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My Views on Optimal Family Size: Some Clarifications

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Kerry Howley has some thoughtful doubts about my ongoing debate with Will Wilkinson. And happily they're easy to address one at a time:

1. Here's Kerry:

I’m perplexed, though, by Bryan’s statement that “most people are hyper-aware of the important arguments against” raising kids, but ignorant of the good reasons.
Actually, on the second clause, I said something a little different - that "there are important arguments in favor of having more kids that most people haven't thought about very much." This doesn't mean that they're ignorant of all the good reasons, just the good reasons that I've been emphasizing.

But what about my claim that people are hyper-aware of the important arguments against having kids? Well, tell me if any of the following would surprise any adult: (a) Pregnancy lasts nine months, and is very uncomfortable; (b) Pregnancy permanently changes a woman's body in several unaesthetic and uncomfortable ways; (c) Taking time off from work is pretty bad for women's careers; (d) Babies cry a lot, and often keep their parents from sleeping; (e) Kids cost a lot of money; (f) Kids are demanding and ungrateful; (g) Moms do a lot more childcare than dads.

Surprising? I think not. The same goes for virtually all sound prudential arguments against having kids: They're already well-known.

2. Next:

Bryan also implies that celebrity culture denigrates childbearing, which suggests that he really needs a Suri and Shiloh-filled subscription to… basically any tabloid.
I actually do subscribe to EW, which blends tabloid and cultural criticism; that's news I can use.

In any case, my point is not that most celebrities are childless, for of course they aren't. My point, rather, is that there are many prominent childless celebrities, and almost no one thinks this undermines their role-model status. So why should Jamie-Lynn's pregnancy be a deal-breaker?

3. I'm not sure if I'm interpreting Kerry's next point correctly, but hopefully she'll correct me if I'm not:

Perhaps he [Caplan] has better data than I do, but last I checked the percentage of ever-married women who reported being voluntary childless was something like 6 percent...

The ‘childless by choice’ movement, as far as I can tell, is a paltry shadow of what it was in the 70’s. Pick up a copy of Redbook; today, we’re all about “work/life balance.”

Kerry may be right that explicit advocacy of childlessness was higher in the '70's; I don't know. But the Current Population Survey definitely shows a sharp rise in the fraction of women aged 40-44 who have zero children. That percentage was 10.2% in 1976, versus 19.3% in 2004. That doesn't directly contradict Kerry's 6% figure, but I'd say that my number is a better measure of the popularity of the "childless by choice" lifestyle. (In fact, since fertility treatments have made it a lot easier to get pregnant than it was in 1976, my figures understate the rise in the popularity of voluntary childlessness).

Now just to repeat what I said in my last response to Will, I'm not trying to bully or shame anyone into having kids. I certainly don't claim that the childless are "tyrannizing" over anyone. And I don't advise everyone to have children. All I'm doing is pointing out some benefits of kids that even most smart and well-educated people haven't really thought about.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
nicole writes:

One thing about your list of negatives that wouldn't surprise any adult--they wouldn't surprise any adult. Younger women, especially teenagers, often discount the hardships associated with all of the above in favor of getting a cute, cuddly toy that will keep them company all the time.

Seriously, I grew up with girls like this. Whereas for me the biggest reason not to have kids is that I would never be alone again, they saw this as a benefit, almost like buying yourself your own best friend. This is why parents are so concerned about their daughters emulating Jamie Lynn. Jamie Lynn will experience virtually no adverse consequences as a result of this baby--she can pay someone to take care of it, she doesn't have to go to college anyway, etc etc. It will seem to these girls that Jamie Lynn just got an unadulterated ball of cute, and they will want their own, just like they want a pony--or at least, when they accidentally get pregnant, and a lot of them will, they won't realize they are throwing their lives away the way Jamie Lynn didn't have to.

Unit writes:

Another plus (?) to having kids it's that parenting is quite the learning experience. It changes and challenges your mindset quite a bit and in my case led me to reexamine many ways in which other people perceive my actions and words.

The Real Bill writes:

I have to agree with Nicole, having grown up with (and luckily escaped impregnating) many girls with similar attitudes. (Perhaps Brian needs to spend some time in a trailer park. ; >)

It's anecdotal, but all but a few of the middle-aged, childless women I've known were that way because they "never found the right guy" or they were infertile. The rest just didn't want (or like) kids.

Ted Seay writes:

It's probably not terribly PC to say this, but one of the biggest reasons for the additional numbers in the "childless by choice" category for women over 40 is that they got conned into following career goals as the "only truly fulfilling" option for modern women...and then when they got to "success", I believe many were shattered to discover how hollow and empty it all was. That doesn't show in the statistics, of course.

Neither does the distinct fraction of women who choose to call themselves "childless by choice," when their friends and associates might agree that "desperate and dateless" was more accurate...


Bob writes:

If I'd posted up a blog post on the "optimal number of Snickers bars to eat" I'm pretty sure I'd be smacked down. No one can determine for another person what the optimal number of snickers bars to eat is because value (and cost) is subjective. De gustibus!

So why are we discussing this with respect to children?

Yes, I know the existence of positive externalities (as Bryan argues) suggests that the optimal number is greater than what people might choose, but that still leaves us a long way from known what the optimal number is.

In any case, this debate has long since morphed into a debate about private costs and benefits and whether people really understand them. I, for one, don't think it's terribly wise to be second-guessing such private calculations. It may be true that people are missing some of the private benefits (Bryan) or costs (Will), but we economists qua economists don't normally take to lecturing people on such matters, and thank god for that.

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