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book spotlight: selfish reasons to have more kids

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is a new book by economist and blogger Bryan Caplan. It makes a simple argument of extreme importance: you should probably have more children. Though this book is written by an economist, it’s not another cute-o-nomics pop text. It’s a serious book about family planning that’s based on his reading of child development, psychology, genetics, economics, and other fields. It’s about one of life’s most important decisions, and this is what social scientsits should be thinking about.

The argument boils down to a simple point. If the evidence shows that you are over estimating the cost of having children, then, on the margin, you should probably have another child. This isn’t to say that everyone should have children, or that you should have lots of children. Rather, if you are indifferent between between having one more and not, the cautious thing to do is have one more.

Let me start with the arguments that I think are strongest. One is that people rarely regret having childen. According to survey data, people who have children rarely say that they wish that they never had children. Childless people are way more likely to say they wish they had children. Another strong argument is that having children makes the world a better place. There’s little evidence that population size by itself leads to poverty, environmental destruction, or what have you. Rather, bad policies and institutions cause these outcomes. More people means more innovators and more customers who will buy stuff from the innovators.

Another sensible argument is that you don’t need to kill yourself parenting. “The kids will be alright” should be Caplan’s motto. There’s a lot of evidence that all the crazy stuff that people do really doesn’t have much of an overall effect on life course outcomes. The piano lessons, the ballet classes – not needed. Unless the child truly enjoys these activities, and some do, better to save money, time, and stress by dropping them. Once you realize that not most kids do not need expensive inputs, you can save money and time – and have another kid.

Caplan’s biggest detractors will likely focus on his most controversial argument. He argues that you really don’t need to worry about the kids because inherited traits are much more likely to determine life course outcomes, not parenting. He supports his argument with the now voluminous literature on twins and adopted children that shows strong effects of shared parents, not family environment. Many arguments rest on his readings of these twin and adoption studies.

On one level, I agree with this overall point. We often think that we can remake people and ignore the traits, such as personality and cognitive ability, that are tough to change through socialization. As far as I can tell, twin studies do show that there are really poweful inherited traits that affect social behavior. On another level, I feel that twin and adoption studies can be pushed to far because twin and adoption studies have a very powerful, but very specific, research design.

In my view, twin studies tend to have two important limitations. First, there is non-random selection of parents into adoption. Adopters are, by definition, very unlike the rest of the population. Not in income or demographics, but in personality. Adoption is an enormous investment of resources in someone who is not biologically related to you.  In other words, adopters are extraordinarily nice people. Any argument that denies the effect of parenting by appealing to studies with only Very Nice Parents is reaching too far. My hypothesis is that random assignment of twins to randomly selected parents (not just the Very Nice People) will yeild model estimates with bigger family coefficients.

The other limitation of twin and adoption studies is that they study variation in existing parenting practices. It may be the case that American parents simply don’t know how to correctly socialize a kid to reach some goal. Therefore, variations in family environment are just variations in failed practices.

Here’s a concrete example: child obesity. A hard core twin study advocate would justifiably point to twin studies showing that weight or BMI is more linked to shared parents than shared family environment. However, many Americans eat diets high in carbs, corn syrup and other ingredients. They also seem to consume many more calories than needed. To be blunt, in a world where *everyone* eats bags of twinkies, there won’t be much of an effect of living in a home where people eat a few more or less twinkies.

For that reason, it is too much of a jump to say that family environment can’t possibly affect weight. For example, parents who remove all twinkies and switch to an all broccoli diet will likely affect their children’s weight. In other words, to correctly conclude that family environment has no or little effect on weight, you would need a sample of families that have radically different diets, including at least one option that actually works (e.g., twinkies vs. broccoli). For many important life course outcomes, I am not persuaded that a sample of twins adopted into American or Western families provides enough variation in family environmnents, or that a sample would include enough families who do the practice that research has shown works.

