Tag Archives: Kids

Wolfers Gets Loopy

Over the years I’ve not only met folks who do drugs, I’ve met folks who’ve had deep mystical experiences on drugs. They have told me that their drug experiences made them feel sure the physical world we see around us just can’t be all there is — they’ve touched something deeper and more important. When asked how exactly a weird drug experiences could possibly count as evidence on basic physics, they have little coherent to say. It seems their subconscious just told them this abstract conclusion, and they can’t not believe a cocksure subconscious. Even one on drugs.

Druggies might say such things in private, but it is much rarer to hear a professional physicist say them in public. Odd then to hear professional economist Justin Wolfers say his near-mystical parenting experience makes him doubt standard econ:

I learned economics in my twenties, before I became a dad. … Hard math and complex models … exploring the basic idea … that people are purposeful, analytic decision makers. … I had always believed in the analytic self; I was rational, calculating, and tried to make smart decisions. Of course real people don’t use math, but I figured that we’re still weighing costs and benefits just as our models say. …

Today, I’m not so sure. My feelings toward my daughter Matilda aren’t easily expressed in analytic terms. … Her laugh is the greatest joy, and it thrills me that she shares it with me. … She’s central not only to my life, but to who I am. There’s something new and strange about all this. Today, I feel the powerful force of biology. It’s visceral; it’s real; it’s hormonal, and it’s not in our economic models. I’m helpless in the face of feelings that overwhelm me.

Yes, I know that a twenty-something reader will cleverly point out that I just need to count kids as a good which yields utility, or perhaps we need to add a state variable to the utility function as in rational addiction models. But that’s not the point. I’m surprised by how little of this I’ve consciously chosen. While the economic framework accurately describes how I choose an apple over an orange, it has had surprisingly little to say about what has been the most important choice in my life.

I’m a committed neoclassical economist. … But what kind of economists would we be if we learned our economics only after we were parents? It’s an interesting thought experiment, and truth is, I don’t know the answer. … Slivers of evidence—my own introspection, conversations with other economist-parents … —all tell me that it would be different. (more)

I don’t need to speculate – I am exactly that kind of economist. I started econ grad school with two kids, ages 0 and 2, and had no undergrad econ. I’ve seen a lot of the parenting cycle – my youngest graduates from high school tomorrow. My kids are central to who I am, and I’ve known well feelings that are visceral, hormonal, and that overwhelm me.

But none of that makes me doubt the value of neoclassical econ. How could it? First, econ makes sense of a complex social world by leaving important things out, on purpose – that is the point of models, to be simple enough to understand. More important, econ models almost never say anything about consciousness or emotional mood – they don’t at all assume people choose via a cold calculating mindset, or even that they choose consciously.  As long as choices (approximately) fit certain consistency axioms, then some utility function captures them.  So how could discovering emotional and unconscious choices possibly challenge such models?

Having an emotional parenting experience is as irrelevant to the value of neoclassical econ as having a mystical drug experience is to the validity of basic physics. Your subconscious might claim otherwise, but really, you don’t have to believe it.

Added 11p: Wolfers is usually an excellent economist, and here he seems to realize he is acting a bit loopy. This suggests a “religious” scenario, where someone tries to show devotion via a willingness to believe extreme things. Wolfers feels a new strong attachment to his family, and shows it by a willingness to change related beliefs in an extreme way. Being an economist, one of the biggest beliefs he can sacrifice on this altar is his belief in the standard economic framework. So Wolfers says that his new family attachment has made him question this framework.

Added 22June: Wolfers responds here.

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The Rich Have More Kids

Bryan Caplan finds that while more education (and being born later) predicts fewer kids, controlling for those factors (and age), more income predicts more kids. I don’t recall doing so, but Bryan says I predicted this result with some confidence years ago, but that he was skeptical at the time. Here are Bryan’s results predicting number of kids for men:


and for women:

Note the year effect is about the same for men and women, but the education effect is twice as big for women, while the income effect is twice as big for men. (All effects are highly significant.) Bryan concludes:

If you’re prone to futurist speculation, trying re-imagining Idiocracy.  The twist: in the real world, the most fertile people aren’t those with low IQ; they’re people who counter-stereotypically combine low education with high income.  Plumbers shall inherit the earth!

Bryan would be right if humans continued to dominate the Earth via ordinary reproduction. However, if (robot) emulations instead dominate, the question is whether the sorts of attitudes that tend to make people want to make more kids also tend to make them want to make more emulation copies. I predict surveys would find a positive correlation in these attitudes. At least I predict this conditional on respondents being induced to accept the emulation scenario as real, which is the frame of mind people would be in if emulations became feasible. Hence I predict while emulations would select heavily from our most productive folks, who tend to be well educated, emulations will tend to select from the richer but less educated part of this population. Really good plumber emulations shall inherit the Earth.

