Bryan Caplan  

The Lorelai Paradox

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Last night my wife and I finished the final episode of the final season of Gilmore Girls.  If you haven't heard of it, it's a dramedy about a free-spirited single mom, Lorelai, and her studious daughter, Rory.  Since they're only sixteen years apart in age, they're more like best friends than mother and daughter. 

If you care about quality writing as much as I do, it's hard not to like this show.  It's full of scenes I wish I'd written myself.  But here's my all-time favorite - a scene I'm determined to work into Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. 

Background: Lorelai is invited to career day at the local high school to talk about her job as the manager of an inn.  Yet the conversation quickly turns to the topic of single motherhood:

LORELAI: ...[A]s some of you know, I
run the Independence Inn. Sounds simple, running an inn. Well, the
sentence is simple, the job is not. Like most jobs, mine involves many
other people, people it is my job to hire, to train, and to inspire
because when you have good employees it makes you look good. Oh,
questions already - are questions okay?

DEBBIE [the teacher]: They're encouraged.


GIRL 1: You're Rory Gilmore's mom, aren't you?

LORELAI: Yes I am, and proud of it.

GIRL 1: Oh.

LORELAI: Oh, is that it?
Well, I hope all your questions are that easy. Okay, now, why is it
necessary to inspire employees? Why can't you just train 'em and let
'em do their jobs? Well. . .yes?

GIRL 2: Didn't you get pregnant when you were sixteen?

LORELAI: Um, sixteen. . .it
was around that age. Sixteen, that sounds right. Okay. Different people
working for you will have different needs. . .yeah?

BOY: Well, what about school?

LORELAI: School? I'm sorry.

BOY: Did you drop out when you got pregnant with Rory?

LORELAI: No, technically, I
didn't drop out. I, uh, I kept going as long as I could while I got
pregnant, which I would recommend to any girl. Not the getting pregnant
part, obviously. Um, although, uh, if that happens, um, you know. . .
it shouldn't. I mean, it could but you should try to avoid it. . . um,
anyway, uh, I got my GED, yeah.

DEBBIE: Lorelai, why don't we move this along?

LORELAI: Yes, oh, moving it along, moving it along. Okay, okay, okay. Boy, I should've been more organized here.

GIRL 1: Well, are you sorry you got pregnant?

LORELAI: No, it brought me
Rory, but timing is everything. I mean, I could've. . .sixteen, you
guys are sixteen, right . . .and hey, is that clock right?

GIRL 3: What do you mean by timing?

GIRL 1: Yeah, if you had waited and had a baby with another man at a different time. . .

GIRL 4: It wouldn't have been Rory, right?

LORELAI: Hey, you know what's fun to talk about? Late checkout.

GIRL 2: But it was good you got pregnant when you did because you got Rory.

[From with caution: a reader reported a virus script from viewing the page.]

This scene captures a lot of Lorelai's ambivalence about being a single mom.  On the one hand, it gave her the daughter she adores.  On the other hand, she feels like she made a big mistake.  I suspect that the author of the scene wants us to feel her ambivalence, not resolve it.

But that's a cop-out.  The students' questions aren't naive; they're right on target.  Lorelai loves Rory above all things.  If Lorelai had waited to get pregnant, Rory wouldn't exist.  There simply was no better route to Lorelai's preferred destination, because the only way to drastically rewrite her own life history would be to erase the existence of her favorite person in the world.

On the surface, this is just a scene about psychology.  Lorelai, like most women in her situation, has deep feelings of ambivalence about her youthful choices.  But if you take the students' arguments seriously, the scene is profoundly philosophical.  Its lesson: Despite any feelings of ambivalence, Lorelai and her real-world analogues have nothing to regret - and no need to make apologies to the world.

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The author at in a related article titled Family Economics of Gilmore Girls writes:
    Bryan Caplan, one of my favorite living economists—seriously, folks, and not just because he watched Gilmore Girls and appreciated the “quality writing.” Bryan Caplan is Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and the [Tracked on November 20, 2008 12:30 PM]
COMMENTS (24 to date)
Carl Oberg writes:

Gilmore Girls is one of the best written shows on TV. Couldn't agree more.

mjh writes:

This reminds me of a scene in the movie Family Man with Nick Cage. The movie is basically an inverted version of It's a Wonderful Life. In the newer movie, the main character pursues his career with gusto, and becomes extremely powerful and rich. Until he meets his guardian angel who grants him a "glimpse". He is then transported to what his life would have been had he made one key decision differently. In his glimpse, he has a modest house, two kids, and an adoring wife.

