Are Children Public Goods?

by Kimberly on March 30, 2005

Critics often assert that parental leave, public child care, and other family support programs force society to pay for people’s private choices. If parents do not want to bear this burden, they should not have children in the first place, rather than foisting the costs onto everyone else. Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, counters these claims by arguing that children are like public goods. While parents bear most of the costs of raising children, to the extent that children grow into productive, tax-paying citizens, they create positive externalities that benefit the rest of society. People who contribute little time or money to the raising of children essentially free-ride on the parental labor of others. As she wrote in the American Prospect a few years ago:

“[Children] grow up to be taxpayers, workers, and citizens. The claims we collectively enforce on their income will help finance our national debt and fund Social Security and Medicare. Even if all the intergenerational transfers in our tax system were eliminated, leaving all us baby boomers to rely on our own bank accounts in old age, we would need to hire the younger generation to debug our computers and help us into our wheelchairs.”

To those who say having children is a private choice, much like deciding to get a pet, I’ve heard Folbre trenchantly respond, “Yes, but will your golden retriever pay for your Social Security?”

{ 106 comments }

1

Tim 03.30.05 at 4:41 pm

If children are like public goods (meanining that they are non-rivalrous and non-excludable), I want my neighbour’s kids to start mowing my lawn, already.

2

Maynard Handley 03.30.05 at 4:48 pm

Of course, going down this path opens a whole series of issues that do parents really want opened?
Specifically doesn’t the public have the right to ensure that public goods are produced as efficiently as possible? Doesn’t it have the right to oversee the project?

If the goal here is to create a specific public good, well, there’s plenty of research in place, and plenty more could be done as necessary, that tells us who (on average) raises productive future members of society and who raises people who will be drains on society. Let’s do this right — subsidize the appropriate kinds of parents and not the others.

If the idea horrifies you, surely that’s an indication that perhaps this talk of public externalities is not the appropriate way to structure the discussion?

3

Vache Folle 03.30.05 at 4:54 pm

This is another example of the kind of legitimizing discourse employed by child raisers to rationalize compelling the rest of us to subsidize their child raising hobby. Children are, from a purely monetary standpoint, a losing proposition (thanks to those child labor laws), and their primary value is the intangible amusement value that they bring to their parents. This inures entirely to the benefit of the parents and not to the “public”. Accordingly, parents should bear the financial burden of their own entertainment choices.

4

Mike S 03.30.05 at 4:58 pm

If the idea horrifies you, surely that’s an indication that perhaps this talk of public externalities is not the appropriate way to structure the discussion?

So what would be a good way to structure the discussion? No parent wants their productivity to be examined exactly as no criminal wants their crime to be examined, but perhaps one day ‘society’, begging Margaret Thatcher’s pardon, will accept that social altruism should not play favourites.

5

nikolai 03.30.05 at 4:59 pm

This is a bonkers arguement. If public money should be used to pay people for things they’d go and do anyway, why stop (or start!) with children.

We are seeing a tranch of feminists abandon the idea of equal pay for equal work. Men used to be paid more than women on the basis that they had a wife and a family to support. This was wrong, and few people would support it today. However, there are people who think those with children should (in effect) be paid more than those without children for doing less work.

6

SamChevre 03.30.05 at 5:11 pm

I’ve been enjoying your thought-provoking posts and look forward to the rest of the series.

It’s important to remember in the whole family/work policy question that there are two different fairness and efficiency questions. The first, which you are addressing, is fairness between those with children and those without. The second, though, is at least as important (politically and I will argue socially); that is fairness between those (two-parent) families with one income and those with two. Families with one income-earner and one stay-home parent seem (in my observation) to have more children. Many policies to make it easier for both parents to work make it harder to support a family on one income; to the extent that they discourage the choice to stay home and raise children, they may reduce, rather than increase, the overall number of children.

It certainly doesn’t explain the whole discrepancy, but I suspect this is one reason for the higher birthrate in America than in Europe. Our family leave policies and social policies in general are less supportive of working parents, so there are more one-income families, for whom the marginal cost of another child is lower.

7

Kieran Healy 03.30.05 at 5:13 pm

there are people who think those with children should (in effect) be paid more than those without children for doing less work.

Doing less work, or just less paid work? If the latter, then that’s just begging the question.

8

paris 03.30.05 at 5:18 pm

Nikolai: I don’t see what special claim feminism has to this issue, last time I checked men are eligible for social services and get old too. (Did you mean branch or trench?)

More generally: The problem with thinking about children as public goods is that they aren’t. I am most likely to debug my dad’s computer and help my aunt into a wheelchair. And I’m probably doing it without a direct financial reimbursement (if I’m lucky the geezers have money left over when they die and then I can fight over it with the rest of the survivors).

9

Nicholas Weininger 03.30.05 at 5:27 pm

The operative word in Folbre’s last sentence, one which undermines her whole argument, is “hire”. The children of the future will, indeed, perform many valuable services for those of us who live today; but they’ll be *compensated* for those services and it will thus be in their direct self-interest to provide them. Moreover, their services will be both rivalrous and excludable, so the economic term “public good” cannot rightly be applied to cover them.

Note, also, the illiberality of the argument, in that it conceives of future citizens not as ends in themselves but as means for fulfilling social ends that present citizens have decided upon. Gotta raise up good strong kids to harness to the huge, heavy wagon of the Welfare State…

This is probably also a good place to cite David Friedman’s article “The Weak Case for Public Schooling”:

http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Libertarian/Public%20Schools/Public_Schools1.html

He deals with the positive externality arguments right at the beginning, and his responses are applicable not just to schooling but to subsidies for “human capital development” in general.

10

Bill Gardner 03.30.05 at 5:30 pm

“Of course, going down this path opens a whole series of issues that do parents really want opened?
Specifically doesn’t the public have the right to… oversee the project?”

Perhaps we do oversee it already. I am thinking about child neglect laws.

11

Jake McGuire 03.30.05 at 5:54 pm

Furthermore, if you’re considering adult members of society as a public good, why aren’t new immigrants substitutable for native children while requiring none of the subsidy?

12

Urinated State of America 03.30.05 at 6:01 pm

“The children of the future will, indeed, perform many valuable services for those of us who live today; but they’ll be compensated for those services and it will thus be in their direct self-interest to provide them. “

But, in the absence of the return of the workhouses, those children won’t have had to cough up the cost of the social reproduction of labor (what a great phrase, wonder who thought of it), which was borne by their parents. So you are benefitting from an externality.

Gotta go, time to hook up my crawling 14-month old to a hamster-wheel type generator. Little bugger better earn his pablum.

13

Keith M Ellis 03.30.05 at 6:42 pm

Oh, boy. Are there going to be many flames from the childfree in response to this. Those folks are strident and aggrieved.

14

Keith M Ellis 03.30.05 at 6:51 pm

“If the idea horrifies you, surely that’s an indication that perhaps this talk of public externalities is not the appropriate way to structure the discussion?”

It doesn’t horrify me. It’s never been clear to me why parents are assumed to correctly have sovereignty over their children. Whether or not children are a public good, they are human beings with rights that we cannot be sure sovereign parents are respecting.

15

chuchundra 03.30.05 at 7:26 pm

In fact, parents do not have complete sovereignty over their children.

Among other things, the state mandates that children must receive a state-approved education. It strictly regulates the type and hours of employment they may engage in. The are numerous rules and restrictions that apply to children that do not apply to adults.

The state plays a fairly significant role in the production of its future workforce.

16

Kieran Healy 03.30.05 at 7:34 pm

The children of the future will, indeed, perform many valuable services for those of us who live today; but they’ll be compensated for those services and it will thus be in their direct self-interest to provide them.

Yeah, that’s why even now my 15-month-old is making sensible human capital investment choices on the basis of the pattern of future demand she anticipates in the labor market of 2027. Apparently, stacking blocks will be a highly remunerated activity, as will banging saucepans with spoons.

17

dipnut 03.30.05 at 7:35 pm

It’s never been clear to me why parents are assumed to correctly have sovereignty over their children.

Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s because parents love their children?

[children] are human beings with rights that we cannot be sure sovereign parents are respecting.

You have a point there. Just to be on the safe side, why not take all children from their parents at birth, and raise them under the care of committees of feminist scholars? Then, at least, we could be sure what’s going on.

18

dipnut 03.30.05 at 7:46 pm

The state plays a fairly significant role in the production of its future workforce.

Yes, and this role can be construed as exactly the kind of subsidy for public goods Folbre is arguing for. Besides public education, there are:

1. Child Protective Services
2. Tax deductions/exemptions
3. Welfare

I would guess that those children whose
upbringings are most heavily subsidized by society, are the ones who end up having the lowest quality of life, and the lowest value as a “public good”.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. We could just forbid parents having anything whatsoever to do with their children. It would do away with a lot of inequity.

19

Andrew McManama-Smith 03.30.05 at 8:00 pm

[W]e would need to hire the younger generation to debug our computers and help us into our wheelchairs.
Are immigrants public goods too? How about future generations of immigrants?
People who contribute little time or money to the raising of children essentially free-ride on the parental labor of others.
So are Americans free-loading off of Mexico’s parental labour? Is that what foreign aid is for?

20

John Emerson 03.30.05 at 8:18 pm

The looniness of this comment thread, with honorable exceptions, passeth all understanding.

Let me reiterate my long-standing belief that child-raising is economically irrational. In our society, no rational person would ever raise children except for non-economic reasons.

To an economist this means that children are just a form of luxury consumption. And they will express their regret that, alas, many consume beyond their means.

To the extent that children are, in some kind of long-term, common-interest kind of way, actually necessary for the continuation of society, society is dependent on the economic irrationality of parents for its survival. (Whoops! I forgot — M. Thatcher has explained that there is no society. Just individuals).