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Why Wake Teens Early?

Teens learn better if allowed to sleep longer:

This paper uses data on all middle school students in Wake County, NC from 1999-2006 to study the impact of start times on academic performance. … The differences in start time across schools is generated by bus scheduling concerns, while the differences within schools are driven by population growth. … I find that a one hour later start time increases standardized test scores on both math and reading test by three percentile points. Since start times may be correlated with other determinants of test scores, I also estimate the effect using only variation in start times within schools over time and find a two percentile point improvement. The effect of start times on academic performance is robust to different specifications and sources of variation. The magnitude of the effect is similar to the difference in test scores for one additional year of parental education.

The impact of later start times on test scores is persistent. Conditional on a high school fixed effect, a one hour later start time in grade eight is associated with an increase in test scores in grade ten similar in magnitude to the increase in grade eight. … The impact of start times is greatest in grade eight (who are more likely to have begun puberty than those in the sixth or seventh grade). … Students who begin school later have fewer absences and spend more time on homework each week. … Over the seven years examined in this paper, [this school district] grew from 20,530 student enrolled in twenty-two middle schools … to 27,686 students enrolled in twenty-eight middle schools. (more)

Do you predict that once news of this study spreads, schools will all delay their start times?  Me neither.

So why do we insist on getting teens up early, if that hinders learning? For the same reason we test and rank students so often, even though that also hinders learning. School isn’t about learning the content of classes – its more about socializing humans to accept industrial workplace norms and practices.

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More On Kid Work

There were many thoughtful comments on my child labor post.  Let me engage some of them here.

Some talk about the unsafe and unhealthy working condition that working kids often suffered a century ago. But we can and do regulate such things without needing to distinguish kids. Similarly some express concern about kids working too many hours a day, but we can also limit work hours without prohibiting work.

Some say we ban child labor mainly to encourage school. But laws requiring school seem sufficient for that purpose. We let kids devote lots of energy to after-school sports, clubs, music, housework, sibling-care, etc. It isn’t clear that after-school work distracts from school or invests less in the future than these.

Some say employers are easier to police than are sports, clubs, music, and parents. This suggests that we would ban hard/tedious kid work of any sort if only enforcement were easier, which seems unlikely. This might explain our less often enforcing rules against hard housework, but it doesn’t much explain why we don’t even have such rules.

Some say kids are more easily exploited and therefore need more protection. But we aren’t talking about making kids autonomous – parents must still approve of kid jobs. So only parental exploitation could be the issue.

Some say yes, we must protect kids from their parents, since job wages make it easier for parents to gain from kid suffering. But the conflict between kids and parents is just as strong when kids do housework, care for younger siblings, or work at the parent’s farm or store. There’s also a big risk of parents pushing kids to work at sports, music, acting, etc. more for parent than kid benefits – this may be a bigger problem than parents stealing kid wages. Working kids at least get work experience; what do overworked kid violinists get?

Some say parents fear kids with the resources to leave those parents at will. But a parent veto on kid work seems sufficient for that – why also forbid parents from letting their kids work?

The fact that anti-child-labor laws actually only target working directly for money still seems better explained to me by unions once seeking to avoid labor competition, and others later piling on to show concern and to push upper class behaviors on everyone.

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Child Labor Hypocrisy

School seems useful for basic training and for socializing folks into industrial workplaces. But how much schooling do we need – closer to eight or to sixteen years? You might think the more school option has clearly proven its superiority by now. But it wasn’t exactly a fair fight – we forbade kids to work, and then required them to school.

Watching some young girls sitting for hours in front of a grocery store selling girl scout cookies recently, I wondered, “Why isn’t this child labor?” People often talk as they feel revulsion at the image of a miserable child, working at some hard tedious job, and so they are glad child labor laws prohibit such cruel scenarios. But in fact our society is full of kids working away at hard and/or tedious jobs.

Kids work hard at school, housework, sports, practicing music, supporting clubs, etc. and none of this cruelty is prevented by “child labor” laws. Such laws only prevent getting paid to work; they don’t even stop kids interning for free. If child labor laws come from our revulsion at miserable kids, why are there no laws preventing tiger moms from making their kids practice music for hours straight without a bathroom break, or against parents who make their older kids work full time taking care of younger kids? If job safety is our worry, why not just regulate that more directly?

The history of child labor law is closely associated with unions seeking less competition for adult labor. Like minimum lot sizes for houses, child labor laws also helped to keep out poor folks. And today self-righteous indication about foreign child labor supports protectionism, to keep out foreign products that compete with local firms. Alas, keeping poor kids from working for money not only unfairly biases the work vs. school competition, it needlessly impoverishes poor kids and their families.