The saddest part of the movie to me is when the glimpse ends. He knows that it's going to end and he's going go back to his actual life. And the relationships that he built with his kids will be forever gone. And it's actually worse than if he'd had kids and they died. Then, he could at least remember them with someone else who knew them. Instead, his kids will be a memory that he alone has because, when he returns, his kids never existed.

It's when I watch this movie that I am able to forget how difficult it is to be a parent of 4 very energetic boys. And I am forced to agree with Bryan's conclusion.

And still, I feel the need to make apologies.

Eric Hanneken writes:

There simply was no better route to Lorelai's preferred destination, because the only way to drastically rewrite her own life history would be to erase the existence of her favorite person in the world.

What about opportunity cost? Because Lorelai had Rory, she didn't have a different child later, one which she probably would have loved just as much as she loves Rory.

On top of that, if Lorelai had waited she might have had a husband to help her raise her child--or not, if that's what she would have preferred. I'm guessing that was not an option with Rory.

burger flipper writes:

I wonder if you'd embrace the endowment effect so strongly if having your kids had consigned you to a career as a manager at Sonic and a failed librarian....

(I may be projecting a little on the last bit.)

By the way, if you good writing is important to you and you like this topic, prose does not get better than that of Thomas Berger and he plays with the subject in Changing the Past.

Troy Camplin writes:

Are you proposing that this scene is profoundly Nietzschean? It is, of course. People have a hard time with such things, because they do not regret it, but wish to nonetheless pass on the wisdom they gained from it, the lessons they learned, which unfortunately can make it sound like they have regrets.

I talk about this here:

It's too long to post here.

Steve Sailer writes:

It's reminiscent of Obama's pained meditations in "Dreams from My Father" about what a fool his mother, a Kumbaya-era leftist, was to let some polygamous guy from Africa who already had a wife back home impregnate her at age 17, and how much he admires his African grandfather for opposing his parents' interracial marriage, and interracial marriage in general.

But, then, where would Obama be?

That's one of those conundrums that are more hopeless than serious, but Obama can't help being serious about himself.

Passerby writes:

This seems to conflict with your reasoning about the American revolution and Lawrence of Arabia:

Henrico Otto writes:

Parfit has a discussion of this issue on the societal level, i.e., if our ancestors had done anything differently a whole other set of people would now exist, so can we say we have been net hurt net by any of their decisions. By extension, can our descendents complain about our carbon emissions etc etc etc. Not surprisingly Parfit rejects that conclusion.

When we look at our personal lives, however, we see ourselves both subjectively and objectively. If you've read the Little Prince, we think BOTH "This is my rose" and "This rose is just like all the others in that rose garden." Not an easy question how you should weight those views in living your life.

Jacob Miller writes:

Have you thought of teaming up with Steven Landsburg on "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids?" I believe he wrote extensively about that topic in "Fair Play."

In response to Eric's comment above: There are opportunity costs of course, but the situation can't be treated as if someone can only give birth to one child. I believe Bryan is driving at reasons to have more children. The "when" and "at what intervals" questions are different from the "how many" question. Perhaps for Lorelai, one child at 16 is better than none at all.

JH writes:

Agree with Eric.

Lorelai doesn't regret it because she now knows Rory. However, she also wouldn't regret it if Rory was never born because she wouldn't even know Rory. She'd then know Apple or Scout or Dweezil or Moon Unit and love them just as much as she would have loved Rory.

Things happen in life that we don't initially want. If positives come from them, that doesn't necessarily mean it was the best possible path and outcome.

Zac writes:

First off, the problem with the students in this scene is precisely that they are naive, that they aren't considering alternatives. Sure, if Lorelai would've waited to get pregnant, she wouldn't have Rory. But this is naive because she could have had a different child that she loves even more, or any other alternative situation where she might have been happier.. If she has regret, it is because she can conceptualize how things could have gone better. Sure, once your child is born you probably do not want to give it up, but that doesn't mean you picked the optimal strategy. Taking this whole ridiculousness ad absurdum, you might as well say you should do nothing but have kids because they are a great source of joy. If you had 10 or 20 kids, you might say, I wouldn't give up any of them. Doesn't mean you don't harbor any sort of feeling of regret.