In which case, economically rational childfree people are free riders and parasites.

There used to be an idea of the “dual economy”, partly governed by Polanyi-esque gift-exchange rules, and partly governed by economic rationality. This analysis is passe, AFAIK, partly because dual economies tended simply to be transitional forms toward purey rational economies (once the gift-exchange part has been destroyed).

However, unless every valuable and necessary activity is fully paid for on market principles, every economy is a dual economy. Childraising is the dual-economy aspect of our society. (This is a feminist question, since women do the bulk of the uncompensated work, but fathers also lose money by being fathers. Kids are money-losers for both parents.)

Gary Becker at Chicago, IIRC, wrote a ludicrous attempt to describe the family as a system of rational exchages between the mother, the father, and the child (whose contracts are, of course, pretty much all implied contracts as long as he’s part of the family).

Even nice economists like to tell us why it is important that the rest of us learn to Think Like An Economist. None of them seem aware that it is equally important for economists to learn to NOT think like economists.

But unless economics is already a complete and adequate description of human society, that’s what economists have to learn how to do.

21

LogicGuru 03.30.05 at 8:59 pm

I wonder if it’s a uniquely American idea, or at least an idea unique to the American intelligencia, that having children is anti-social. Most of my colleagues aren’t married and of the 15 of us only 4 have children. When one of my colleagues got married he announced self-righteously to the assembled company that he’d celebrated the occasion by having a vasectomy.

When I was pregnant with my third child I was roundly condemned. One kid was understandable–people wanted pets. Two was forgivable–we all make mistakes. But three kids, procreating beyond replacement level, was selfish and sinful. As far as I can see the received wisdom is that the best we can do is die out as a species in order to save the earth.

Most apartment complexes in my area don’t rent to families with kids–including those near my university that happily rent to far more destructive students. As far as I can see this isn’t a pragmatic decision motivated by an interest in keeping the carpets and draperies intact so much as a value judgment about the sort of people who are suitable for residence in 2 br 2 ba apartments in complexes with swimming pools.

I’m thoroughly sick of the self-righteousness, and plain snobbery, of the “child-free.”

22

Steve LaBonne 03.30.05 at 9:22 pm

_Most apartment complexes in my area don’t rent to families with kids_
I thought that was illegal?

23

Nicholas Weininger 03.30.05 at 9:33 pm

Kieran: so I suppose you’re going to completely abdicate the role of human-capital-developer vis-a-vis your kid, since in our cruel world you won’t receive any financial compensation for it, but only the intangible pleasure of seeing your child become a success?

This brings up yet another flaw in the argument, actually. Suppose the childless really are free-riders; so what? Free-riding is bad only if it actually causes considerable underproduction of the goods free-ridden upon. But biological desire for children, and love for the children one has, militate strongly against any underproduction of successful children that might be caused by the free-riding. It is not likely that the supply of parental love and care is a very elastic function of the amount of state subsidy.

24

vivian 03.30.05 at 9:56 pm

It is not likely that the supply of parental love and care is a very elastic function of the amount of state subsidy.

You may be right about love, but wrong about care.

If I can barely afford childcare, or food, have to work and commute long hours for the privilege, and spend lots of time worrying about what will happen if a family member gets sick and I lose my job, then I will have a good deal less time and attention to devote to raising those very children whom I love. In the past, such dilemmas forced single parents to send their children to orphanages or extremely harsh foster homes, on the theory that at least then the children are fed and supervised. Harsh living conditions and daily dilemmas like this drive even well-meaning parents to neglect, depression, illness and other social horrors.

American society diagnoses such ills as “parental misconduct” and will eventually step in to punish it, occasionally averting worse tragedies. It is at least as rational to accept social responsibility earlier in the process, by ensuring adequate childcare including vacation time, family leave policies, and the like. If parents are efficient providers of their children’s needs when able then ensuring they have the basic resources to do so is simply good economics – especially if we factor in the costs imposed on society by neglected or impoverished children (crime, antisocial behavior, more illness).

Of course, all the childless and financially-secure-parents need to do is pretend that other people’s problems don’t really exist – surely there is childcare available somewhere for the right price, such parents must be lazy or something not to be able to find it. A simple redefinition of terms means it must not really be your problem, at which point, there is no need to worry about whether it is economically efficient.

Clever, hunh.

25

John Emerson 03.30.05 at 9:58 pm

Yes, Nicholas, parents will stupidly continue to have children, in the false belief that their gifts will in some way be appreciated, and society will survive.

Or not.

26

mcm 03.30.05 at 10:29 pm

“But biological desire for children, and love for the children one has, militate strongly against any underproduction of successful children that might be caused by the free-riding.”

I suspect your optimism about biological desire is unwarranted. Until recently, demographic predictions and projections were based on the (false) assumption that there was a “natural” level (2.1 children per woman of childbearing age) below which birthrates would not fall. They now know differently in Europe and Japan, where below-replacement birthrates are a real concern. Lots of long-living elderly minus the young people to support those elderly in their retirement adds up to an unsustainable situation.

27

John Emerson 03.30.05 at 10:37 pm

In case I didn’t lay it on thick enough, what I think we’re dealing with is an incompletely-analyzed system, where the motives for child-raising have been put in a black box labelled “There Be Monsters.” I don’t think that that’s the only black box, but it’s the main one.

And personally, I suspect that inside that black box there are also Contradictions.

28

Eric 03.30.05 at 10:48 pm

I think this comes down to a pay me now or pay me later senario. Would you rather pay for more stable families in the long haul or pay for more welfare ( for the divorced families ), more police ( for the unruly teenagers/adults of broken homes ), more court costs ( more abuse/neglect ), more low wage earning adults ( less likley to get a professional degree ), more prison costs ( at 40-70k/year/prisoner is the policy only helps 1 out of 20 it’s probably still a steal ) OR pay to make sure that children are raised with an appropriate education and stable families.

Will people have children anyways? yes.

Is it rational not to have children? I would say it’s economicly rational, but I don’t live my life by what’s economicly rational. I think like most of us here I would like to believe we am more than the money we earn and save.

For the most part this discussion appears to be drifting to the extremes when what we really need is a detailed accounting of how much it will cost both socially and economically to implement the policy and then see if that stikes a proper balance of serving the long term good without the government overreaching it’s bounds.

29

John Emerson 03.30.05 at 10:56 pm

Then perhaps an analysis of society should go beyond the economic. What are the non-economic motives for having children?

And who are you to say what we really need? One of the nice things about th blogosphere, for me if not for everyone, is that pronouncements about what the question really is can be ignored.

30

Nicholas Weininger 03.30.05 at 10:58 pm

mcm: yes, but we hardly have a shortage of children *worldwide*, nor are we going to have one anytime soon. Keep those immigrants coming, I say, and raise retirement ages while you’re at it– the longer those elderly people live, the longer they should be working to support themselves, especially as the economy shifts more and more toward less physically-demanding jobs.

Also, if we do end up with a real shortage in numbers of children, the experience of Japan and Europe suggests that subsidies are not going to be very good at mitigating it; many of those below-replacement birthrate countries have their low birthrates despite extremely generous subsidy policies.

vivian: yes, there is a small percentage of parents who are really economically unable to provide even basic care to their kids. I’d certainly never claim their problems don’t exist. But that at most argues for a safety net for those few– not across-the-board subsidies for everyone.

31

John Emerson 03.30.05 at 11:02 pm

OK, ja, comparative advantage, import kids. Now I understand.

32

mcm 03.30.05 at 11:18 pm

“But that at most argues for a safety net for those few—not across-the-board subsidies for everyone.”

Parents are basically providing an across-the-board subsidy for everyone. They invest massively in the creation of workers/consumers/taxpayers, and they no longer have any claim to a return on that investment (speaking in economic terms). The deal used to be: parents looked after their children while the children were young, then those children looked after their parents in old age.

Now, parents look after their children, and then those children look after, not their own parents, but the generation to which their parents belong. The parents have no more claim on their children’s earnings than does a childfree person who didn’t have to make that massive investment.

Not surprisingly, increasing numbers of people are choosing to opt out of this bad deal, either by having very few children, or no children at all. And immigration is a partial solution at best. Demographers tell us we need a fresh supply of infants to balance out increased longevity at the other end, and most immigrants arrive not as infants but as young/youngish adults. Immigration slows down, but does not halt or reverse, the trend (that trend being, increased longevity and decreased birthrates).

33

bi 03.30.05 at 11:18 pm

I’m reminded of Adam Smith’s assertion that maximizing the profits of one will maximize the profits of all. In this case, it makes economic sense to an _individual_ not to have babies, but does it make economic sense to a _country_ as a whole? The term “economic sense” makes no sense until we distinguish the two.

I personally think subsidies aren’t enough to mitigate the problem, and what’s really needed is a work environment that’s conducive to child care.

34

mcm 03.30.05 at 11:39 pm

“In this case, it makes economic sense to an individual not to have babies, but does it make economic sense to a country as a whole?”

Exactly. As John Emerson points out, from the vantage point of the individual, it’s — in economic terms — utterly irrational to have children. But the workers/consumers/taxpayers that children grow up to be are absolutely essential to the economy. So from the vantage point of society/economy, it’s utterly irrational to not have children.

What amazes me about these discussions is that people continue to talk as though women were lining up for the privilege of bearing children. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now that women have other options, the enormous costs (including the opportunity costs) of motherhood have been exposed. And increasing numbers of women are saying no to a bad deal, by having very few children or no children at all.

One solution, favoured by some conservatives, is to shut down those opportunities for women and force/coerce/cajole women back into childbearing. I find that solution morally objectionable, and in any case, unworkable. Another solution, which I support, is to make parenting/motherhood a better deal by spreading the burden and sharing the costs of a very expensive enterprise, the benefits of which are realized by society as a whole.

