James Schneider  

What Janet Yellen and Rick Santorum Have in Common

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Bryan has discussed the puzzling lack of social conservatives in economics. Economists use an agreed-upon framework that would seem to offer social conservatives a "safe harbor" to express their ideas, as long as they express them within the accepted framework. A related issue is whether or not economics is in some sense poorer for its lack of social conservatives. Are there important ideas that are not being discovered because they are appealing only to social conservatives?

My favorite case study on this issue involves something that Janet Yellen and Rick Santorum have in common: they both think that contraception led to more out-of-wedlock births. I know Rick Santorum's views second-hand from hostile critics. Janet Yellen's views can be found in a co-written 1996 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. This paper argues that prior to the availability of abortion and contraception, women would be very careful to extract a promise of marriage in case of pregnancy before they would have sex. Women willing to take advantage of these new technologies didn't need to extract this promise; they enjoyed an important advantage in the sexual mating market. As more women provided sex without a promise of contingent marriage, women who demanded this promise looked less reasonable. Demanding marriage contingent on pregnancy became such a poor bargaining position that many women abandoned it, even women with scruples against contraception and abortion -- with predictable consequences.

These technologies reduced, in another way, men's willingness to marry. Abortion and contraception made birth a choice of the woman. This fact is now part of the modern social covenant. Convincing men to take responsibility for someone else's choice is complicated.

It isn't too surprising that the above story would appeal to social conservatives like Rick Santorum. However, it would be a great mistake to assume that Janet Yellen's views are anything like his. Given the prominence of her finding, Yellen co-wrote a non-technical description of the QJE paper in a Brookings policy brief. It makes fascinating reading because of what Yellen sees as the policy implications of her paper. Yellen concludes that:

1) Welfare is very important for relieving poverty.
2) Access to abortion and contraception is highly desirable. Denying access to them probably wouldn't turn back the clock on social norms.
3) Better family planning education and birth control advice are promising policies. Forcing fathers to pay child support should be considered.

At least to me, her policy recommendations sound more like a general description of liberal social policy than implications that naturally flow from the fact that abortion and contraception caused out-of-wedlock births. In fact, some of her policy conclusions seem like an unnatural fit with the story of the paper. For example, if abortion and contraception became unavailable, why wouldn't women go back to demanding a promise of marriage contingent on pregnancy? Why wouldn't the man feel obligated to marry if pregnant women no longer had a choice but to give birth? In particular, the paper seems ill-suited to explain why men should be forced to financially support unwed mothers. The paper's plausibility stems from the fact that (a) there is a pre-sex bargaining stage, and the man did not promise such support and (b) the woman could have chosen to avoid the financial need for this support. This might be the best possible argument for why a man shouldn't be forced to financially support the mother.

I doubt that Yellen actually thought her research would bring any new people into the social-progressive fold. It is risky to speculate about people one doesn't know, but this is how I imagine the chain of events.
(i) Janet Yellen's research helps explain the proximate cause of high out-of-wedlock birth rates.
(ii) She publishes her results regardless of which ideological partisans might find it appealing; this is what good social scientists do.
(iii) The publication of the QJE piece gives her a perfect platform to express her social policy views. These policy views happen to be socially liberal. If a social conservative had performed the original research, the facts would have been the same but the policy implications would have been very different.

I think academic economics comes off pretty good here. If there is a valid empirical claim that would appeal to social conservatives, there will likely be an economist (and frequently a liberal one) to provide the data.

P.S. Yellen had two co-authors, one of which was George Akerloff, her Nobel Prize winning husband. In this post, I highlight Yellen, since her name is obviously more topical. How many Nobel Prize winners get slighted in favor of their spouses? The world keeps getting more interesting.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Eric Falkenstein writes:
I think academic economics comes off pretty good here.
I think it comes off as a mere rationale for prejudices, not a science that forces one to accept truths whether you like them or not. Her results can support either side of a big debate, so really useful insights will come from somewhere else.

Further, there's no instrument, no experiment, so the omitted variable 'change in welfare rules and payments' is a significant bias. After all, in the bad old days welfare was for widows, not women who chose to get pregnant without a husband.

