Bryan Caplan  

Stepping on Will's Toes

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Wilkinson and Shirky... Peasants vs. Nomads...

Will Wilkinson's not too happy with my lecture on "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids." Frankly, we seem to be talking past each other, but I think it's worth trying one more time. From his latest comments, point-by-point:

There are perfectly good multivariate regressions on happiness and kids and even good longitudinal studies. There is no excuse for looking at your own "simple estimate."
Will, that number actually is from a multivariate regression I did using the GSS. I thought it would be more engaging to report my own result than repeat someone else's. In any case, though, I could have made the same basic point using the Brooks regressions that you've blogged before: The negative effect of kids on happiness is small compared to e.g. the positive effect of being married. Brooks says the same thing; contrary to the title of your earlier post, he never said (and the data do not show) that children make us "miserable."

Given the size of the negative happiness effect of kids, there is nothing amazing about my claim that kids could easily have a positive effect on parental happiness if parents switched to a lower-effort parenting style. (Indeed, you've longed for a change in this direction yourself, at least for moms).

Furthermore, you don't seem to deny my point that, as behavioral geneticists teach us, lower-effort parenting would have little negative effect on children's futures.

So why is my argument so hard to "take seriously"?

Also, I have seen NO EVIDENCE that kids help make people happy when old, and mention none. But you keep asserting it anyway.
Actually, I have deliberately avoided saying that kids and grandkids make the elderly happier, precisely because I'm not convinced that the data bear this out. (Though I am confident that beeper studies would show that grandparents are really happy when they spent time with their grandkids). My claim, rather, is the more economistic one that when you are older you will, for whatever reason, prefer more children. Again, it's hard to argue with this. 60-year-olds with 4 kids may be no happier than 60-year-olds with 2 kids (and possibly 60-year-olds with no kids). But who wouldn't prefer to be the 60-year-old with 4 kids rather than a 60-year-old with 2 kids - or no kids?
And, again, you ignore the VERY high average costs of motherhood on women in terms of lifetime earnings, the realization of potential, social status, etc. You can argue that these costs can be mitigated, but it's shoddy and really does seem blithely misogynistic to ignore them.
I continue to ignore them for two reasons:

1. These costs are already well-known. People have already factored them into their decisions. I'm pointing out things that most people don't already know. The title was Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, not Selfish Reasons to Have Kids.

2. If you look at the data - the same GSS data you favorably cite - you'll see that kids usually have a smaller negative effect on the happiness of moms than the happiness of dads. The natural inference is that you're missing half the story. Yes, women bear more of the costs of kids, but apparently they also get more of the benefits.

Incidentally, it's poor manners to suggest that I'm "blithely misogynistic." If I'm right, I'm helping women and men alike. If I'm wrong, there are plenty of simpler explanations than misogyny.

By the way, my desired family size is now -10.
That's unfortunate for the world, because you're an exceptional human being. But as I said before, I have no intention of nagging you to do what's best for the world. :-)

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Will Wilkinson writes:

Bryan,

You write:

"These costs are already well-known. People have already factored them into their decisions. I'm pointing out things that most people don't already know. The title was Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, not Selfish Reasons to Have Kids."

I am incredibly skeptical of the claim that all these costs are well-known and taken into account. It seems to me that's just false. Maybe the big career hit women take for having kids is well-known to people with a background in labor economics, but just about every woman I have spoken to about this is stunned to learn of the SIZE of the mom vs. non-mom pay and promotion gap. Which suggests they really didn't know about it.

This is really important for the whole idea of this book. You want to argue that people would want more kids if they had more complete information. I suspect many women in particular would in fact want fewer kids if they had more complete information. If you assume that the baseline is more or less full knowledge of everything bad and incomplete knowledge of much of the good, then your strategy makes sense. But I'm not persuaded you have a good reason to assume that.

I apologize if I was impolite, Bryan. But I'm sincerely trying to be helpful to you. I worry you're way too far into the Mason bubble on this issue. I don't think you are misogynistic. I know you too well. But if your argument SOUNDS blithely misogynistic to people like me, who share much of your politics and sensibility, then imagine how you're going to come off to people even more worried than I am about how reproductive choices relate to women's equality.

That said, I think your thesis is in fact super-populist. Americans will be very eager to hear how what they always knew was true -- that children and family are the best things ever -- is SUPER-TRUE according to a real live economist. Which is just to say that I think you have the baseline backwards. People are already factoring most of the GOOD STUFF into their decisions. I think we have to adjudicate our disagreement over that before we can get any further.

I also think we're talking past each other when it comes to status and social norms. The U.S. has an incredibly strong pro-family culture that intensely romanticizes parenthood, especially motherhood. People worried about women's continued lack of full social equality, like me, worry that the romantic mythos of the profundity of family encourages women to choose to have more children than they would in the absence of such a romantically pro-child cultural climate, and that REALLY DOES reduce their prospects of realizing their capacities and talents and of achieving success and social esteem on a par with men.

Happiness isn't the only thing that matters. We agree on that. Family matters too. And so does the fuller realization of human potential, which child-centric cultural norms may well impede.

Will Wilkinson writes:

And thanks for the compliment Bryan. If market demand for my germ cells skyrockets, I will happily consider increasing the supply brought to market.

Chuck writes:

I think this argument, which it sounds like you're trying to develop into a new book, is in deep tension with some of you previously stated (and correct!) suppositions about people's acquisition of knowledge.

