The Debaters: A Childishly Long Reply to Will
By Bryan Caplan
1. Will says I misintepreted his original point. He’s not arguing that I’m taking a “man’s perspective” on family size, just that I’m overlooking the high costs for girls of teenage pregnancy:
I was saying that having a child at sixteen has a VERY HIGH probability of severely limiting most girls’ prospects. It seemed to me that Bryan was overlooking this pretty obvious fact, which suggested to me a lack of sympathy for the cost of motherhood to teen girls, which further suggested a lack of sympathy for the cost of motherhood to women generally.
In my original post about Jamie-Lynn Spears, I was hardly promoting teen pregnancy. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want her to get pregnant at 16, for the reasons Will names. My point, however, is parents who freak out about teen pregnancy lack perspective. My challenge to these parents, then and now, is: Which would you prefer – For your daughter to have a child too soon, or never? I definitely prefer too soon to never, and I think that a lot of parents would share my preference if they calmed down and weighed the alternatives.2. Next, Will has a methodological point about surveys about “ideal family size”:
I find survey evidence about desired family size or desired fertility pretty irrelevant in a way economists ought to be especially sensitive to. If you ask me how many cars, houses, or television sets I would ideally own without specifying the price I may well give you a pie-in-the-sky answer.
I agree with Will’s general point that we should beware of question-wording effects. But I doubt that this is a big issue here: When people say how many kids they want, they almost certainly assume that they will have to pay the costs of raising the kids.
Think about it this way: When you ask people the question, “Do you want any more kids?” do they respond on the assumption that kids are free? In my experience, no way.
3. Will repeats the standard economic argument that shrinking family size is predictable given rising female wages:
But as women’s equality has proceeded, and continues to proceed, the opportunity cost of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare has risen, and is rising, for many women. So it would not be surprising if a young woman were to imagine that she would like three kids, given her mom’s 1985 opportunity cost. But given 2008 opportunity costs, she really only wants one, which is what she has.
Unfortunately, the standard economic argument only tells half the story. Yes, rising female wages increase the marginal cost of children. But they also increases income, making children more affordable! This is clearly a situation where income and substitution effects are large and move in opposite directions, so there’s nothing economically inevitable about what’s happened to family size. (Consider: We’re spending more time in foreign travel than in 1985, even though the cost of taking time off has increased).
4. Next, Will replies to each of my four points in favor of having children. My original point #1: “It’s not hard for a person to do both, especially if he/she is reasonably affluent.” Will’s reply:
Isn’t pregnancy hard? Childbirth? Don’t women worry a great deal about what all this does to their bodies and their sense of physical self-esteem? Doesn’t childcare have real costs in terms of competitive careers (i.e., almost all of them)?
All these effects are obviously real. The tough question is whether they show that it is “hard” to pursue both “meaningful life-constituting projects” and have kids. Most moms I know do it, and most of their lives are fine.
Now we move onto a point where I strongly agree with Will:
I’d be more comfortable with “it’s not so hard” if social norms weren’t so brutal to middle-class, middle-American women who chose to outsource almost all their childcare in the same way men continue to outsource almost all their childcare to their wives. But, as it stands, I think even the average “reasonably affluent” woman bears a pretty big disproportionate burden and this is in fact reflected in diminished labor market prospects.
I’d like to add, though, that the main problem isn’t “social norms,” but the standards that moms set for themselves. Most moms could double their outsourcing without raising any eyebrows, but refrain because they would feel like bad moms.
5. My next point in favor of kids: “A person who does both will almost certainly be glad that he/she did (whereas many successful childless people (especially women!) regret their choice.” Will’s reply:
Yes, I think it is part of our Darwinian design to mostly keep us from regretting our children, even if the choice was regrettable or in moments of reflection actual regretted. Also, it is taboo to admit regretting your children, even if in a mixed and complex way.
Actually, I’d say that people are most likely to regret their children in the heat of anger, and almost never do so in moments of reflection (when they’re more likely to say stuff like “Having you is the best thing I ever did”). Will’s right that the taboo against admitting regret leads us to undercount regret; but even if covert regret is five times as common as open regret, it remains very rare.
But if Bryan thinks many, many, many mothers have not and do not in fact regret foregone experience, challenge, success, and status then I fear he’s not paying attention. Motherhood for many women just is a bittersweet experience of frustrated ambition and readjustment to downgraded expectations. Several times my own mother, who I’m sure loved me and my sisters without reserve, expressed to me deep regret for not having gone on to become a doctor…
I’m going to be an economist about this. There are two kinds of regret: Regret where you wished you made a different choice given your constraints, and regret that you had constraints. I’m talking about the first kind of regret, and regard it as much more serious.
Anyway, if a career woman past reproductive age finds herself regretting not having children, she can always adopt. But try getting rid of your four year-old, and see what people think of you.
Since almost everyone who wants kids tries to have their own before they consider adoption, despite all the costs that Will highlights, it’s obvious that the two are not close substitutes for most people. “You waited too long to have kids, and now you want one? Just adopt!” is facile at best.
6. My third point in favor of kids: “The person you create will almost certainly be really glad to exist.” Will’s reply:
If I gave somebody a million dollars, they would almost be certainly glad to get it. That’s some reason for me to give someone a million dollars, I suppose, but not really much of one.
If the someone were a complete stranger, then Will’s plainly right. If the someone would be your son or daughter, matters are very different… at least for most people.
7. My last point in favor of kids:
If you think you own any debt of gratitude to your parents, giving them grandchildren is the best way to repay it.
Just being there, loving them, and loving your own life is the best way to repay, I figure.
As a parent, I agree that Will’s repayment is not bad. But it’s still kind of a let-down.
Now just to avoid misunderstanding, I don’t see any of my arguments as “proofs” that any particular person should have kids. When someone goes to the lengths that Will does to argue against having kids, I tend to think: “If you feel that strongly about it, you’re probably right. For you.” I do however think that there are important arguments in favor of having more kids that most people haven’t thought about very much. (And in contrast, most people are hyper-aware of the important arguments against).