Bryan Caplan  

My Moment with Gary Becker

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From Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:

In 1992, Gary Becker won the Nobel prize in economics for one big idea: "Economics is everywhere." He saw economics in discrimination; employers hire people they hate if the wage is right. He saw economics in crime; crooks rob banks because that's where the money is. He saw economics in education; students endure years of boring lectures because they're fascinated by higher pay after graduation. Perhaps most important, Becker saw economics in the family. Human beings plan their families on the basis of enlightened self-interest. Parents look at the world, form roughly accurate beliefs about the costs and benefits of kids, and make babies until they foresee that another would be more trouble than he's worth.

I'm a devotee of Gary Becker. Once when I was visiting the faculty club at the University of Chicago, he unexpectedly sat down for lunch. I barely stopped myself from blurting out, "Oh my God, you're Gary Becker!" Still, my idol doesn't always get things right. One pillar of his family economics is the assumption that the fewer kids you have, the better they'll be. Becker matter-of-factly speaks of the "quality/quantity trade-off." A central lesson of behavioral genetics, as we've seen, is that the trade-off is often illusory. Parents who believe otherwise base their family plans on misinformation. Is this merely one admittedly large oversight on Becker's part, or has the ability of enlightened self-interest to explain the family been oversold?


That lunch with Becker was an intellectual highlight of my life.  A draft of Donohue and Levitt's "more abortion, less crime" paper was circulating.  As soon as Becker heard the main idea, his economic genius started running around like a jackrabbit.  My recollection is that he was skeptical, because he expected abortion to change the timing of births rather than their total number.  Whatever Becker said, though, just being in his presence was awesome.  Death sucks, and it's got to stop.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Bostonian writes:

"One pillar of his family economics is the assumption that the fewer kids you have, the better they'll be. Becker matter-of-factly speaks of the "quality/quantity trade-off." A central lesson of behavioral genetics, as we've seen, is that the trade-off is often illusory."

I don't know how much more my children would learn if they commuted to UMass Boston (a low-ranked public university) vs. attending a "name" school, but I know there are prestigious employers who would recruit at the latter and not the former. I'd also rather have my children marry someone from say Boston College than UMass Boston. The list price for Boston College is about $60K/year.

I cannot raise the IQ of my children by spending more money on them, but the process of indirectly certifying that they are high-IQ has become very expensive.

Jon Finegold writes:

Re: Becker's skepticism of Donohue's and Levitt's results. Isn't one of the proposed mechanisms, in the paper, changes in the timing of births? For example, a baby with a 17yr. old mother is more likely to commit a crime, at some point in its life, than a baby with a 24yr. mother.

DougT writes:

I have 6 kids, and I think the quantity/quality folks underestimate the network effects of a larger family. In addition to the relational issues, my kids all have natural allies and advocates when they hit the job market.

Employment is an inefficient market beset with massive informational asymmetries. Having an ally on the inside is always helpful. And while one of their siblings may not be on the inside, it's likely that a sibling will have a colleague or other relationship that can help.

I believe that this is one reason that certain families come dominate specific industries. I'm not a Busch or Koch, but I know that my kids will carry their relationships--and their cousins relationships--with them long after I am gone.

But network effects are easy to underestimate when you're a scary-smart Nobel Laureate who can think through a brick wall, and doesn't need the extended family to open doors!

Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

I was surprised, and then gladdened amidst sadness, to see the last sentence. So all obituaries should end.

AS writes:
A central lesson of behavioral genetics, as we've seen, is that the trade-off is often illusory.

This simply can't be true. Resources are scarce. More children means less resources per child. At some point, less resources must reduce quality. You might claim that families routinely overestimate this point, but to claim that no such point exists is folly.

weareastrangemonkey writes:
Becker matter-of-factly speaks of the "quality/quantity trade-off." A central lesson of behavioral genetics, as we've seen, is that the trade-off is often illusory.

Doesn't Sacerdote 2007 demonstrate a quantity/quality trade off? Albeit smaller than we might expect.

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