Tag Archives: Kids

Morality Should Exist

In the New Yorker and on NPR, Bryan Caplan’s views on kids have recently been contrasted with ethical arguments against having kids – that the possibility kids might suffer outweighs all their likely joys and benefit to others. Now while I could understand some obscure academics or oddball activists taking this position, I find it bizarre to see it taken seriously in the mainstream media.

I mean, really, the whole human race should go extinct to avoid the risk that some future kid might suffer at some point?! And since the same argument applies to non-humans, all life should go extinct?! How could that ever be a remotely acceptable mainstream position? Cryonics is silly, and that is not?!

Yes I know I cannot refute this claim with just an incredulous stare, so let me suggest a moral axiom with apparently very strong intuitive support, no matter what your concept of morality: morality should exist. That is, there should exist creatures who know what is moral, and who act on that. So if your moral theory implies that in ordinary circumstances moral creatures should exterminate themselves, leaving only immoral creatures, or no creatures at all, well that seems a sufficient reductio to solidly reject your moral theory. I’m not saying I can’t imagine any possible circumstances where moral creatures shouldn’t die off, but I am saying that those are not ordinary circumstances.

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Why Not Let Kids Vote?

[US] Federal Aviation Association guidelines stipulate that nobody over the age of 65 can hold a pilot’s licence, even if any such individual over that age is competent to fly a plane. For public policy reasons, it is better to impose a blanket restriction on possibly competent pilots than to risk errors that could result in serious harms. (more; also)

I’ve posted before on how ignorant voters hurt election outcomes. One obvious solution is to restrict voting to folks who know more, such as via education, tests of knowledge, etc. But most folks are pretty hostile to this idea – many even oppose requiring voters to show up with a valid photo ID. Such folks point out that any harm is limited by the fact that elections can average out a lot of random noise, and that apparently ignorant folks can still vote their interests effectively by copying trusted associates. All of which is true.

But oddly these same folks usually oppose lowering the minimum voting age to say ten. Even though they’d strongly oppose a maximum voting age of say ninety, the age where only 10% of folks can answer a simple math question. In the latest Political Studies, Joanne Lau says we should let kids vote if we let similarly impaired old folks vote:

The right to vote is fundamental to democratic citizenship; it is one of the most important badges of political and legal equality. However, we deny it to children, generally without discussion. … Whatever level of capacity we use for the disenfranchisement of children should be used in symmetrical fashion to disenfranchise the elderly. … If we attribute responsibility to children in the legal domain, we should also attribute it to them in the political domain. (more)

Surely the typical ten year old is as able to vote their interest as the typical ninety year old or the typical voter who can’t manage to show up to vote with a photo ID. Yes, many ten year olds would be influenced by their parents, though some would vote opposite, just to spite their parents. On average this would give the fertile more political influence. But this seems to me a cheap way to encourage fertility, which we should want to do anyway.

So why the opposition to kid voting? Well clearly some is those who see fertile folk as their political opponents. But there must also be a wider distaste, which I interpret as adults again wanting to affirm their high status over kids. As I said before:

We have “free speech,” a right only enjoyed by adult citizens in good standing, a right we jealously guard, wondering if corporations etc. “deserve” it. This right seems more a status marker, like the right to vote, than a way to promote idea competition. … Which is why support for “free speech” is often paper thin, fluctuating with the status of proposed speakers. (more)

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Who Wants Kid $ Insure?

Financial inequality seems to be shaping up as a central issue in the US presidential campaign. (Other sorts of inequality, not so much.) Many note that such inequality has increased in recent decades. But let me repeat my anti-trend-tracking matra: if what matters is the efficiency of our institutions, trends are irrelevant unless they reveal such inefficiencies. So are the institutions that influence our financial inequality inefficient?

Probably the simplest and strongest argument is insurance market failure: being risk-averse, we want to insure against variations in our distant future income, but since this insurance is not available privately, governments must provide it. Why exactly this is not available privately if customers want it isn’t usually clarified. And it could be that the incentive costs of the insurance outweigh its risk-reduction benefits. But this is at least in the ballpark of a plausible institutional argument.