I disagree with Bryan rarely. One of the disagreements is that I don't like the way he grades (bell curve). Another is that Gilmore Girls is a terrible show. And its not just because I have no interest in watching a 40 minute long estrogen fest about inane, workaday topics that are neither profound nor remotely interesting. Nor is it because it doesn't involve space travel like most shows I really like (although these are valid reasons). The real reason Gilmore Girls is terrible is because the writing is atrocious. And its not just due to the jerky, overlapping delivery by the show's mediocre small screen actors. Its because no one on earth talks like the people on this show. They speak in paragraphs, not sentences, and they do it very rapidly. They all have the quick wit of a... television writer.. spending hours writing a script. When you write dialogue you are supposed to make it sound natural, otherwise it turns into what Gilmore Girls is: flat, fast recitals of bad lines about boring topics spoken by pretty girls. Their attractiveness, however, just doesn't redeem the show any more than Seven of Nine redeemed Voyager.

nicole writes:

Zac, I could not agree with you more on all points (except that Voyager is so bad it's good).

Gilmore Girls is terrible, all the dialogue is unnatural, and it is one of the most absurd depictions of Connecticut I have ever seen. People are not that friendly there. And, of course, the only reason Rory has a decent future, goes to private school, and gets to go to a good college is that her grandparents, who were smart enough not to get pregnant at 16, bankroll it all.

Methinks writes:

I loved Gilmore Girls mostly because I loved the scenery of Connecticut (I was stuck in Manhattan and hated it) and because of the dialogue (sorry, Zac).

I agree with JH and Eric. A favourable outcome does not make a bad decision good. It just means that Lorelei beat the odds.

zjojor writes:

I love that show, don't get to see it often, but whenever I get a chance to watch it, I always enjoy it.

floccina writes:

1. My 2 healthy boys are a great excuse to have fun (even at my age -52).
2. It seems unnatural to me to delay having children until one is over 20.

Mark writes:

Aren't you giving adult Lorelai information that sixteen-year-old Lorelai didn't have? You don't say outright that she made a decision, but you say her ambivalence is a cop-out, which seems to add up to the same thing.

Maybe you just mean that she made a bad decision that she shouldn't regret. That is a consistent position, but I don't think that's what you're saying.

If I'm playing poker and I chase an inside straight, get it, and win a big pot, I'm still going to be ambivalent. I made an irrational choice and profited. I won't regret that decision, but I shouldn't use it as a guidepost for future behavior, nor should I recommend others do the same.

At any point in time, we have an almost infinite distribution of paths along which we can walk. Some paths will bring us more happiness than others. Our goal is to try to increase the probability that we will choose a path that maximizes our happiness.

Having a baby at sixteen was probably one of the lower happiness paths for Lorelai, even if Rory herself has brought her great joy. The proper comparison is not necessarily between Rory and no Rory, but between life with Rory and the counterfactual life she would've had. Perhaps, had she waited, she could've afforded two children, each as wonderful as Rory. Or maybe she would've had no kids, but an even more satisfying life with a wonderful man and challenging career.

I also think it's important to keep in mind that sometimes bad decisions have good outcomes, and vice versa. Consider a lottery winner. Sure, you won the lottery, but that doesn't mean it was a good decision to buy the tickets in the first place.

I don't think it's useful to regret what might've been (since you can't change the past), but neither do I see why Lorelai's example is a good reason to have more kids. (Not that I'm against having kids mind you--I just don't see the connection.)

Nad writes:

I never watched GG, but it seems highly interesting. The episode typifies human actions that oft make a few economists tempted to "rationalize" and committed to implicit moralizing. Try to fathom the situation as we may, but there is no way anyone but Lolerai can say whether or not she did or will regret her condition.

jb writes:

I proposed the 'you shouldn't regret your life, because you wouldn't have these great kids' to a friend of mine who was bemoaning her marriage.

Her answer was "No, but I would have different kids that I would love just as much."

This suggests to me that some people are attached to specific kids, while others are comfortable with the idea that they could love any abstract child as much as they love their actual children.

