What Janet Yellen and Rick Santorum Have in Common
By James Schneider
Bryan has discussed the puzzling lack of social conservatives in economics. Economists use an agreed-upon framework that would seem to offer social conservatives a “safe harbor” to express their ideas, as long as they express them within the accepted framework. A related issue is whether or not economics is in some sense poorer for its lack of social conservatives. Are there important ideas that are not being discovered because they are appealing only to social conservatives?
My favorite case study on this issue involves something that Janet Yellen and Rick Santorum have in common: they both think that contraception led to more out-of-wedlock births. I know Rick Santorum’s views second-hand from hostile critics. Janet Yellen’s views can be found in a co-written 1996 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. This paper argues that prior to the availability of abortion and contraception, women would be very careful to extract a promise of marriage in case of pregnancy before they would have sex. Women willing to take advantage of these new technologies didn’t need to extract this promise; they enjoyed an important advantage in the sexual mating market. As more women provided sex without a promise of contingent marriage, women who demanded this promise looked less reasonable. Demanding marriage contingent on pregnancy became such a poor bargaining position that many women abandoned it, even women with scruples against contraception and abortion — with predictable consequences.
These technologies reduced, in another way, men’s willingness to marry. Abortion and contraception made birth a choice of the woman. This fact is now part of the modern social covenant. Convincing men to take responsibility for someone else’s choice is complicated.
It isn’t too surprising that the above story would appeal to social conservatives like Rick Santorum. However, it would be a great mistake to assume that Janet Yellen’s views are anything like his. Given the prominence of her finding, Yellen co-wrote a non-technical description of the QJE paper in a Brookings policy brief. It makes fascinating reading because of what Yellen sees as the policy implications of her paper. Yellen concludes that:
1) Welfare is very important for relieving poverty.
2) Access to abortion and contraception is highly desirable. Denying access to them probably wouldn’t turn back the clock on social norms.
3) Better family planning education and birth control advice are promising policies. Forcing fathers to pay child support should be considered.
At least to me, her policy recommendations sound more like a general description of liberal social policy than implications that naturally flow from the fact that abortion and contraception caused out-of-wedlock births. In fact, some of her policy conclusions seem like an unnatural fit with the story of the paper. For example, if abortion and contraception became unavailable, why wouldn’t women go back to demanding a promise of marriage contingent on pregnancy? Why wouldn’t the man feel obligated to marry if pregnant women no longer had a choice but to give birth? In particular, the paper seems ill-suited to explain why men should be forced to financially support unwed mothers. The paper’s plausibility stems from the fact that (a) there is a pre-sex bargaining stage, and the man did not promise such support and (b) the woman could have chosen to avoid the financial need for this support. This might be the best possible argument for why a man shouldn’t be forced to financially support the mother.
I doubt that Yellen actually thought her research would bring any new people into the social-progressive fold. It is risky to speculate about people one doesn’t know, but this is how I imagine the chain of events.
(i) Janet Yellen’s research helps explain the proximate cause of high out-of-wedlock birth rates.
(ii) She publishes her results regardless of which ideological partisans might find it appealing; this is what good social scientists do.
(iii) The publication of the QJE piece gives her a perfect platform to express her social policy views. These policy views happen to be socially liberal. If a social conservative had performed the original research, the facts would have been the same but the policy implications would have been very different.
I think academic economics comes off pretty good here. If there is a valid empirical claim that would appeal to social conservatives, there will likely be an economist (and frequently a liberal one) to provide the data.
P.S. Yellen had two co-authors, one of which was George Akerloff, her Nobel Prize winning husband. In this post, I highlight Yellen, since her name is obviously more topical. How many Nobel Prize winners get slighted in favor of their spouses? The world keeps getting more interesting.