However, it seems to me that as a parent I wouldn’t have wanted to insure against any but the very low tail of possibilities of for my kids future income. I like the idea that one of my kids might someday be very successful or famous. And asking this of my undergrads consistently gets the same answer – very few want such insurance for their own or their kids’ future. Furthermore, parents do not much use the one clear insurance option they have – to teach their kids to share their future income with each other. Most societies used to do this, and our culture evolved away from that. So while teaching kids to share income is both personally and culturally possible, we just don’t do it.

Now you might argue that this is a signaling failure – that we would each in fact like such insurance, but dislike what our willingness to take it would say about us. But you could also tell your kids to keep this income-sharing policy a family secret, only to tell potential spouses. And once such sharing became a long family tradition then continuing it would say much less about personal features. But it seems to me that even if given the option to legally commit all their descendants to such a policy, to prevent all future signaling about it, most folks would still reject such insurance.

Thus it seems to me that most folks think the incentives costs outweigh the risk-reduction gains for such insurance, and do not want it. Thus the insurance market failure rationale for taxing the rich extra just fails.

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Sex Ratio Signaling

Nicholas Eberstadt on a “Global War Against Baby Girls“:

An ominous and entirely new form of gender discrimination, … skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males, … sex-selective abortion has assumed a scale tantamount to a global war against baby girls. … From a collision of three forces: first, local mores that uphold a truly merciless preference for sons; second, low or sub-replacement fertility trends, … and third, the availability of health services and technologies. … The total population of the regions beset by unnaturally high SRBs [= sex ratio at birth] amounted to 2.7 billion, or about 40 percent of the world’s total population.

Matt Ridley agrees, and is “pessimistic” about this “distortion.” But neither of them object to the lower fertility that is a contributing cause, nor to the morality of the act of abortion. So what exactly is the problem? A simple supply and demand analysis says that selective abortion both expresses a preference for boys and causes a reduction in that preference as wives become scarce. In South Korea this process is mostly complete, with excess boys down from 15% in the 1990s to 7% today (with ~5% as the biologically natural excess).

Eberstadt elaborates:

The consequences of medically abetted mass feticide are far-reaching and manifestly adverse. …[This] establishes a new social reality that inescapably colors the whole realm of human relationships, redefining the role of women as the disfavored sex in nakedly utilitarian terms, and indeed signaling that their very existence is now conditional and contingent.

What “new social reality”? A preference for boys was there and clear to all before selective abortion came on the scene.

Moreover, enduring and extreme SRB imbalances set the demographic stage for an incipient “marriage squeeze.” …  Unmarried men appear to suffer greater health risks than their married counterparts. …. A steep rise in the proportion of unmarried and involuntarily childless men begs the question of old-age support for that rising cohort.

But these are all about things getting worse for men, which is exactly how supply and demand solves such a “problem.” Finally, Eberstadt invokes some externalities:

The “rising value of women” can have perverse and unexpected consequences, including increased demand for prostitution and an upsurge in the kidnapping and trafficking of women. … Such trends could quite conceivably lead to increased crime, violence, and social tensions — or possibly even a greater proclivity for social instability. All in all, mass sex selection can be regarded as a “tragedy of the commons” dynamic, in which the aggregation of individual (parental) choices has the inadvertent result of degrading the quality of life for all.

Now more voluntary prostitution in such a context is not obviously a bad thing. Yes, kidnapping and crime are bad, but there is little mixed evidence such things are increasing due to having more males. There is, however, good evidence that males now compete more by increasing their savings rate, which is overall good for the world.

This topic offers a good example of a conflict between sending desired signals and getting desired outcomes. Since parents who selectively abort girls show favoritism toward boys, it can feel quite natural to signal your opinion that women have equal value by condemning such parents, and favoring policies to discourage their actions. Not doing so can make you seem anti-female. Yet since via supply and demand the abortions chosen by these parents directly increase the value of women, then all else equal discouraging their abortions reduces the value of women. So if you want women to have higher value, your signal is counter-productive.

Of course it is far from clear that the relative value of males and females should be the main consideration here. One might instead argue that if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have more lives that are more pleasant?