35

dipnut 03.31.05 at 12:15 am

Another solution, which I support, is to make parenting/motherhood a better deal by spreading the burden and sharing the costs of a very expensive enterprise, the benefits of which are realized by society as a whole.

And how, exactly, do you propose to formalize that arrangement without grossly vitiating everybody’s basic rights? Mister ChildFree, fork over your money, these people want to have a baby! You over there, The Parents, hands off the Kid! He’s ours now! You, Kid, get ready for a lifetime of spending half your waking hours earning Viagra money for the previous generations!

The wonderful thing about the benefit of society as a whole is, every individual loses whatever is most important to him. Hey, at least it’s fair!

The whole argument is much easier to disentangle if you simply do away with Social Security.

36

Andrew Boucher 03.31.05 at 12:29 am

No no children are not public goods, and parents will regret this kind of talk. If one accepts the transfer of money now on the basis that children are public goods, then in the future, society will have a claim on those children. For instance, future society will think it should be able to have said children be taxed into poverty in order to support all its senior citizens. Or put restrictions on the free travel (emigration) of said children – society raised them, now they can’t go elsewhere because they’re needed here.

So the argument is short-sighted at best and parents – well parents who want the best future for their children, anyway – should resist this kind of talk. It’s a pact with the devil.

37

Keith M Ellis 03.31.05 at 12:32 am

“Another solution, which I support, is to make parenting/motherhood a better deal by spreading the burden and sharing the costs of a very expensive enterprise, the benefits of which are realized by society as a whole.”

Worth repeating. I agree wholeheartedly.

38

John Emerson 03.31.05 at 12:49 am

I don’t think that declaring children to be public goods is really a solution to the problem. It is, however, a way of at least noticing the problem, while continuing to talk economics-talk. That way children are no longer are thought of as simply an expensive luxury.

Dipnut: “And how, exactly, do you propose to formalize that arrangement without grossly vitiating everybody’s basic rights?”

I personally would prefer to formalize the arrangement by parting out your body for transplant purposes in order to pay for my child’s ballet lessons. But most at CT probably would prefer to attain the goal by some combination of taxation and regulation. The effin’ weenies.

Either way, of course, would vitiate your basic rights. I like my way best, because it would be more fun. But — whatever.

39

mcm 03.31.05 at 1:08 am

“The whole argument is much easier to disentangle if you simply do away with Social Security.”

As a liberal, I can’t support the elimination of social security because I don’t want to see old ladies eating cat food. As a parent, though, I’m sometimes tempted by the scheme. Since the costs of childbearing have largely remained private (while increasing enormously, with the elimination of child labour, the increased expectations for higher education, the extension of dependency on parents well into early adulthood and what-not), why not re-privatize the benefits as well? In other words, why not return to a more traditional economy, where parents look after children who then look after parents, and those without children are on their own?

40

ogmb 03.31.05 at 2:10 am

The children of the future will, indeed, perform many valuable services for those of us who live today; but they’ll be compensated for those services and it will thus be in their direct self-interest to provide them.

Actually there is a difference between private returns and social returns, and one of the basic roles of government is to make sure that those actions that create social returns also create private returns.

41

ogmb 03.31.05 at 2:16 am

Let me reiterate my long-standing belief that child-raising is economically irrational. In our society, no rational person would ever raise children except for non-economic reasons.

Self-perpetuation is the simplest, strongest impetus for a lot of behaviors observed in all life forms. There is nothing inherently “non-economic” about self-perpetuating strategies.

42

dsquared 03.31.05 at 2:32 am

Keep those immigrants coming, I say

The word you are looking for is gastarbeiters. “Immigrants” don’t solve any retirement problem unless there is some mechanism for kicking them out and sending them back where they came from when they are about to retire themselves.

43

ogmb 03.31.05 at 2:51 am

If one accepts the transfer of money now on the basis that children are public goods, then in the future, society will have a claim on those children. For instance, future society will think it should be able to have said children be taxed into poverty in order to support all its senior citizens.

1. Taxation already happens. 2. Taxation into poverty would only work if the working population is outnumbered by the retired population or the senior citizens grab power in some other way.

44

ogmb 03.31.05 at 2:55 am

“Immigrants” don’t solve any retirement problem

But if on the balance the working population supports both the junior and senior citizenry, immigration solves one part of the problem, namely that we feed off the childbearing & education efforts of other countries.

45

DeadHorseBeater 03.31.05 at 2:56 am

Clearly, we should move to a system where women are paid a cash award for producing children, representing the EPDV of the externalities.

The raising of the children can then be handled by:
private companies, who will then have the right to 20% of the children’s future earnings (libertarian solution)
government owned and run NEA-controlled orphanages (left solution)
religious orphanages supported by taxpayer dollars (right solution)

46

DeadHorseBeater 03.31.05 at 3:02 am

More seriously, from what I’ve read, there is an externality to the production of children. Externality, not public good.

Public Goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable. I’m sure parents would agree children are definately rivalrous and at least semi-excludable. Except for that unfortunate “What’s Daddy doing to Mommy?!?! Why is she moaning?!?” moment.

47

dsquared 03.31.05 at 4:11 am

Public Goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable. I’m sure parents would agree children are definately rivalrous and at least semi-excludable

As far as I can tell, the “public good” argument, in rigorous form would be that the putative public good is “the ability to make plans based on the assumption that there will continue to be an economy in the future”, and children are an essential input to the production of that good.

As far as I can tell, the good so defined is definitely completely non-excludable; I can’t make up my mind about whether it is non-rivalrous in the strictest possible sense, but it is certainly not a rival good in the same way that a deckchair in the park is. So for plausible assumptions about immigration (really guest-work, as I point out above), there is a public good which is produced by parents, and because the good in question is public, there is an external benefit from childbearing which is not captured by parents. I think the rest of the argument goes through, and the best counterargument I can see would be an empirical one as to whether there is any evidence that subsidies in general to childbearing have the desired effect; I suspect the evidence is ambiguous.

I have tried in the past (without much success, to be honest; I didn’t even convince Chris) to push a stronger version of this argument; that there is something like a common law principle at work which means that it is unacceptable to oppose child subsidies in principle if you also have retirement savings other than dried food.

I also have my own solution to the retirement problem, again with few takers

48

Rob 03.31.05 at 4:53 am

The point isn’t whether children are or are not public goods, although clearly some birth rate above replacement level is a public good, unless we want to be working until we die, but rather whether the costs imposed on parents and children under the current system are reasonable. Is it reasonable to demand that parents sacrifice time with their children in order to avoid substanial income loss? Not if that income loss would result in substanial material deprivation. Again, is it reasonable to demand that parents sacrifice time with their children in order to avoid serious disruption to their careers? No. Obviously, the costs of avoiding imposing these costs on parents and their children also need to considered: it would be unacceptable to strip one set of individuals of the means to a decent life in order to grant others those means, but that’s not a matter of bright lines, but of careful consideration of the costs involved. All this ‘it’s a choice to have children, and so parents should bear all the costs’ moaning is committing the basic libertarian fallacy of assuming that any cost that you had the opportunity to avoid is a reasonable one to impose. To return to an example I have used before on CT threads, if there was a law attaching the death penalty to adultery, we still wouldn’t think it was reasonable to kill adulterers. We have the ability to restructure social and economic institutions, within certain limits, to distribute costs differently, and so pointing to the fact that the institutions we currently have distribute costs and benefits in a certain way does nothing to justify them, because we could make them otherwise.

49

ogmb 03.31.05 at 5:11 am

The looniness of this comment thread, with honorable exceptions, passeth all understanding.

Clearly.

Let me reiterate my long-standing belief that child-raising is economically irrational. In our society, no rational person would ever raise children except for non-economic reasons.

I posted this earlier, self-replication as a form of self-perpetuation is a very obvious objective that can easily be incorporated into economic analysis. There’s also nothing uneconomic about chidren as luxury goods or even status objects.

To an economist this means that children are just a form of luxury consumption. And they will express their regret that, alas, many consume beyond their means.

Crap. You just need to go back a couple of decades or go to different parts of the world to see that childbearing, for the most part of human history, has had an overriding investment aspect. The comment above about the toddler in the hamster wheel would be funnier if it didn’t come awfully close to how children have been treated throughout history.

To the extent that children are, in some kind of long-term, common-interest kind of way, actually necessary for the continuation of society, society is dependent on the economic irrationality of parents for its survival.

Also sprach the bourgeois in the land of plenty.

(Whoops! I forgot—M. Thatcher has explained that there is no society. Just individuals).

In which case, economically rational childfree
people are free riders and parasites.

Only if 1. there are no transfers from childless people to parents and 2. transfers from children to everybody.

There used to be an idea of the “dual economy”, partly governed by Polanyi-esque gift-exchange rules, and partly governed by economic rationality. This analysis is passe, AFAIK, partly because dual economies tended simply to be transitional forms toward purey rational economies (once the gift-exchange part has been destroyed).

So what?

However, unless every valuable and necessary activity is fully paid for on market principles, every economy is a dual economy.

No. It is an imperfect economy.

Childraising is the dual-economy aspect of our society. (This is a feminist question, since women do the bulk of the uncompensated work, but fathers also lose money by being fathers. Kids are money-losers for both parents.)

1. Wrong, 2. Even if true, they would be just like any other consumption choice (not implying that children are there for eating).

Gary Becker at Chicago, IIRC, wrote a ludicrous attempt to describe the family as a system of rational exchages between the mother, the father, and the child (whose contracts are, of course, pretty much all implied contracts as long as he’s part of the family).

The alternative explanation for marriage being? Sanctity? Tribal tradition?