Enial Cattesi writes:

We have:

1) Welfare is very important for relieving poverty.
2) Access to abortion and contraception is highly desirable. Denying access to them probably wouldn't turn back the clock on social norms.
3) Better family planning education and birth control advice are promising policies. Forcing fathers to pay child support should be considered.

... and:
I think academic economics comes off pretty good here. If there is a valid empirical claim that would appeal to social conservatives, there will likely be an economist (and frequently a liberal one) to provide the data.

Should I conclude that socialists (I cannot use the American term "liberals") and conservatives are the two sides of the same coin?

Andrew_FL writes:

At the risk of getting into trouble over something like this yet again:

I don't really regard "opposition to contraception" as a social conservative position. Like, I don't think most social conservatives would propose banning it, even if they may have religious objections to it.

No, what really divides a social conservative from a social liberal is the simple question whether or not an abortion is a murder.

And if you don't believe it is, you are probably okay with it, but if do believe it is, then there is no more reason to consider this an economic question of "externalities" or "societal consequences" than there is murder itself-no one proposes economic arguments why murder-unambiguous, murder mind you-should actually be legal. At least, no one who really deserves to be taken seriously.

So it's a simple question of right or wrong.

Now economic arguments do come into play when asking the question, how much effort do you devote to enforcement of a law that says you can't just kill people. That's absolutely true. But it's not a case analogous to (say) drugs, where the argument comes down to whether it should be illegal at all (for the record, I don't regard it as a "social conservative" position to insist it should be illegal).

I sometimes wonder whether anyone here has ever met a social conservative, or if the extent of their exposure comes from popular media portrayals.

Enial Cattesi writes:

@Andrew_FL:
So Rick Santorum and the late Robert Bork, as examples, are popular media portrayals and not real people?

John Thacker writes:
I don't really regard "opposition to contraception" as a social conservative position.

Indeed, The partisan difference on the issue is negligible, one of the smallest on any moral issue. Of course that's different from the issue of "forcing people who do disagree to pay for it."

Speaking of different policy conclusions, I have seen a number of people on the Left offer similar qualified praise for Charles Murray's Coming Apart, saying that it does a good job laying out the facts until he gets to the end chapters with policy recommendations, with which they strongly disagree.

James Schneider writes:

@Andrew_FL I'm not suggesting that social conservatives want to ban contraception. However, let's say that a social conservative discovered that contraception and abortion caused a big increase in out-of-wedlock births. If they had a few pages to discuss their policy views, would they stress that it isn't possible to push social norms back to marriage by getting rid of contraception? Even if they thought this was true, they probably wouldn't mention the fact. Instead, they would lament the breakdown of the family. And they would stress that contraception isn't as harmless as progressives believe.

Andrew_FL writes:

@James Schneider-I think that's fair. And I don't think there is anything wrong with "lamenting" things. But if there is no policy that emerges from it...where's the problem or dispute?

I mean with libertarians, though, not liberals. With liberals it would be a dispute over state provided contraception. And I don't think libertarians would disagree with social conservatives that the state should not provide contraception.

@Enial Cattesi-Nice representative sample. Have you thought about doing a statistical analysis of your n=2 there?

Enial Cattesi writes:

@Andrew_FL:
You said:

I sometimes wonder whether anyone here has ever met a social conservative, or if the extent of their exposure comes from popular media portrayals.

So I concluded that those two guys are not real.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Enial Cattesi-I take it you've personally met them, then?

Matt_S writes:

@Enial Cattesi, Andrew_FL

Santorum and Bork both disagree with the Griswold v. Connecticut decision. I would be surprised if Bork ever explicitly called for a ban on contraception (as opposed to believing a state ban on it would be constitutional). Santorum has gone on the record explicitly denying that he would ban contraception.

“I was asked if I believed in it, and I said, ‘No, I’m a Catholic, and I don’t.’ I don’t want the government to fund it through Planned Parenthood, but that’s different than wanting to ban it; the idea I’m coming after your birth control is absurd. I was making a statement about my moral beliefs, but I won’t impose them on anyone else in this case. I don’t think the government should be involved in that. People are free to make their own decisions.’" -- Rick Santorum, WaPo article by Melinda Henneberger

Anyway, Andrew's point that most social conservatives with religious objections take a "morally opposed, legally permissive" view on contraception but a much stronger stance on abortion is, I think, basically accurate.

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