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The Puberty Puzzle

Time magazine considers a big important puzzle:

By the 1980s, the onset of puberty, if not actual menstruation, had gone into free fall–a change so sudden and pronounced that something more than normal evolution must have been at work. In a landmark 1997 study of 17,000 [US] girls … more than 10% of white girls and an astonishing 37.8% of black girls were showing early breast development by age 8. … Later studies, one in 1998 and another in 2010, included Hispanics and produced similar results. On average, 2 out of every 10 white girls, 3 out of 10 Latinas and 4 out of 10 black girls are showing breast development by age 8. (more)

They consider some possible explanations:

Obesity, a well-established puberty accelerant, is high on the list of suspects. … Data from China and India similarly indicate that race by itself isn’t a factor but general prosperity is. Onset of puberty is on a downward march in those countries too. … But even in Europe, where the standard of living has been high for decades and diets haven’t changed much, something strange is going on. A study of girls conducted in Denmark in 2008 found that the average age of breast development there is 8.86 years, which … is a full year earlier than it was for Danes as recently as 1993. … Some investigators are focusing on environmental contaminants like PBBs and … bisphenol A … A number of studies have found that overweight boys may, if anything, suffer from delayed puberty.

Oddly they don’t even mention divorce and out-of-wedlock birth, factors that some theory suggests are crucial:

Father absence is indicative of the degree of polygyny (simultaneous and serial) in society. Polygyny of both kinds creates a shortage of women in reproductive age, and thus, early puberty will be advantageous. Available comparative data indicate that the degree of polygyny is associated with a decrease in the mean age of menarche across societies, as is the divorce rate a presumptive index of serial polygyny, in strictly monogamous societies. (more)

This theory has some empirical support:

As specified by evolutionary causal theories, younger sisters had earlier menarche than their older sisters in biologically disrupted families (n = 68) but not biologically intact families (n = 93). This effect was superseded, however, by a large moderating effect of paternal dysfunction. Younger sisters from disrupted families who were exposed to serious paternal dysfunction in early childhood attained menarche 11 months earlier than either their older sisters or other younger sisters from disrupted families who were not exposed to such dysfunction. (more)

I heard of this theory a while ago, but until now I hadn’t realized its radical implication: humans may have evolved adaptations to make major body/life features conditional on our social environment! If girl brains can order hormones to induce early puberty after seeing lots of nearby polygyny, how else might our bodies be contingent what our brains see about our social world? Do young brains see the level of violence,  prosperity, or work complexity around, and adjust hormone-induced plans for body size, immune system strength, or brain resources? Could this adjustment explain recent trends in mortality, height, or intelligence? So many possibilities to consider!

Anthropologists often say that it is a mistake to look for “the” ancestral human environment or lifestyle, that what most defines humans is variety and adaptability. I’m going to take that view a lot more seriously from now on.

Added 4p: Why are people so much more willing to use strange chemicals to explain earlier puberty that other trens like increasing IQ, lifespan, and height? Is it because chemicals are bad, and therefore can only explain bad things?

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Parent Vs. Kid Status

When parents have a choice between making they or their kids look good, they pick themselves:

The often-dreaded parent-teacher conference … seems to be an evaluation of student performance, [but] is more often than not an evaluation of the parent and the teacher, by each other. …

Instead of defending their children, parents are consistently critical about their children when talking with teachers, often delivering unsolicited, negative information about them. “Parents … [are] showing that they already know about their children’s potential or actual troubles, displaying that they are fair appraisers of their own children, willing and able to detect and articulate their flaws, and reporting on their own efforts to improve or remedy their children’s faults, shortcomings or problems,” …

Teachers regularly work to encourage parents to be first to articulate critical assessments of the student, such as by asking for the parent’s perspective, observations, questions, and/or concerns about the student’s progress. … Teachers … [then provide] face-saving accounts on students’ behalf (e.g. “That’s not atypical of kids”; “For a 12-year-old boy, normal is pretty flaky.”) … “It is the teacher who consistently works to end the parent-teacher conference interaction on a positive note, delivering future-oriented, favorable or optimistic comments about the student.” (more; HT Eric Barker)

Yet another example of parents caring for kids less than they claim.

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Charity And Temptation

Bryan Caplan responded to John Marsh:

Nearly two-thirds of poor children … reside in [single-parent] homes. … “If poor mothers married the fathers of their children nearly three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty.”