After reading the last passage, you might think I am against genetic explanations of behavior, or that I think that Caplan’s book is fatally flawed. Instead, I see my critique as a qualification of an important argument.  Even if the argument is overstated, and parents in some cases can have a big impact, parenting can be much, much less budrensome becuase the kids will be alright. In end, I find Caplan’s book to be a really humane text. Children aren’t a burden or a problem or an investment. They are to be enjoyed. They are a benefit and we should welcome more them into the world.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 28, 2011 at 12:59 am

Posted in books, fabio

26 Responses

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  1. Caplan has a well-deserved reputation for saying quite idiotic things. This book doesn’t seem as bad as some of his previous utterances, but caveat emptor.

    Like

    mtraven

    March 28, 2011 at 2:14 am

  2. Bryan — This book sounds GREAT. :) Congratulations on its publication! Michael

    Like

    Michael T. Heaney

    March 28, 2011 at 5:03 am

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Fabio. The survey research about people not saying they regret having their children is pretty funny though. Do they also ask people to choose which of their children they would most like to give back? Hmm… and do they ask people if they would rather that their parents have had fewer children? :-)

    Like

    ezrazuckerman

    March 28, 2011 at 7:41 am

  4. “Children aren’t a burden or a problem or an investment. They are to be enjoyed. They are a benefit and we should welcome more them into the world.”
    As a parent, I can attest to this. Then again, I am often stressed because I have to carve out time for soccer practice, music lessons, and birthday parties. As always, I am looking forward to reading Caplan.

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    bpitt

    March 28, 2011 at 1:44 pm

  5. I’m not so sure I buy the argument that parents don’t regret having kids. I think they are just very unlikely to admit that they might have doubts. See the review of studies in this Newsweek article (http://www.newsweek.com/2008/06/28/having-kids-makes-you-happy.html) — parents are less happy than other people.

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    Mikaila

    March 28, 2011 at 1:56 pm

  6. “There’s little evidence that population size by itself leads to poverty, environmental destruction, or what have you. Rather, bad policies and institutions cause these outcomes. More people means more innovators and more customers who will buy stuff from the innovators.”

    Don’t you see the contradiction in there, Fabio? Population size by itself does not lead to poverty, pollution, etc. But population size by itself leads to more innovation?

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    Guillermo

    March 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm

  7. “I’m not so sure I buy the argument that parents don’t regret having kids. I think they are just very unlikely to admit that they might have doubts.”

    I assume relatively few people will openly admit they chose the wrong career as well, especially to a stranger (in this case, an interviewer).

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    Guillermo

    March 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm

  8. I agree on the survey issue. Caplan has a low regard for positivism/behaviorism in economics and likes surveys as evidence. But one of his best examples of anti-behaviorist economics is Timur Kuran’s theory of “preference falsification”, which would undercut surveys like the above.

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    Wonks Anonymous

    March 28, 2011 at 3:57 pm

  9. @Ezra: I’d like to see a survey that asks kids which sibling, if any, they would give back. I suspect this would give a (slightly) more accurate picture of family dynamics than a survey of parents.

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    anomious

    March 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm

  10. anomious: I’ve met your siblings, and I know exactly where you’re coming from!

    As for me, my siblings have already given me back. (and you should talk to my students!) Hmm… how about this for a network name-generator (cf., the GSS “important matters” question):

    Q: From time to time, we all do things that are obnoxious, odious, and/or downright evil. Looking back over the past six months, who are the people to whom you have done the most obnoxious, odious, and/or downright evil things?

    PROBE: Who are the people who spent the most time wishing you did not exist?

    The interesting question is how much overlap there would be with the answers to the GSS question. Gould’s Collison of Wills would say a lot.

    Like

    ezrazuckerman

    March 28, 2011 at 6:20 pm

  11. Fun stuff! Back in (econ) grad school, this article by Robert Willis on the demand for for children (quality and quantity) was the most interesting piece I read in 3 years:

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/1840411

    Then, as the hegemony of rational choice burgeoned and economic models of everything were published, Rosenweig and Schultz followed with this:

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/1818641

    Having raised a child to adulthood (more or less), I find these papers amusing.