Even nice economists like to tell us why it is important that the rest of us learn to Think Like An Economist.

My “why” would be that “naive economists” have no understanding of the fundamental concept of a trade-off.

None

Bullshit.

of them seem aware that it is equally important for economists to learn to NOT think like economists.

Actually I would prefer if economics departments only recruited students who have already learned to think not like an economist.

But unless economics is already a complete and adequate description of human society, that’s what economists have to learn how to do.

More bullshit. There is no obligation to any scientist to fully explain every observed phenomenon from every angle. There is a blatantly obvious economic component to childbearing, both from the macro and the micro perspective. This doesn’t negate the validity of other approaches (e.g. I would think that economists treat the impetus for self-replication as a factum rather than a phenomenon in need of explanation, but I won’t be surprised if someone will prove me wrong on this).

50

Maynard Handley 03.31.05 at 5:49 am

Christ, we are all fucking doomed.

On the same day that the Guardian publishes
…………………..
“Two-thirds of world’s resources ‘used up’

Tim Radford, science editor
Wednesday March 30, 2005
The Guardian

The human race is living beyond its means. A report backed by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries – some of them world leaders in their fields – today warns that the almost two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human pressure.

The study contains what its authors call “a stark warning” for the entire world. The wetlands, forests, savannahs, estuaries, coastal fisheries and other habitats that recycle air, water and nutrients for all living creatures are being irretrievably damaged. In effect, one species is now a hazard to the other 10 million or so on the planet, and to itself.

“Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted,” it says.
…………………………….

we have people in this forum celebrating the fact that they have more than two kids, whining about “free loaders” without children, and extrapolating a trend that has existed for what, maybe twenty years into some far distant future where humanity no longer exists.

Look, you morons, there are currently too many damn people on the earth. The choices are
(a) kill off lots of people
(b) everyone goes back to living like they did in 1700 (which pretty much implies choice (a) as a corollary or
(c) reduce the number of kids drastically and hope that the fall in population happens soon enough.

Yes, choice (c) will lead to all sorts of novel economic problems that will, however they are resolved, probably mean relative (though not absolute) poverty for the aged in twenty or thirty years. So what — until a realistic choice (d) arises, to any sane person choice (c) looks a whole lot better than the alternatives.

And in the face of these well known facts, we have people telling us that those who don’t have children are being *selfish*. Obviously rabid stupidity is not a purely Republican disease.

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dsquared 03.31.05 at 6:06 am

It’s a little bit worse than that, Maynard; c) will lead you to something like b) unless we have some convincing story about not needing to retire any more.

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bi 03.31.05 at 6:21 am

…_we have people telling us that those who don’t have children are being selfish. Obviously rabid stupidity is not a purely Republican disease._

Given your above straw man attack, I guess I have to agree with you.

Has it ever occurred that 99% of the damage done to the world may well be caused by just _1%_ of the world’s population? I agree with Rye, we should kill off those 1% by firing them from catapults to Alpha Centauri.

Or if you think that’s too much trouble, here’s another idea. Now you can go shoot yourself.

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Michael Mouse 03.31.05 at 8:26 am

“Let me reiterate my long-standing belief that child-raising is economically irrational. In our society, no rational person would ever raise children except for non-economic reasons.”

I strongly suspect there’s some muddle-headed thinking about the nature of value here – some fixed innate “true value” of a good independent of what people are prepared to buy and sell it for.

Surely if I decide that having a child is worth the cost then I’m making the decision that that’s what it’s worth to me? What’s irrational about that? Sure, other people might not share my evaluation, but that’s not to say my valuation is wrong. I don’t particularly value the works of Celine Dion, but that doesn’t mean that the millions of people who do buy her music are economically irrational.

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robert the red 03.31.05 at 8:54 am

What is the net present value of a baby’s expected future costs and income? I constructed a spreadsheet model of this, guessing at raising and schooling costs, then guessing at income history. It seems like an average person only goes into the net black at about age 50-55. A below average income person never gets into the black. From a purely societal economic point of view, a large fraction of babies will never grow up to pay for themselves. Mine, of course, will be different.

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Vache Folle 03.31.05 at 9:36 am

You have to take into account the existence value, entertainment value, and other intangible rewards that children bring to parents. These go to the parents only, and it is reasonable to expect them to pay for these rewards in accordance with how much they subjectively value them. Anything that reduces costs, including opportunity costs, or increases the subjective value of children will result in increased fertility as folks on the margins determine that their costs are affordable or that the benefits are sufficiently desirable.

The least expensive inducements to increase fertility (if that is desirable) might come in the form of symbolic gestures such as publicly honoring motherhood/fatherhood or publication of discourse that characterizes parenthood as a virtue. Moreover, child-free individuals might well choose to subsidize the child rearing of others on an individual basis as I do with my siblings and through support of child care and religious education programs at church.

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Nicholas Weininger 03.31.05 at 10:08 am

dsquared: so, the public good is the non-extinction of the species? Well, fine, but again there’s no reason to believe this good is going to be underproduced.

For one thing, as commentators above point out, having more people in the world is not an unalloyed good. For another, the fixed assumption that people are going to continue to spend large fractions of their lives in retirement is questionable. I believe it’s indeed quite likely that, as time goes on, more of us will indeed work more-or-less until we die, and I don’t see this as a great horror. Between advances in medical science and changes in the job market, doing so is going to get less onerous as time goes on.

And, as you note, it’s inherently very difficult to determine whether subsidy policies are going to have desirable effects on net. Changing subsidies will have all kinds of incentive effects on the productivity of future children, some positive and others negative; for instance, if the children of the future face higher marginal tax rates to pay for a more generous welfare state for children and elderly alike, surely that will dampen their productive desires to some degree.

In particular, I reiterate for the empty cradle worriers: the European/Japanese experience seems to show that even very generous child-welfare-state programs are not terribly effective at increasing birthrates.

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McDuff 03.31.05 at 10:10 am

It seems I’ve interpreted this differently to other people here. While I don’t believe that everyone will have children at the same rate regardless of the circumstances, I do believe that people will always reproduce. Moreover, as education and income levels increase more women will choose to reproduce less frequently or not at all (as they rightly should have the right to do) and thus you have an unfortunate tendency of the population to skew towards the lower strata of society, coincidentally they layers which are less able to provide for their children.

It is odd that only eric above made the point that one can interpret the benefit of raising children right as a cost of raising them badly. If those children we have are raised well, we minimise the social costs and maximise the social benefits with, as eric pointed out, a more productive economy, a lower prison population and fewer emotionally crippled people fucking up [i]their[/i] relationships.

Dipnut appears to be under the impression that liberals want to take his or her kids away. Nothing could be further from the truth for me, anyway; I don’t even want any kids of my own, why would I want yours? However, I think it’s necessary to point out that if you were a drunken crack-whore who beat your kids that the state [i]would[/i] take them away, and do a better job than you at raising them but still a crap job. Me, personally, I’d rather the state put money into prevention rather than cure.

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dipnut 03.31.05 at 10:32 am

I personally would prefer to formalize the arrangement by parting out your body for transplant purposes in order to pay for my child’s ballet lessons.

I love you, John.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 10:35 am

“Self-perpetuation is the simplest, strongest impetus for a lot of behaviors observed in all life forms.”

It’s not self-perpetuation. A child is an additional person in the world, distinct from yourself and often enough antagonistic to yourself. Try again.

Animal motives can hardly be used as examples of rationality.

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Cruella 03.31.05 at 10:46 am

Maybe kids and economic goods aren’t really analogous..?!! Clearly some people have a biological or socialised desire to have children. Other people have children by accident. Governments have relatively little power to regulate how many children are born and attempts to do so have historically led to near-disaster.

Some people may want children but never succeed in having any either because they do not find a suitable partner, have fertility problems or due to circumstances. Other people don’t have children through choice.

Kids will happen to some people and not to others, like it or not. We can’t decide how to react to that based on the economic goods value of the children to their parents or to society. We have instead to decide what to do based on humanity.

Clearly every child deserves a chance in life, so it makes sense to give some extra benefits to childrens parents to help them ensure a decent start for their children. If it seems that the parents are not making a good job of marshalling those resources then we should make a decision on taking children away.

Incidentally a lot of people above seem to think that children taken into state care are given a very poor start in life. When I was a kid in the UK I don’t recall that as being the case. Firstly I knew a lot of kids who were adopted or fostered and on the whole they had very happy and balanced home lives. Some of them had been removed from problematic parents in the first place and had residual problems stemming from that but the quality of foster care and adoptive care was very high. I am prepared to accept that its not the same around the world though.

Seems obvious to me though that we shouldn’t be encouraging those who for whatever reasons don’t want to have children. So the benefits we offer have to be carefully targetted to benefit the children rather than being of the form of general incentives and hand-outs to anyone who manages to get pregnant.

Maybe the economic goods model doesn’t fit for human beings. Much the same way as we shouldn’t regard third work factory workers as expendable or try to employ under-10s, etc…

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jet 03.31.05 at 10:47 am

Does society own us, or do we own society. Is there an inherent contractual obligation to provide for your fellow man? To what degree are you required to provide for someone else? Long before we start taking people’s children and forcing people to reproduce, we need to restart the debtors prisons and forced labor camps. Because lets not mince words, we are talking about coercing people to be productive. And talking about children as a commodity is about as bankrupt in values as you can get. But it isn’t like this is new, didn’t some dang brit foresee this type of thinking 60 years ago?

I can see Nancy running in the 2008 campaign now. Vote Democrat. Vote Liberal. Because all your kids are belong to Us.

62

John Emerson 03.31.05 at 10:52 am

OGMB: “The alternative explanation for marriage being? Sanctity? Tribal tradition?” I was suggesting that we look for one, as I think I made clear. Becker’s idea of marriage as a contract between three people, of whom one does not legally exist at all for the purpose of making contracts, strikes me as supremely loony.