In a world of cheap, reliable contraception, any woman can easily avoid single motherhood with near-certainty. Simply use birth control until you find and marry a reliable man. Avoiding single motherhood, to be blunt, is a choice.

Bryan further commented:

b. Sex with birth control, unlike abstinence, does not lead to chronic burning lust.
c. Potentially poor women who delay child-bearing have a high chance of finding a reliable man before becoming infertile.

Karl Smith took issue:

Baby lust is quite real, almost certainly genetically determined and probably explains a fair fraction of the differences in outcome among women. … Potentially poor women [do not] have a high chance of finding a reliable man before becoming infertile. … There is a serious dearth of reliable men. .. Bryan’s prescription of promiscuous birth-controlled sex lowers a women’s rank in the marriage market. … My natural assumption [is] that poor single mothers are engaging in utility maximizing behavior. This implies that the alternatives to being a poor single mother are worse and that people accept this fate because they have low endowments in the marriage market.

Let me first make two points:

  1. The reliability of men is only an issue because we have weakened the commitment of marriage. Most farmer societies made marriage into a strong commitment, and encouraged young women to hold out for it. This led to an equilibrium where most women, even poor ones, married, so that most kids had two parents. Men now choose to be unreliable more often because we have greatly lowered its penalties.
  2. Even with weak marriage it is possible to identify reliable poor men. If you can’t tell, ask your parents, grandparents, or their siblings. But the hypergamous mating preferences of women typically lead them to prefer other men, especially in a relatively rich society like ours.

What to do? First, why not offer the option of a strong marriage commitment? More women would end up with reliable husbands if couples could choose between strong marriage, weak marriage, or no marriage. But surely even with this option, many women in our rich society would still choose single parenthood, and the relative poverty it implies. What then?

Now Bryan is clearly right — this is in fact a choice. But Karl is also right — it is a choice made in the face of relatively strong desires. The key question is: how weak do temptations have to be to make the choices they influence unworthy of charity? We feel only weak inclinations to help people who choose poverty, and could easily have chosen otherwise. But we feel much stronger inclinations to help folks who could have avoided poverty only via quite unusual levels of self-control and determination. Where in this spectrum does the temptation to single parenthood lie?

Given forager sharing norms, forager fathers only needed to reliably help kids for a few years. But farmers, who shared less, had to set a higher self-control bar for charity eligibility. A farmer could quickly starve by being too generous with neighboring charity cases. Now that we are richer, we can be more indulgent, but it seems to me an open question whether we should. I tend to agree with Bryan that very poor foreigners seem more deserving of aid that self-indulgent not-so-poor natives.

Added 5p: Karl Smith responds:

Central to Byran and somewhat shockingly to me – Robin’s – thinking is whether or not the single parents deserve charity.
On Facebook I think Robin framed the question as “how weak do temptations have to be before they make people less deserving of charity”
My clear answer would be that there is no level so low. Human suffering is bad. Reductions in human suffering are good.
Why humans are suffering is of concern to us in knowing when our interventions might be productive but it doesn’t affect whether they are warranted.

If we commit ahead of time to making our help contingent on certain behavior, that can have good effects in inducing such behavior. This is probably the origin of our intuitions that certain behaviors make folks less worthy of help.

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Do Liars Care More?

One of the biggest lies we tell is not having favorite kids:

It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that all parents have a preferred son or daughter, and the rules for acknowledging it are the same everywhere: The favored kids recognize their status and keep quiet about it. … The unfavored kids howl about it like wounded cats. And on pain of death, the parents deny it all. …

384 sibling pairs … [were] questioned … and videotaped … as they worked through conflicts. Overall, … 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one. … “The most likely candidate for the mother’s favorite was the firstborn son, and for the father, it was the last-born daughter. ” …

Firstborns have a 3-point IQ advantage over later siblings. … Kids who felt less loved than other siblings were more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. (more)

Interestingly, lying here is seen by many to signal caring:

Not all experts agree on just what the impact of favoritism is, but as a rule, their advice to parents is simple: If you absolutely must have a favorite (and you must), keep it to yourself. Even if your kids see through the ruse, the mere act of trying to maintain it can help them preserve the emotional pretext too — a bit of denial that does little harm. What’s more, the effort it takes to tell a benign lie is in its own way an act of love toward the unfavored child.