And I agree that I don't think that the dialog demonstrates that having Rory at 16 was a manifestly good thing. If Rory had been autistic, or sickly or even more rebellious, Lorelei might have had a much less happy relationship with her daughter.

giesen writes:

Two things are wrong with your argument. Even if people think it, they won't admit, "My 10 year old is a big disappointment. I would rather have gotten a different one"

- You need to be positive about your kids and not negative.
- You can't change kids like you can change jobs or change cars, so you might as well appreciate what you can't change.

ericf writes:

As Al Pacino noted in Godfather III: children are the ultimate form of wealth. The fact is, without Hitler, most of us would not have been born, in that our parents would have reacted differently, and with 100MM sperm per ejaculate, we would not be alive. So we should all thank Hitler, and really every single important person in history, for our existence.

That merely highlights the contingent nature of our lives (I'm not a Nazi).

I love my 3 kids very much, but realize their existence is highly improbable (what if my flight came a day later, and so we conceived our children at different times: they would be different children!). If they did not exist, I presume I would love their replacements as much--but I really can't fathom thinking that way.

A realist writes:

Bryan, aren't you suffering a little from selection bias or wishful thinking.

The Gilmore Girls presents a sugar coated fable about what life is like for single mothers.

Let me present another fable.

I knew a woman who lasted a little longer than 17 before she got pregnant. She was around 24. Unfortunately for her, the asshole who did the deed skipped out on her and fled 2000 miles away.

After the child was born, she followed him, to no avail, and was left destitute with no income, and a child to look after. Clearly Gretchen's solution did not occur to her. She did what many women in that situation have done; she found a man who would trade sex for upkeep. However, he was not like the nice guys in Gilmore Girls. For one thing, when he was under the influence, he had a problem with the bastard child she already had with her. She endured close to 10 years of abuse before the stress exacerbated her asthma and she died.

After that, the man who fathered her second child (and possibly her third) abused her male children for several more years before intervention by a kind woman from another country caused it to stop.

However, lest you think the man conformed totally to female propaganda about males, he was not all bad. For one thing, he kept a roof over my head until I left to go to college. He was simply a man in a bad situation not all of his own making who did not know how to control his behavior.

Do you really think any woman should enter a crap shoot like that? Will you wax eloquent about the philosophical nuggets that can be read into their stories?

Sometime you can be a wanker.

Finally, let me say that I have an enormous appreciation for Goethe's ability to draw out the truly unfortunate nature of the human condition, and not so much for yours.

Paul Kenworthy writes:

What are missing from the conversation in the TV show are the externalities of being a single mom at 16. As David Friedman wrote decades ago, having children has lots of externalities, and it is extremely difficult, or maybe impossible, to determine whether they are net negative or positive.

Commentator Nicole is really talking about a negative externality when she mentions Lorelai's parents. It is physically impossible for a 16-year old girl to raise a child by herself in the US today. Somebody somewhere was sucking up the enormous costs that Lorelai couldn't cover herself. You can't discuss how happy Lorelai is with her decision without discussing how happy the people are who covered the rubber checks she wrote.

It may be difficult to quantify these costs to society, but there are some hints in the natural world that indicate that allowing unrestricted breeding can have a net negative effect on the population as a whole. For example there are several kinds of animals that use coercion within social groups to inhibit reproduction. In a wolf pack, only the dominant pair reproduce. The alpha male and female prevent other sexually mature members of the pack from breeding. The younger members of the pack have to either wait for the alpha pair to die before they can reproduce, or they have to leave the pack and start their own. That second option is extremely dangerous because a new pack requires hunting territory and strange wolves moving into an existing pack's range will be attacked and killed. This behavior would not exist if it did not have an adaptive advantage for wolves.

My guess is that the common urge in humans to try to prevent their children from reproducing until they are in some measure self-sufficient derives from an adaptive advantage too. If that is true, Lorelai should be regretting her selfishness.

Gil writes:


When I clicked the "here's my all-time favorite" link, my anti-virus program popped up and notified me that a trojan had been downloaded.

Fortunately, I could clean it up.

[Eeek! Thanks, Gil. I tried the link and didn't get the trojan warning, but I had cookies turned off. Anyway, I've modified Bryan's post to make the link non-clickable and added a warning as a precaution.--Econlib Ed.]

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