My rather tentative suggestion was that this is a dual economy. Your response was something like “So what”, followed by redefining “dual economy” as “imperfect economy”, as if that were a powerful analytic idea.

To the extent that we are trying to analyze childraising, economists need to cover all the bases if they’re going to play, or at least to recognize that they’re missing something. Economists are always very happy to acknowledge the limitations of their science when therte’s something that they want to ignore, but when they’re advising policy-makers or writing ideologically they suddenly forget about these limitations.

Yes, children can indeed be regarded as a prestige item or a luxury consumption item. This sounds rather like a reductio ad absurdum. Since all economic players whatever once were children, it follows that all economic actors are either luxury items or else former luxury items. What is the miraculous process whereby a luxury item gets transformed into an economic actor? Sounds pretty voodooish to me.

All in all, your vigor and orthodoxy do not come accompanied by much cogency. Bullshit right back to ya.

63

Keith M Ellis 03.31.05 at 11:00 am

Lots of strong value judgments in this thread that arise from asserted-as-obvious-yet-unexamined premises. That’s usually a sign that you’re not really going to have a productive conversation about something unless you change the terms of the discussion to something less emotionally provocative, and/or move the discussion a step back to the unexamined premises. Almost everyone participating here knows this very well, but it’s worth pointing out nevertheless.

64

nihil obstet 03.31.05 at 11:07 am

On the looniness of this thread (as john emerson rightly calls it):
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” — John Adams 1735 – 1826.

Economics provides a method of analyzing choices on use of resources, not a justification for accumulation as the chief purpose of human beings. A society that sees all decisions as individuals’ seeking maximum economic utility will trap their children in the trades and never give them the right to study the arts. And yes, you can express that thought as an economics equation, but doing so only sticks the thought right back into a metaphysics of accumulation.

To logicguru and steve (comments 21 and 22 above): The federal Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. 3601-20) outlaws discrimination based on familial status (families with children). logicguru, if your town or county receives any federal funds, it must assist you in filing a discrimination complaint with the appropriate federal agency or with a state equivalent agency.

As mcduff and others point out, it’s not either/or total parental control or children belong to someone else. Childfree, I gladly support public schools, would like to gladly support universal health care and good pre-school, and so on. (Notice I get pretty hot about housing discrimination) I’m even very sympathetic to efforts to shield children from influences that most parents regard as inappropriate. However, since I support the schools, I want some say in how they’re run. And I don’t want “appropriateness for children” to justify censorship. The “public goods vs. private choice” economic discussion doesn’t seem to me a very good way of addressing these issues.

In other words, it’s loony.

65

Eric 03.31.05 at 11:08 am

I would like to comment more on the pay me now or pay me later idea. Some people suggest that we should just have a saftey net for those in most need, but that is the kind of thinking that has brought us to a tipping point because too many have slipped through the cracks and the whole society has to pick up the burden. To keep one person out of 20 from spending a year in prison could be used for $3500/each/year for all of the 20 people for proactive work. That doesn’t even count the additional tax paying citizen out there earning a living or the reduction in costs due to crime.

How hard is it to see that investments in children can be very benificial to all of society in the long run. We only have one chance to raise children right and then we are stuck with the result for 60 years. Under this model it’s easy to see that a few thousand dollars or even tens of thousands of dollars are a steal compared to the long term net negative effects of an unadjusted adult in society. This means that the benifit is for all and it’s not selfish or unreasonable to ask everyone including those without children to bear some of the burden of this cost as an investment in society’s future.

I think people also need to seperate this discussion from the projctions of gloom and doom about the planet. People have claimed the end of the world for centuries or longerr but we always seem to be able to adapt, find new sourcs of essential resources. I think it’s an important discussion and I think its immateral to the discussion at hand.

66

John Emerson 03.31.05 at 11:13 am

If you define every choice that has ever been made as, a priori economically rational because of the fact that someone actually chose to make it, then of course childraising is economically rational. What wouldn’yt be, by that analysis? Putting all your money in lottery tickets would be rational.

Raising children is a big money-loser and it greatly reduces your chances in life. And unlike Celine Dion records, you can’t sell children you’re dissatisfied with. No way to liquidate, even if they become sinkholes of medical bills and legal defense costs.

One of the big aspects of this is the feminist aspect. Since childraising is usually woman’s work, if children are luxury items, a woman who does the work of raising children is on the same footing as a woman who “does the work” of eating gourmet foods and wearing designer gowns and jewelry. If economists don’t see the problem there, screw the economists. (And many old-school men do think that of their useless, parasitical wives, and for that reason treat them badly; it isn’t a subtle economist’s paradox.)

To the extent that men contribute to childraising, either by paying money or directly, the same arguments hold for them.

Environmental questions and questions of population growth are a different, related question. A high-consuming childfree individual should not think of himself as an environmental hero, in any case.

The “partial analysis” economics provides requires heavy supplementation by something else. Kimberly seems to be trying to expand economics to be more useful, as is Amartya Sen, and more power to them.

As things stand now, the purely economic analysis of childraising seems to do more harm than good for someone who is trying to understand what’s actually going on. And I do not see that economists are very attentive to the problems raised by the self-imposed limitations of their science.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 11:20 am

“Lots of strong value judgments in this thread that arise from asserted-as-obvious-yet-unexamined premises.”

Yes. It’s almost always my policy to expand the question rather than narrowing it. This is the contrary of common practice, but intellectually putting things into a broader context is as valid as analyzing them into parts and dealing with the parts. But expanding the context makes things messy, and if you want to have a nice tea-party conversation you always narrow the topic.

Some time ago I realize that, by the way I think, I will almost always be off-topic in discussions of this type. My choices were either to shut up, or else to revel in my off-topic status.

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Keith M Ellis 03.31.05 at 11:38 am

“We only have one chance to raise children right…”

Yes, but as I understand it, there’s some debate on this point. It’s hard to deny that an environment has an effect, but it’s not so clear, I think, that indvidual parents are that huge of an influence. This goes against common sense, but I’ve started to take this idea seriously.

“Some time ago I realize that, by the way I think, I will almost always be off-topic in discussions of this type. My choices were either to shut up, or else to revel in my off-topic status.”

I think you’ve raised good points in this thread but they mostly have gone unaddressed. And from how you described your discursice style, it makes that quite likely. You expant the scope and throw out several provocative ideas. Because they’re provocative, they provoke people. Because they were numerous, they provoke several different people on each of the provocative points. That iniatalizes several new conversation, which are usually not sustainable and additionally put a drag on the parent conversation. The end result is a lot of provocative, half-formed ideas thrown around that are themselves pretty emotional and the reactions to them pretty emotional. I don’t think that’s a productive discursive environment. It might be fun for some personality types, but it’s not fun for others and it mostly turns conversation into some sort of fairly trivial entertainment.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 12:00 pm

For me the argument has been fun. Perhaps a few people will be motivated to quit ignoring things that they have always found it convenient to ignore. The fruits will probably not be seen in the confines of the thread itself. My context is not this thread, but the overall public discourse.

The power of people to ignore things is almost infinite, and while necessary and valuable, it’s not a good thing if made absolute. And we’ve disagreed about this before, but suppressing all emotion is neither necessary nor sufficient for useful discourse.

There is a place where there are authorities who control the topic and forbid off-topic comments. That place is called “The University”. One of the good things about the internet is that it’s not the university, but something else.

I do not think that my raising the question of whether children should be regarded as prestige or luxury products, and about the anti-feminist consequences of that, was trivial entertainment. In the context of this thread, it was scarcely even off-topic.

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Eric 03.31.05 at 12:04 pm

Yes, but as I understand it, there’s some debate on this point. It’s hard to deny that an environment has an effect, but it’s not so clear, I think, that indvidual parents are that huge of an influence. This goes against common sense, but I’ve started to take this idea seriously.

I would say that good parents and family are the major factors in a childs life, with poor parenting and no family it would fall to others. Even more reason to support ALL children reguardless of absolute need. To improve the environment of children as a whole is necessary that includes schooling, home, other children, and other activites and surroundings. We can takle them one at a time with the eyes on the big picture.

The one big problem with the pay me now or pay me later, after thinking about it is the money. Does giving cash subsidies to households really make a diffrence? Without the education to properly use the money what will we be left with? Would the money be better spent on the other important aspects of the childrens lives ( shooling, immediate environment ) rather than cash to the parents? Are there other ways that have similar cost/benifit ratios rather than a new and possibly large entitlement program?

71

Urinated State of America 03.31.05 at 12:07 pm

“Also, if we do end up with a real shortage in numbers of children, the experience of Japan and Europe suggests that subsidies are not going to be very good at mitigating it; many of those below-replacement birthrate countries have their low birthrates despite extremely generous subsidy policies.”

Not in the experience of this German town (story originally from the Christian Science Monitor).

Quote:

“The town [Laer] of 6,700 has no movie house, no supermarket, no McDonald’s. But with 13.5 babies born per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with 8.4 nationwide, it does have something of a baby boom. And in Germany, where the low birthrate has already closed down dozens of schools and put the welfare system at risk, Laer is emerging as a model incubator for pro-growth population policy.”

“Laer boasts day care organized by paretns, five all-day kindergartens, and a primary school open till 4:30 p.m. More important, locals say, it has an attitude about parenting that makes it easier for moms and dads to work and raise children.”

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 12:14 pm

I haven’t read the book explaining that parental input is unimportant, but my guess is that the conclusion is that certain kinds of deliberate fine-tuning attempts to indoctrinate or improve children usually fail for various reasons. Given two sets of parents, one of whom ignores and abuses his children, doesn’t care whether they attend school or not, refuses to pay for educational enrichment, and chooses too live in an area with poor schools — and another set which does the opposite in all those respects — would there be no difference?