Its not clear though how often disfavored kids see self-serving denials as showing care. Do parents who care more about disfavored kids actually lie more than others?

Also, we less resent favoritism to lower status siblings:

Even the most blatant favoritism is easier to take when there’s a defensible reason for it. Perhaps the most extreme example is when one child in the home has special needs. Children with Down syndrome or autism … Kids with physical disabilities … require more time and attention from parents … Talking about the situation openly is the best and most direct way to limit resentment. … “Research suggests that differential treatment may have no negative effects when children understand why.”

Oh kids understand favoritism toward smarter, prettier, stronger siblings – they just hate it more.

I suspect that many commonly told lies are accepted and even encouraged because they are seen by many as showing that liars care. Cynics who tell the truth are, in contrast, described as cold and hostile. A problem, of course, is that we often believe our lies, leading to mistaken inferences and decisions. Which may be why humans often seem so oblivious to “obvious” implications of their “beliefs.”

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Fertility Fall Myths

In the latest JEL, Tim Guinnane does a nice job debunking misconceptions about the great fertility fall associated with the industrial revolution. For example, “The decline in French fertility began in the late eighteenth century,” and fertility declines were not uniform across Europe:

Mortality decline doesn’t work as an explanation for fertility declines:

Fertility in the United States declined for decades before any noticeable decline in mortality.

Nor does new contraception tech:

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, withdrawal and abstinence remained the primary approaches used by married couples. Since these technologies had been available, essentially, throughout human history, it is unlikely that the condom and similar new methods played a strong role in the fertility transition. … Methods available even prior to the fertility transition were sufficient to produce voluntary reductions of the magnitude we observe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nor do child labor laws:

Most [child-labor] measures either did not apply to agricultural work, or did so in a more relaxed way. … German restrictions did not successfully limit the role of children in production at home, which remained important throughout the nineteenth century. And in every case, the restrictions’ impact would depend both on enforcement measures and parents’ desire to evade them. Finally, if child-labor restrictions were introduced when they were mostly irrelevant, …

Nor do new social insurance programs:

Economic ties between parents and children varied dramatically across the societies in question before the fertility transition. … At the other extreme, rural laborers’ children in England would, from at least the early-modern period, leave home for good in their early to mid teens. … social-insurance systems introduced at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were usually replacing earlier schemes. Thus there is no clear “before.” … The broad patterns also do not make it likely that social insurance alone is central to the story. The two forerunners, France and the United States, were laggards in developing social insurance.

Still in the running, he thinks, are increases in urbanization, female employment, and gains to schooling:

Several studies document the existence of fertility control among small groups as early as the seventeenth century. These “forerunners” were usually urban elites or members of minority groups such as Jews. More generally, research based on either sub-national aggregates or micro data often find earlier fertility declines than in national data. The Princeton studies report earlier fertility declines in cities, for example. … Most studies find that urban fertility was lower than rural fertility in the nineteenth century, … Once the fertility transition began, fertility usually fell first in urban areas, with rural areas then catching up. …

Cross-sectional regressions for U.S. states in 1840 show that fertility is negatively correlated with measures of nonfarm labor-market opportunities. Once such proxies are introduced, land prices have no influence on fertility. … Crafts … finds a consistent, negative correlation between women’s [1911] local labor-force opportunities and marital fertility. …

Goldin and … Katz … find that the return to an additional year of [1915 Iowa] high school or college then was, for males, on the order of 11–12 percent. Mitch estimates the present value of acquiring literacy in Victorian Britain for a representative child. The present value of the cost of acquiring literacy would be about £4. At a wage premium of 5 shillings per week for literacy, the present value of the higher wages for a 35-year work life would be over £200.

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Priceless Fertility

Our falling fertility problem is worse than I thought:

We analyze a staged expansion of subsidized child care in Norway. … There is little, if any, causal effect of subsidized child care on maternal employment, despite a strong correlation. Instead of increasing mothers’ labor supply, the new subsidized child care mostly crowds out informal child care arrangements, suggesting a significant net cost of the child care subsidies. (more)

It is harder than you might think to pay people in cash to have more kids. Alas paying them in status is much harder to arrange.

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