeed her aged mother-in-law during a famine.

More recently, the birth rate has been skewed by selective abortions. For a while at least, China outlawed ultrasounds for pregnant women, to try to get a less skewed distribution, but it probably wasn't enforced.

I thought that the shortage of girls would eventually change some Asian cultures, making women more valued, but that only works in societies with enforceable property rights. Besides the sad stories of paper wives (cardboard cutouts, for poor farmers that can't afford a real woman), there are many stories in China of women being kidnapped and forced to marry. Even if a kidnapped bride escapes later, her family may not take her back.

But in South Korea, the shortage of female births is being driven by the economic opportunities of women - why should a woman leave the workforce and thus lose her paycheck in order to raise a daughter? Given the high opportunity cost, one might just as well wait for a more valuable child.

In South Korea, there's a better chance there that the shortage of women will somewhat change attitudes. But eventually North Korea will collapse, and the wealthy southerners will be able to marry the few North Korean girls that have survived the years of famine (girls die before boys there also, when times are hard). North Korean men will be most affected, since even Chinese farmers are rich in comparison and might prefer a Korean wife to a paper one.

CC writes:


I find the post somewhat humorous and tongue and cheek.

What really strikes me is the comments. We're talking about males & female ratios and I'm noticing that besides Ann I seem to be the only female. (I feel so alone! Ann, maybe we should start some sort of club?)

Would an increase in female babies in the Western world lead to a dearth of economists? Hmmmm....

daveg writes:

daveg -- in China they have a very large surplus of young men that propabably will never marry.

so your comment that sex selection will not have adverse impacts is open to discussion.

I was being facetious.

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