Childraising has been traditionally encouraged by giving most women no choice in the matter.

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Nicholas Weininger 03.31.05 at 12:24 pm

u.s.a.: yes, but my larger point still stands; Germany as a whole has a much more generous child subsidy system than, for example, the US, and still has a below-replacement birthrate. The fact that extraordinary efforts on a small scale can raise birthrates locally says little about the ability of such efforts to scale up.

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Nicholas Weininger 03.31.05 at 12:29 pm

And another counter to the original post’s argument. It’s not always so clear that a childless person is doing less to improve the productivity of future children than a parent.

Suppose for example that I decide to forgo having children because I’m a driven entrepreneur, I want to put all my time into running my business, and that leaves no time for raising a kid. My business grows, accumulates capital, and creates jobs. So other people’s children will be better able to pay for my Social Security benefits because of the incomes they can earn from the jobs I created using the capital I built up instead of having kids of my own. Haven’t I done my part for the future economy at least as much as any parent?

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Nicholas Weininger 03.31.05 at 12:35 pm

Of course, the obvious counterargument to the above is “yes but you get rich for your trouble and the poor parents don’t.” To which there are two responses:

1. there exist non-economic riches, as pointed out by previous commenters;

2. many entrepreneurs doubtless create value for others well in excess of what they receive.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 12:38 pm

“It’s not always so clear that a childless person is doing less to improve the productivity of future children than a parent.”

Isn’t the question whether children are a public good, rather than just a private consumption item? The childfree argument is that parents are parasites who force other people to pay taxes to educate their kids — etc.

No one is arguing that childraising is the only way to contribute to the community; the question is whether childraising is a contribution at all.

77

John Emerson 03.31.05 at 12:43 pm

“Non-economic riches” is the dual economy, and in dual economies the economic side dominates and usually destroys the other side.

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Eric 03.31.05 at 12:52 pm

“Non-economic riches” is the dual economy, and in dual economies the economic side dominates and usually destroys the other side.

So you are saying in order to be rational we all have to stop giving gifts, having children, getting married, supporting our parents, ……

If everyone followed you step we would have no society left.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 12:54 pm

I’m raising questions about economic rationality as a sufficient principle for social organization. I don’t think that it is. Certainly not as things stand now.

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rvman 03.31.05 at 1:27 pm

Economic rationality can’t be sufficient principle for much of anything. All it says is that people maximize their utility subject to the constraints of their resources. It doesn’t say squat about what gives each individual that utility. Gift-giving, having children, getting married, supporting our parents – these are things that give utility, just like food, clothing, shelter, and diamond rings do. Economics doesn’t really distinguish between “necessities” and “luxuries”.

Now, the question of what a specific individual values is a question of his upbringing. Good parents raise kids who want to do right by them, give gifts, form lifelong attachments, take care of the kids they have. Bad parents raise kids who abandon them, are selfish, avoid commitments, and abandon their kids.

Kids aren’t a public good, not even close. A closer economic rationale would be calling it a Principle-Agent problem, where the Agent is the parents, and the Principle is either the kid at age 20, the idealized “good kid” at age 20, or future society, or whatever, but even this rationale has problems. (What the Principle wants is shaped by the Agent, for example.)

The problem of not having enough kids to pay for SS is easily solved. People are living longer, and are healthy longer, maybe, just maybe, they need to work longer. If you save for your own retirement, you can retire before SS kicks in. If you become unable to work, SS disability should kick in, no matter age. If you make it to, say, current average life expectency minus 8, SS should kick in whether you retire or not. (This would put retirement at age 70-72 now, and probably adjusted upward to 75-80 or higher by the time my generation (X) retires, while still covering those 65-70 year olds who really can’t work anymore.)

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Vache Folle 03.31.05 at 1:29 pm

Economic rationality is about means to ends. Rationality judgements are about the way people get what they want. The ends are neither rational nor irrational.

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Dan Kervick 03.31.05 at 1:44 pm

Let me reiterate my long-standing belief that child-raising is economically irrational. In our society, no rational person would ever raise children except for non-economic reasons.

To an economist this means that children are just a form of luxury consumption. And they will express their regret that, alas, many consume beyond their means.
.
.
.

Raising children is a big money-loser and it greatly reduces your chances in life. And unlike Celine Dion records, you can’t sell children you’re dissatisfied with. No way to liquidate, even if they become sinkholes of medical bills and legal defense costs.

John, assuming for the sake of argument that the expenditures laid out by parents on having and raising children are indeed luxury expenditures, it doesn’t follow that those expenditures are irrational. I know there are different definitions of “luxury” in economics, but isn’t the underlying idea just that a luxury is something that is not a “necessity”? Then even with a luxury purchase it is perfectly possible that the value you receive in exchange for your payment is of equal or greater value than the value of what you paid out.

If I pay you five dollars to make me laugh, and you tell me side-splitting jokes for two hours, I suspect I will regard the five dollars as well-spent. It is well-spent, even if no commodity comes back to me, and even if the improvement in my mood doesn’t lead me to a further financial benefit. The direct entertainment value of the performance itself is worth the price. Now, assuming this transaction is not recorded, and that no economic measurement ever performed denominates your performance with a monetary or exchange value, then I am simply five dollars lighter, and anything I have received in return is invisible to the economic microscopes. If economic measurements record my lightened wallet, but don’t record what I got in exchange for the lightening, then they register a net loss for me. But it would be absurd to classify this expenditure as irrational.

Similarly, if I spend $2.95 cents on a set of three bean bags, and then entertain myself with juggling for hours and hours and hours on end, not only is my expenditure rational, I got a great deal. My investment of $2.95 plus my time may easily have produced a level of enjoyment that far outweights the cost in time+money.

I suspect that when you classify child-raising as irrational, and point out that it is a money loser, you are speaking from the blinkered perspective of positive economics, according to which that which has not been entered in a ledger somewhere is not real. One might imagine a water company meter-reader, who has set up meters all over town, and is convinced that people are dying of thirst because the metered water flow is very low, despite the fact that it has been raining for weeks and people are just letting the drops fall on their tongues, or are drinking water from streams that happen not to have any meters in them.

Our lives consist of countless activities, some of them exchanges, from which value flows to us without passing through the various economic meters that have been set up to record that flow of value.

I am not sure what, from your perspective, an “economic” reason is. If an economic reason is a reason based on a motive to obtain some value of the kind that is currently measured by economists, then clearly economic rationality is by no means the touchstone of rationality.

But if an economic reason is just supposed to be any motive to obtain a value of any kind, then surely economists must acknowledge that there are all sorts of value flows that are never measured, and that an expenditure might very well be economically rational, even if by the imperfect measurements that are currently performed it comes out a value-loser.

The joy I derive from my son’s existence, and the pleasure of raising him and experiencing our mutual life together is so great that I would easily pay more than I have to now. This is a value I derive apart from any of the kinds of value that economists typically measure, such as financial and other benefits I may derive in my old age from my child as an earner. And it a value that rationalizes my expenditure apart from any sense of obligation I might have toward my son.

However, the fact that child-rearing is not irrational for me does not mean that I have no right to expect anything from others who derive benefits from it. Continuing the earlier analogy, I may juggle for an hour, and love it, so that the activity is worthwhile for me whether or not anyone else is watching and paying me for a performance. But if you dowatch, and you derive enjoyment from me, it is reasonable for me to expect something from you in return.

Those who do the work, and invest other resources, into producing and raising the children that continuously replace the dying generations of human beings are like those who build the social infrastructure. Imagining what would happen if childbirths and childrearing ceased is similar to asking what would happen over time if we stopped building roads and bridges, although in the case of children the effect would be far more dramatic.

Even if there is sufficient private motive for building the required infrastructure, the builders are still in entitled to additional payment from those who use the infrastructure, and may be in a position to demand it. For example, imagine a society in which all the roads that need to be built are built by private investors who each derives enough private benefit from the road she builds that building the road is economical for her. Still, if others make use of the roads, it is reasonable to expect her to charge others for using them. And if the builders have the ability to regulate access to these roads, they will be able to charge fees for their use.

Similarly, it is reasonable for society’s parents to charge society’s single people for all of the multifarious benefits the latter derive from the parents’ children and childrearing work, even if the parents derive sufficient benefits from their own children to compensate their labors. And since there are a lot of us parents, we have the ability to pass tax laws and collect the tolls, so to speak, for what would otherwise be the free-riding behavior of the singles.

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rvman 03.31.05 at 2:07 pm

>But if you dowatch, and you derive enjoyment from
>me, it is reasonable for me to expect something
>from you in return.

Only if I asked to be entertained. If I happened to be walking down the street, and happened to see and enjoy you juggling, it is no different than the situation where some guy comes up and cleans my windshield and then sticks a palm in my face. I don’t owe either of you anything, because I didn’t contract for the service. If you didn’t want to create externalities, you could have done the juggling in your own backyard, away from prying eyes. Maybe your juggling annoyed me because I had to go around the crowd gathered watching you, or worry about you blundering into me while trying to catch an errant toss – should I demand a cut of what people are giving you?

The road builder is charging, and expected to charge, because the good is excludable, and use of the road is contracted and voluntary. Your scenario is more like if someone built a road to my house on my property without my knowledge, knocked on the door, and demanded payment. No expectation is created; indeed, I would be concerned that they were demanding ‘protection’. If I actually chose to use the road off my own property, the owner of the property could reasonably demand payment, but the unauthorized builder? No.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 2:11 pm

“Surely economists must acknowledge that there are all sorts of value flows that are never measured, and that an expenditure might very well be economically rational, even if by the imperfect measurements that are currently performed it comes out a value-loser.”