    Like

    Randy

    March 28, 2011 at 6:41 pm

  12. From Willis (1973: pp. S15-16): “the model also has implications for child ‘quality’, which is defined as a function of the resources parents devote to each child, and for the wife’s lifetime market earnings capacity and labor supply…”

    Not just a dismal science, but a soulless one too. (And sexist, but it was the early 1970s.)

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    anomious

    March 28, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  13. This is a joke, right? “You” should have kids only if you can give them “good” inherited traits, I take it. And he’s serious about the environment, innovators, and customers? Ugh.

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    timbartley

    March 29, 2011 at 3:31 pm

  14. […] Rojas reviews Caplan. Be The First to Comment Cancel […]

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    Assorted links

    March 29, 2011 at 3:42 pm

  15. Mikaila–Caplan addresses studies like those in the book.

    Like

    Correcto

    March 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm

  16. Yes, Guillermo, population size (or rather market size) itself leads to more innovation. Ideas have increasing returns to scale. More people, more people to sell your idea to, more incentive for everyone to be innovators.

    Like

    dave smith

    March 29, 2011 at 5:12 pm

  17. @timbartley: Your first statement is incorrect. Caplan has repeatedly rejected this argument.

    And, yes, population is linked to innovation–how could it not be?

    Like

    Brandon

    March 29, 2011 at 7:07 pm

  18. “Yes, Guillermo, population size (or rather market size) itself leads to more innovation. Ideas have increasing returns to scale. More people, more people to sell your idea to, more incentive for everyone to be innovators.”

    Ahem, I was not debating the above. What I called a contradiction is the assumption, in the same paragraph, that population growth can have positive (i. e., innovation) but not negative (deforestation, scarcity, crowding, pollution) effects.

    On the other hand, everyone ought to agree that innovation is influenced by population size, but also by other factors. Otherwise China and India would be the world’s most innovative countries, and the Netherlands, with a population of less than 17 million, would be among the least innovative.

    Like

    Guillermo

    March 29, 2011 at 11:15 pm

  19. Fascinating review. A lot of my friends come from fairly large families, so I think I’ll have to borrow this book from the library and read it myself.

    Like

    Paul Hastings

    March 30, 2011 at 8:26 pm

  20. Parenting is a big responsibility and should only be undertake if the person wants to. Could it be people are finally realizing the responsibility and limiting their family size or not having any at all accordingly? I laugh when someone like the pope supports large families and has never been married or raised kids. Maybe we should give these people some of the 500000 kids in foster homes or let them visit third world countries.

    Like

    A.Roddy

    April 1, 2011 at 12:11 am

  21. “I’d like to see a survey that asks kids which sibling, if any, they would give back. I suspect this would give a (slightly) more accurate picture of family dynamics than a survey of parents.”
    I want a survey of kids who wish their parents would atop having kids and pay attention to them.

    Like

    A.Roddy

    April 1, 2011 at 12:13 am

  22. “Could it be people are finally realizing the responsibility and limiting their family size or not having any at all accordingly? ”

    People have been realizing this for decades, even in many poor countries.

    Like

    Guillermo

    April 1, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  23. I also find the idea that having more children makes the world a better place highly suspect… yes bad policies and bad institutions are the proximate causes of many problems, but aren’t the magnitudes of their deleterious effects worse to the extent that populations are larger? Even exponentially worse? Only in larger populations can there even BE the kinds of policies and institutions that lead to an oil rig disaster or a nuclear power plant meltdown.

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    Jeffrey Kroll

    April 4, 2011 at 2:14 am

  24. […] book spotlight: selfish reasons to have more kids […]

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  25. […] Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by Bryan Caplan […]

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  26. Thanks for sharing… Very helpful!

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    whereimstaying

    June 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm


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