While we claim to care so so much about kids forced to do hard and tedious tasks, we only actually prevent doing such tasks for money – many kids around us end up doing such tasks anyway, just not for money, and we hardly care. And yet somehow we’ve used all this to tell ourselves how morally superior we are to the cruel poor folk who might even consider having their kids “work.” Hypocrisy can be amazingly shallow.

Added 9a: Art Carden argues similarly.

Added 6Apr: I devote a whole post to responding to comments.

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Why No Job Paternalism?

Parents are “paternalistic” towards their kids in many ways. Parents try to steer kids away from bad sex, drugs, hobbies, friends, and jobs. Parents warn that bad hobbies can lead to bad friends, and that bad drugs and friends can lead to bad sex and poor jobs. Parents warn that bad drugs, sex and jobs can lead to bad health. Parents encourage kids to attend school to encourage good jobs, and parents avoid neighborhoods where kids might meet bad friends.

Governments assist in many of these paternalisms. Governments require school, and prohibit sex and certain hobbies below certain ages, and they ban some drugs for all ages. But it is curious that governments don’t do more. While it seems hard to ban bad friends, it seems more feasible to limit bad jobs. Why are kids allowed to attempt to pursue mostly “dead end” careers as actors, musicians, or athletes against their parents wishes? Why are young kids allowed to take classes preparing them for such career attempts?

Choice of career correlates greatly not only with income, but also with health and happiness. If drugs and young sex are banned, and young is school required, because of such correlations, why not jobs as well? Even if some people are required to do bad jobs, a parental veto over a kid doing such a job would limit supply and raise wages until those jobs weren’t so bad anymore.

I can mostly understand wanting to let folks be free, and I can mostly understand wanting to limit kids freedom “for their own good.” I have more trouble understanding our odd mix of paternalism and freedom.  Why do we limit some things, and not others?

Added noon: The parental veto concept is just an example.  Jobs could also be limited via licenses to do or train for a job.  Most professional licensing is said to protect the customer – why not more to protect the worker?

I suspect we allow harmful acting, music, etc. careers because they raise our society’s status relative to others, and it looks good individually to approve of such activities. Most parents hope it won’t be their kids who pay the price.

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Can Kids Consent?

Back in 1983, at the young age of 18, my old friend Max More published an article saying he didn’t see what’s wrong with adults propositioning kids for sex.

It is difficult to comprehend how merely becoming friendly with a child, and then encouraging him or her to indulge in sexual activities, can be a violation of rights. … Many people will object that … individuals below the age of consent, do not know what they are doing, and therefore the compliance is not voluntary at all. I believe this argument is fallacious, and that it is invariably presented by a kind of mental reflex action, and not as a result of conscious deliberation. … Does it really matter whether a young child has experienced any form of sexual arousal before? Does it really matter whether the child has any understanding of sex? Sex is just another source of pleasure, a potentially potent source perhaps, but basically little different to any other. If there is nothing objectionable about an adult giving a child sweets or toys, why is giving sexual pleasure wrong? … If a child does not want to go to court, has not told the parents about his or her sexual activities, and has shown no signs of upset or fear, then there is no justification for assuming the use of coercion. (more)

Today, Max backpedals:

In my foolish arrogance, I wrote about a topic that I was then too naïve to properly understand. … I was right to defend the free speech rights of a highly unpopular group. I was right to question the validity of a universal law of consent that ignores the maturity or lack of maturity of each individual. … Where I was wrong is in basing a view of maximal freedom on an inadequate conception of consent. Defining fully the conditions for real consent is difficult, but clearly lack of resistance is insufficient to indicate consent. If someone lacks understanding of what they are getting into, they may have agreed but have not consented. Consent requires agreement after thoughtful consideration. (more)

But we almost never understand the full implications of our actions. Who really understands the implications of getting married, having kids, choosing a career, or choosing a national citizenship?  But we usually say adults consent to such things.  So what does it take to enable consent?

When someone makes you an offer, it is reasonable to expect them to reveal possible downsides, and even to help you to hear from folks who recommend against accepting their offer. If your choice has a big effect on a third party (i.e., parents who’d fund a pregnancy), it can be reasonable to seek their approval. And if your choice isn’t very time critical, it is also reasonable to have some time to think it over. “Many people have come to regret this; George knows more. Tell me your choice tomorrow.”

Yes kids can make mistakes and we might want to limit their ability to make mistakes.  But adults can make lots of mistakes too; why treat kids so differently? Yes people change over time, and so we may want to limit how much young folks can commit their older selves. And yes teen brains change more rapidly than adult brains. But if we let 20 year olds make huge commitments, like marriage or citizenship, that limit their quite different 60 year old selves, why shouldn’t we let 15 year olds make choices limiting their 25 year old selves. Do teen sex choices limit distant future choices anywhere near as much as do marriage, kids, careers, etc.?