As far as I know, they don’t and can’t. Especially not when talking about public policy. If they were to do so, then anyone whatever could allege some kind of off-the-books intangible value of this or that.

The point of what I said is the contrast between two women who stay at home, don’t work, and spend money. One buys designer dresses, gourmet food, and jewelry, and the other spends an identical amount on childraising. As far as I know, to an economist they are the same — unless you start talking about children as public goods, or do something else to bring non-economic values into economics.

The other contrast is between two identical couples, one of whom raised children and the other of whom didn’t. The childless couple will have some combination of more freedom, more time, and more spendable income, and probably more net worth. You can say that the children were a private good that was worth it, but you can also say that the excitement of playing the lottery is a private good that was worth it. By most economic measures the childraising couple is worse off, just as the lottery-playing couple was. Remember, even the intangible benefits of childraising cannot be relied on (some kids are just awful), and further more money spent on children is mostly unrecoverable (can’t sell them or rent them out).

Economics has had much of the power it has had because of its insistence on ruling out intangible values of the symbolic, religious, sentimental, traditional type. Family and children are just the last ditch. The childfree ideologues are just mopping up the last resistance to economic thinking.

The product of a childraising family is not a commodity, but a new economic actor (and citizen). Raising children isn’t the production of commodities and it isn’t consumption of them; it’s the way economic actors come into being.

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rvman 03.31.05 at 2:19 pm

The blinkered perspective which results in saying kids are a cost to the parents is the perspective of materialism, not that of economics. Economics, done right, recognizes the existence of spiritual goods. If I paid you $5 to dance for me, or make me laugh, that transaction does theoretically “count” as +$5 in GDP, +$5 in national income, etc. (In reality, this transaction isn’t reported, so it isn’t counted, but the same is true when someone buys drugs from a dealer, or hand-crafted art from a friend, or whatever. It is the grey-market status of the transaction, not the “existence” in material space of the product, that creates the problem.)

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 2:31 pm

Yeah, sure, and the guy who puts all his net worth into cash and heads out to Vegas is rational too. You just assume that he gets some sort of buzz that’s worth whatever amount he gambled, thus making a lifetime of destitution also worthwhile. So if he gambled $500,000, he got a $500,000 buzz, which was worth more to him than lesser things like having a home to go to. Easy.

Economics doesn’t have a way of judging the rationality of economic actors; rationality is just assumed.

I’ll stick with my blinkered oerspective. thank you. My topic here isn’t childraising, btw, but economic rationality. There are ways of understanding childraising to show that it is worthwhile, but economics is not one of them.

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rvman 03.31.05 at 2:47 pm

It is true that the value of time invested in childcare by parents is missed by economics – just like the value of my cleaning my house or playing games I already own is lost. The extra value of what I spent on my car above what I paid for it is also lost, as is the difference between what I paid for ingredients for my homemade lunch and what I would have been willing to pay at a restaurant for it, as is the difference in value between my wage and what I would work 1 hour for – economic stats measure exchange value, not use value. Use value cannot be summed across populations in any meaningful way. This, by the way, is one of the bases of libertarianism – you can’t know what I like, I can’t know what you like, how can government figure out what to provide for both of us? Better to leave it up to us individually to pick what we want through the market.

Who’s to say that your raising kids is has a positive externality, anyway? ‘Society’ will spend money to school your kid, care for him if you are poor (Medicaid), tolerate his noise and antics. Most of the value of the schooling will return to the kid in the form of wages – are we to assume that the externality value he produces for society plus his tax payments net of the value to him of services from those taxes(policing, fire, safety net, his SS) is greater than the actual cost of the schooling, the aid, the antics? That would be a breathtakingly high return, considering that most of the value has been internalized in the system in his wages.

If the problem is the externality the individual parents provide for the child, then the answer is individual duty of the kid to the parent, not in some sort of social redistribution scheme. I have to assume that, for a social solution to make sense, the actual beneficiaries are unidentifiable. I can’t see how the marginal kid (in the economic sense) is a serious enough net-positive value to society (net of already internalized value to himself and his parents) to require remediation.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 2:55 pm

One of the positive externalities of parenting is Libertarians, you know. Or were all y’all raised in orphanages by paid staff?

People (economic actors as such) are the positive externalities of parenting.

Kids have no duties to the parent after emancipation (usually 18). Legally and economically they then become free agents. Time and money down the drain.

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rvman 03.31.05 at 2:59 pm

I’m not going to claim economics declares every act of every person “rational” – especially not the acts of addicts, who suffer a serious time-inconsistency problem. All economic theory claims (or more accurately assumes) is that IN GENERAL the great mass of human decisions are more-or-less rational given the knowledge and choice sets of the actors. If the great mass of people are having kids, is it more likely that they are all irrational, or that they all get something out of it?

The gambler who blows his wad in Vegas? Yeah, if he had known for certain that he was screwing his life up and did it anyway, he was irrational. What he was doing was playing the odds thinking they were more in his favor than they were – most compulsive gamblers have an inaccurate sense of the odds of winning, along with being irrational about gambling.

The great mass of gamblers don’t blow their life, btw. They go in, have some fun blowing a few (or few hundred) bucks, and go home having had a blast. IE, they have acted rationally.

Same with most (not all) lottery players. Same with most restaurant patrons, visitors to prostitutes, donaters to “good causes”, patrons of sport and the opera, craft hobbyists, buyers of homes, or beans, or medicines, and any other consumer you care to mention.

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rvman 03.31.05 at 3:07 pm

Kids have no LEGAL duties to their parents. There are other ways of inspiring people to act. Moral and ethical duties. Social pressure. There are tools other than law and government at work here. This libertarian was raised by a parent. That parent is currently living with my grandparent. When/if my parent is ever in need, I expect I will do the same. Social Security weakened the historical duties for some, it didn’t supercede them for all.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 3:49 pm

Fine. The gambler I knew lost his house and his wife. She almost lost the house herself.

Kids have no enforcible duties to their parents. Parents and grandparents become luxury consumption items for kids once emancipation is reached.

Yes, I agree that there are other forms of human organization besides the market. Economics talks only about the market. My point.

In general, the modern age has strengthened the market against all other forms of organization, and in particular tends to make their claims unenforcible.

The movement of economic analysis into family, nonprofits, etc. does not seem like a favorable one. It seems to be treating non-market kinds of relations as thought they were market relations.

Most libertarians I know seem to be market-worshippers. Libertarians seem quite aggressively to deny any obligation even to the near and dear, unless the obligation is explicitly and voluntarily taken on. And in particular, to entirely reject all the political, “statist” forms by which tax money is used to muffle the harsh effects of our ever-changing, complex, highly-developed, global society.

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Nicholas Weininger 03.31.05 at 4:31 pm

John, I’d question your premise that in dual economies the more narrowly economic (i.e. materialist) side ends up destroying the other. Do you have evidence for this, or is it just a general bit of doomsaying?

I’d also question your claim that “the modern age has strengthened the market against all other forms of organization”. At the very least, if you take a view much longer than the last 20 years, modernity has not strengthened the market against the state; just the reverse.

One thing that certainly has happened in the modern age is that the state has been strengthened at the expense of non-market AND non-state forms of organization: mutual aid, social norms, the so-called “intermediate institutions”. This is, indeed, a major element of the libertarian critique of the state, so it really is a gross oversimplification to characterize libertarians as “market-worshippers”.

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Jake McGuire 03.31.05 at 4:33 pm

But John, I don’t think that it’s moving to market-based ways of thinking that makes having children economically irrational, or even the ever-changing, complex, highly developed, global nature of our society.

All of those things make raising chilrden much more expensive – after all it’s pretty damn clear that Sub-Saharan Africans aren’t paying the $100K to raise their kids that it costs in a Western society, and they’ve got plenty of them. But doesn’t the creation of the welfare state intentionally and inevitably create a tragedy of the commons?

And given the huge number of people who want to immigrate into said wealthy countries, why not let that fix the problem? Sure, it’s “outsourcing childrearing”, but what’s wrong with it?

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Carlos 03.31.05 at 4:40 pm

Lost in this discussion is the fact that a increasing sector of the population in the developed (and semi-developed) countries is starting to act like rational economic-actors (as John Emerson would say) and have stopped (or greatly reduced) their fertility. Since this trend is strongly correlated with better education, higher productivity, women’s rights, etc. (all things that are expected to spread to other countries in the future), the question about how to ensure a population growth rate above replacement level is not a hypothetical question.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 4:50 pm

“Modern age”: since 1700 or so. The contrast I am talking about isn’t between the state and the economy, which can (and did) grow in tandem, but all the various customary, religious, traditional, communitarian, and family forms of organization, of which the nuclear family is almost the sole survivor.

The dual economies I’ve seen analyzed were all colonial third-world countries, and the non-market part ended up being subjugated, or even subsidizing the market part.

If children are emancipated at 18 or 16, raising kids would be irrational with or without the welfare state. But if emancipation is a good thing, then the welfare state helps make it possible.

Outsourcing childraising is a possible solution, and I’ve suggested it in a different context (albeit rather jokingly). I don’t see why it should be the preferred ideal, especially because eventually highly-talented immigrants might stop coming.

Nicholas Weininger, the libertarians I know mostly seem to be market-worshippers. That party is a motley lot, no? The ones I know seem acutely aware of the negative effects of statism, but oblivious to the negative effects of the market, visavis the intermediate institutions.

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Maynard Handley 03.31.05 at 5:15 pm

rvman says “The gambler who blows his wad in Vegas? Yeah, if he had known for certain that he was screwing his life up and did it anyway, he was irrational. What he was doing was playing the odds thinking they were more in his favor than they were – most compulsive gamblers have an inaccurate sense of the odds of winning, along with being irrational about gambling.”