In a previous post from a long time ago, you argued that people are very good at collecting knowledge and being rational about situations where this can directly make a difference to their well-being. Strikingly, since the contra-positive is also true, this made them VERY BAD at collecting knowledge about things they couldn't effect. So, people were very bad at figuring out the answers to political questions or whether God exists because, let's face it, there was nothing riding on whether they got the answer right.

But THERE IS A LOT AT STAKE when it comes to whether people have many children or a few, one, or none. Each of these leads to an innumerable host of consequences which are felt very directly by the family.

To be sure, in family formation some mixture of planning and accident is the norm. Your implicit audience are the pure planners. You're assuming that they are not planning rationally over time--that they are overvaluing short-term ease over long-term satisfaction.

But given that most people are familiar with life expectancies and the typical shapes of lives in their native societies, why do you assume that people haven't taken these factors into account?

8 writes:

It's always going to be more selfish not to have children.

Andrew writes:

Will,

Like Bryan said, he is arguing for selfish reasons to have MORE kids. I find it plausible to assume that a parent has reasonable knowledge and information about the costs of parenting once they have already had at least one child. Your argument makes sense when applied to a woman who has no children and is deciding about how big her future family should be, but I don't think that is the scenario Bryan is imagining.

Andrew

liberty writes:

I must say that I agree with Will on this one.

One scrap of anecdotal evidence: I come from a culture (socialist/hippies) devoid of that pro-family bias, and people from my culture tend to have 0-2 kids, tending closer to the 0 end as generations progress. For example, I have one friend who got pregnant and kept her kid (despite lack of husband) out of guilt. The other dozen/s or so friends from this culture who I keep up with have a grand total of 0 kids. We are all in our early-mid thirties. None have kids on the radar at all. But this is not the culture of mainstream America.

If you look to parts of the country with pro-family religious type of culture, they have a much higher average. Urban power seeking women aside, most Americans bias in favor of children. Ever seen the tax code? We already hand out cash for kids in several places; we promote pro-family stuff everywhere.

As I said before: you won't find data on how many people had kids who shouldn't have - who would have been better off as high achievers. This is because once you have a kid, its too late to imagine life without the kid, and hormones tell you that you love the thing (which I'm sure you do). But this can't tell you if it was the right decision. If you don't then hormones feed regret for something that clearly you made a low priority. Its impossible to know.

nicole writes:

First, I agree with both Will and liberty. I think women really underestimate the negatives in having children because of the romanticization of motherhood.

But I also disagree with your assumptions of the preferences of older people. Why should an older person prefer 4 children over 2 over none? As a first born, I can blame my parents' decision to have more children for inconvenience and lost opportunity (mostly educational). By having more kids they damaged their relationship with the preexisting one (and by having a third they damaged their relationship with the second as well). Isn't one high quality relationship with one high quality child better than a bunch of mediocre relationships with kids that hate each other? Well, I don't know, but it sure seems possible.

Glen writes:

Andrew said: "I find it plausible to assume that a parent has reasonable knowledge and information about the costs of parenting once they have already had at least one child. Your argument makes sense when applied to a woman who has no children and is deciding about how big her future family should be, but I don't think that is the scenario Bryan is imagining."

Actually, I think that's precisely the scenario Bryan is imagining. Remember that this whole conversation started with Bryan's defense of Britney Spears's little sister, who is a pregnant teen. Bryan essentially argued that it's good to get an early start if you want to have a larger brood.

Jason Malloy writes:

Again, it's hard to argue with this. 60-year-olds with 4 kids may be no happier than 60-year-olds with 2 kids (and possibly 60-year-olds with no kids). But who wouldn't prefer to be the 60-year-old with 4 kids rather than a 60-year-old with 2 kids - or no kids?

'Prefer' determined how? The happiness data is the revealed preference.

Unit writes:

Why assume that kids are the only reason for the pay-gap between men and women. Are we sure that large families don't affect men salaries in any way?

Pedant writes:

I thought revealed preference was just the actions that people took, not their responses to surveys.

Kyle writes:

I'm going to have to argue that it seems a lot of folks are not taking Bryan's claim seriously enough.

He is arguing for "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, not Selfish Reasons to Have Kids"

If we agree that Bryan's argument is not about whether to have kids, but about how many kids to have, I think most of the Wilkinsonian objections largely melt.

Then again, I'm a parent of > 2 who thinks that Bryan is right on with parenting style differences making big differences in how happy kids make parents.

8 writes:

If the argument is about time and resources for yourself, it's always selfish to have fewer children under most scenarios.

Are we sure that large families don't affect men salaries in any way?

Great question. Anecdotally, men will work a job they dislike because it supports the family. Take away the kids and add a working spouse and there's no need to be a high achiever.

mjh writes:

Nicole says:

I think women really underestimate the negatives in having children because of the romanticization of motherhood.

Sure. But do women who already have children overestimate the negatives of having more children? Do they assume that the cost of another child is roughly equal to the cost of their current number of children?

I think that's the question BC is asking.

Beth writes:

I'm enjoying this discussion very much although I keep coming late to the debate.

I just wonder if it is possible to put happiness down to whether you have kids or not; or whether you have more kids or fewer kids.

Surely happiness - and satisfaction is down to other factors - such as how well you think you are living your life in alingment with your values? i.e. living a creative life? living with honesty/respect/connection with others?

And you can do that whether you have kids or not; whether you have one child or many??

I find how the debate gets polarized with both childfree and those with kids claiming their way leads to true fulfillment/happiness problematic! Although, I do think that you are approaching this in a much more thoughtful way that that!

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