Aside from the issues I’ve mentioned, my training in the social and human sciences doesn’t offer me any more analytical tools to distinguish thirteen year olds from adults regarding sexual consent. I’m not saying kids can resaonably consent; I’m just suggesting that standard theories offer little support for saying they can’t.

So why are we so reluctant to let kids make their own choices, and yet so adamant that similar adults choices should be free? One obvious explanation is status; we affirm our higher status as adults by limiting what kids can do. But I suspect there is more:

If culture is far, then in near mode we become more like a common universal human, and in far mode we diverge to become the different “subspecies” according to our different cultures. Culture being mainly far might help explain why … we are far more paternalistic toward kids than adults; perhaps we distrust kids as folks from other cultures, since kids have not yet fully diverged to join our subspecies.

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Less Mature With Age

Our personalities tend to become more “mature” as we age from teens into adults, and then into older adults. But our personalities become less mature as we age from kids into teens:

Hypotheses about mean-level age differences in the Big Five personality domains, as well as 10 more specific facet traits within those domains, were tested in a very large cross-sectional sample (N = 1,267,218) of children, adolescents, and adults (ages 10–65) assessed over the World Wide Web. The results supported several conclusions. First, late childhood and adolescence were key periods. Across these years, age trends for some traits (a) were especially pronounced, (b) were in a direction different from the corresponding adult trends, or (c) first indicated the presence of gender differences. Second, there were some negative trends in psychosocial maturity from late childhood into adolescence, whereas adult trends were overwhelmingly in the direction of greater maturity and adjustment. Third, the related but distinguishable facet traits within each broad Big Five domain often showed distinct age trends, highlighting the importance of facet-level research for understanding life span age differences in personality. (more)

Many like to think that we become more “mature” as we age because our experience with life teaches us the wisdom of mature behavior. They then presume that teens would be better off acting more maturely, and should be forced to do so if necessary.  However, this “maturity as learning” theory conflicts with the fact that we become less mature as we become teens.  An alternate theory, that better accounts for the above patterns, is that we are programmed to have different personalities and attitudes at different ages, because for our distant ancestors those attitudes were useful at those ages.  Beware too easily assuming that others would be better off if they were more like you.

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Fertility Looks Bad

Bryan Caplan complains about evo psych folk who say we didn’t inherit “an overwhelming, conscious desire to have children”, and about my suggestion that “It is hard to tell grand hero stories” about high fertility”:

How secure are the premises that people don’t crave children, and can’t frame parenting as a noble quest?  Even nowadays, these claims seem exaggerated. … An ultra-Darwinian yearning to have vast numbers of descendents – and grand hero stories about this yearning – seem like common memes throughout history. [See] these Biblical quotes: …

Genesis 22:17: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven.

Yes, people do try to tell parenting hero stories. But this was lots easier among Biblical herders. Herder men who grew their herd well could afford to take many wives, while impressive herder women could attract successful herder men, who could afford to feed many children. Women who grew their herd well could also support more kids. For the folks of Genesis, having more kids was in fact a strong positive signal about your qualities; having many kids looked good.

Not so much today. Imagine you had a child who seemed extremely talented in some area, such as music, writing, analysis, or sport. Imagine that he or she was young, say early twenties, and was considering having her first child. Compared to a kid of ordinary talent, would you encourage them more or less to wait before having a baby?

Now imagine you had a child who seemed of unusually low ability. Loving and caring, with a good stable spouse, they would probably never be much more than the janitor, driver, receptionist, etc. of their current position.  While they would never get much respect on the job, their kids would probably love and respect them. Compared to a kid of ordinary ability, would you encourage them more or less to start a family?

Seems to me that in our modern world, the obvious answer is: more. The more talented your kid is, the more you’d encourage them to put off having kids. Which creates a signaling effect: having kids earlier tells other folks that you see yourself as being less talented. This effect encourages delayed fertility, which tends toward reduced fertility.

Alas, as I’ve suggested before (1 2 3 4), in the modern world trying to making parenting seem heroic runs into a signaling problem that having more kids earlier tends to make you look bad.

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Mom Delusions Re Dad

Romantic delusions can be expensive:

41% of [US] babies were born to unmarried moms in 2008. … More than half of the unmarried parents were living together at the time their child was born and 30% of them were romantically involved (but living apart). Most of those unwed mothers said their chances of marrying the baby’s father were 50% or greater, but after five years, only 16% of them had done so and only about 20% of the couples were still cohabiting.

These delusions seem obviously functional – people are who more confident in their partners are more attractive as partners.  But the cost of such costly signals can be great.

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