And yet the couple that choose to have children are assumed to have carefully costed out the consequences, examined all the research on how many kids turn out what ways, and are performing a rational act? No way do they (cf the gambler above) have a completely inaccurate sense of pretty much everything related to the exercise? The fact that most people control their gambling behavior does not change this; that tells us something about the interaction of most people with leisure gambling, and nothing about the interaction of most people with decision making under uncertainly, specifically when the decision involves children.

Face it, John is right with respect to this particular point.

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rvman 03.31.05 at 5:41 pm

Which of the following are “market” transactions?

inheritance
giving of Christmas gifts
giving to private charity or tithe
Kids’ allowance
churchgoing

All show up in “economic” statistics and in “economic” research.

If you get out of upper middle class urban life, you will find “the various customary, religious, traditional, communitarian, and family forms of organization” are still thriving, even when some of them have absorbed the market rather than being destroyed by it. Churches still take care of their congregants, sometimes through traditional means, sometimes through “market” means like St. ‘X’ Hospital, Salvation Army, even Blue Cross & Blue Shield.

Communitarian? I can show you farmers’ coops and markets, electric, water, and gas cooperatives, credit unions, craigslist on the ‘market’ side, and last time I checked, if someone finds a stray dog, and see a sign begging for its return, they generally take the dog back.

Family? Isn’t it the joke that in the South, EVERYONE is cousin john, or joe, or jimmy? It goes the other way, too – there are people who can get chilly toward me when they find out I have (maternal) links to Campbell of Argyle.

It isn’t the market that is killing these institutions. The family was still strong, if hungry, in 1930. People still took care of their parents (until Social Security and Medicare took that problem away), their poor relations (until welfare, public housing, and Medicaid took that responsibility away), their community (until church efforts were partly supplanted by city-run hospitals and food kitchens, public housing and welfare).

I’d say it wasn’t the market which did in the community, it appears it was the government. Is there an institution which is separated by a wall from our government, but is financed and even established by European governments, yet is relatively strong here and dying there? The Church?

Why does America have the highest rate of charitable contributions, and yet among the lowest levels of foreign aid? Maybe because charity is still privately done (by the ‘market’), but government handles foreign aid. I wonder how much private ‘traditional’ help goes overseas? Well, there’s Red Cross and ilk, there’s church missions (which feed along with the evangelizing in many cases – think Salvation Army), there’s private remittance by immigrants back to their families at home.

The market doesn’t curdle the milk of human kindness, it just provides new and more efficient ways of delivering it. (Maybe it was churned into cheese and is sitting in a government warehouse somewhere.)

Economics doesn’t deny it, it just points out that, if you like someone, you might gain through feeling pleasure by giving them stuff, and if you let someone starve, you might feel pain through guilt, so ‘altruism’ is, after all, ordinary (rather than ‘enlightened’) self interest.

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Dan Kervick 03.31.05 at 6:02 pm

Economics doesn’t have a way of judging the rationality of economic actors; rationality is just assumed.

Well, if economics simply assumes the rationality of economic actors, then the judgment that raising children is irrational must not be an economic judgment. What kind of judgment is it?

Methodologically, if one assumes rationality, then when confronted with a case of someone laying out some expenditure, one will simply assume that the expected value for that person of the consequences of the expenditure is at least as great as the value for that person of what is spent. Irrationality is ruled out a priori.

But, in fact, you are right that sometimes we do judge a person’s actions as irrational – and I think economists do too. That means they cannot simply be assuming the person is rational. They must measure the value for that agent of the goods received in return for the expenditure in some other way than in terms of the amount the person is willing to spend for them.

With the gambler you mention there are a couple of possibilities: (i) The experience the gambler derived from the gambling was no ordinary manic buzz, but an earth-shatteringly valuable experience – the gambler had some life-altering mystical encounter with God that may have been worth the $500,000. In this case, the value the gambler derived from the gambling was much greater than the value that almost anyone else would derive from it, and the behavior might have been rational. Yet this seems a most unlikely hypothesis. (ii) The value the gambler derived from the gambling is pretty similar to the sort of buzz must of us imagine experiencing in that situation, a buzz which eve the gambler himself would reflectively judge not to be worth $500,000. Thus, even by the light of the gambler’s own values, his behavior was grossly irrational. This seems more likely.

That’s fine for one wacky gambler. Yet when we move from one person to billions of people, each engaging in a consistent patterns of behavior like child-raising over many years, it becomes less and less plausible to assume that they are all making mistaken esitmates of the value they receive for their investments of time and money, the same mistakes over and over and over, and more likely that they derive something of great value from these layouts.

Economics has had much of the power it has had because of its insistence on ruling out intangible values of the symbolic, religious, sentimental, traditional type. Family and children are just the last ditch. The childfree ideologues are just mopping up the last resistance to economic thinking.

It was always my understanding that economics is a behavioral science. It’s power comes from its ability to predict human behavior. It can only succeed in predicting human behavior to the extent that the comparative values it places on things roughly corresponds to human dispositions to value them, as revealed in their behavior.

If it rules out “intangible values of the symbolic, religious, sentimental, traditional type” then it will be impotent to explain why people behave the way they do in their relationships to symbols, religious practices, sentimental attachments and traditions. As a matter of empirical fact, people do assign value to these things. To rule such values out is not, it seems to me, to think economically but to think dogmatically.

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 6:19 pm

Small town life is more communitarian, North and South, but small town life is under tremendous pressure and is not typical of the US.

What you say about the South may be true, but the South has always been resistant to pure market forms (into the Fifties and Sixties, anyway). In any case, the results in the South are mixed. There seems to be a lot of meanness mixed into the community there.

What you say about churches is pretty much true.

I think that you have idealized the past. The reason we had the New Deal is because the old local communitarian forms were failing badly, not necessarily through any fault of their own, but because of the economics of the time.

None the activities you named were market activities. They represent non-market alternative forms of organization.

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Jake McGuire 03.31.05 at 6:27 pm

If kids are emancipated at an age before which they are economically useful; I think. Absolute ages don’t particularly matter. And I have the feeling that this is a more recent development – weren’t the kids-in-front-of-looms days in the mid to late 1800s?

The big advantage that outsourcing/immigration has, it seems to me, is that it doesn’t require an increase in the average tax rate of 10%.

I’d also be overjoyed to live in a world where people didn’t immigrate to the US for economic opportunity because they had just as much opportunity in their home countries. Which is pretty much what it would take, I think.

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clew 03.31.05 at 7:39 pm

dsquared’s argument that we would need gastarbeiters (surely, in the US, braceros?) instead of immigrants misses an important point. Even for a constant level of old-folk-support, we don’t need a constant number of young folk working; we can make up a decrease in population by improving productivity.

Japan is trying to do this with robots. The US could probably hedge with a combination of child-care assistance, immigrants, and engineering research.

The joy is, we could get a threefer, as with the undocumented high-school students who not only built a remote underwater robot but built it for a fraction the cost of its swank competitors.

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Jake McGuire 03.31.05 at 8:08 pm

dsquared’s argument about gastarbeiters doesn’t miss the point, it’s just wrong. There’s no difference from a retirement perspective between someone raised locally from infancy to adulthood, and someone who comes across the Rio Grande at age 21 and starts working.

Bringing in a bunch of immigrants in their 20s would fill in the little dip in the age distribution graph here and certainly help funding retirement plans. It’d help more to be able to kick them out when they retired, but “wouldn’t help as much” is not the same thing as “wouldn’t help at all.”

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John Emerson 03.31.05 at 10:00 pm

Rvman, an addendum if you’re still here. Even here in liberal urban Portland I know conservative Christians who have opted out of the common culture to devote themselves to childraising. They’re pretty conscious of the fact that they’re making a sacrifice, which to them are entirely worth it, and that they are not operating according to rational self-interest but according to a very different Christian ethic.

To an economist this is just a consumption tradeoff by people who prefer children to some other consumption item, but they don’t think that way and I don’t think that that analysis is a very powerful one.

They are politically very conservative, as far as I know, and tend to view the cultural things that threaten tham as satanic forces rather than as capitalist consumerism, but they really are not economic animals the way most Americans are.

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charlie b. 04.01.05 at 2:16 am

How about a practical response?

The idea that we all benefit (in the future), for example, from educating children at public cost, has been around a very long time. If we contest the idea we get a lot of economic hypotheses and claims one way and the other about the net contributions.

But let’s assume it’s true. Then government should implement the wishes of the public as a whole in its education policy. Not the just the wishes of parents, and certainly not just of employees (teachers).

The political control of schools is especially appropriate for decentralisation, because such a high proportion of costs are raised through local taxes (Council Tax). We should have elected school boards, to set a local school tax and decide local school policy, in selection of which the votes of the childless would be taken into account – and the views of whom could be expressed regularly to the board.

The losers would be educationalist-bureaucrats and trade unions. They are the ones who currently feed off the semi-public nature of children’s economic needs.

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John Emerson 04.01.05 at 12:25 pm

“We should have elected school boards, to set a local school tax and decide local school policy, in selection of which the votes of the childless would be taken into account – and the views of whom could be expressed regularly to the board.”

Jeez, Chrlie, that describeds the American system. In a lot of places, anyway. Hardly a panacea.

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clew 04.01.05 at 2:44 pm

Mm. charlie b., how does your plan protect the children of the local impugned minority? Over and over local school boards manage to provide them with an extra-terrible public education, conveniently reducing their ability to go somewhere they aren’t impugned and aren’t reduced to a cheap local workforce.

I’m willing to worry earnestly about the failures of the federalized system to solve the same problem, but not with someone who doesn’t remember how well local control feeds the problem.

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