Thursday, April 17, 2008
Why have Children?
Bryan Caplan has some neat notes on career women who choose don't have kids; it seems like something they are just too busy to really make in a priority, so it doesn't happen. Back in 2005, Caplan argued that people tend to underinvest in kids because they bear most of the costs when they are in a position to make the decision. As an economist and being logical, I have to say this influenced my calculus to create Izzie last May. A major puzzle in child rearing--to economists--is that many happiness studies find that time spent with children is often considered the least pleasurable part of a person’s day, and when you control for the standard socioeconomic variables adults with children are less happy than those with children. Ever play ‘Shoots and Ladders’? It's boring. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that many games are advertised as “fun for the whole family. Nothing is fun for the whole family!”
Yet children are perhaps the best way to manufacture appreciation. You may be incompetent at your job, but your 5 year old will still need you very much. There is a basic appreciation for one’s biological parents, regardless of how much they actually hang out (note Obama's elevation of his sperm-donor dad), and the littlest things a grandparent does for a child is often looked back at with profound appreciation. For example, in The Education of Henry Adams, the author recounts an episode from when he was six or seven. He vaguely remembers throwing a tantrum about not wanting to go to school. His frail 80 year old grandfather, the American President John Quincy Adams (son of President and Founding Father John Adams), appears, and takes his hand, and walked him silently a mile to the schoolhouse. No lecture, just a walk, but right to school, and the tantrum was over. Looking back, Henry Adams notes that “the seeds of a moral education would at that moment have fallen on the stoniest soil in Quincy”. These are the things parents and grandparents strive for, hoping that when they are long gone a consciousness truly appreciates something they have done in a profound way.
I remember strongly that when my mother was dying of brain cancer, she was very focused on leaving memories behind: getting picture albums in order, organizing mementos from our past that we could cherish in her absence. The thought of making having someone engage in traditions she helped create consumed her objectives until she lost the ability to pursue them.
An executive has a full inbox of people competing for your attention all the time, and does not need children to manufacture appreciation, and so as children are substitutes for generating appreciation, and resources are limited, many career-oriented women are childless by choice. I think children are great investment in creating something that needs you, that connects you to the future. Not only do toddlers need you, but so will their kids, which is especially rewarding during a period in one's life when your professional duties create no need for you. For the poor with no market skills, kids are a sure way to make yourself important, at least in someone's eyes.
The flip side of being appreciated, is being unappreciated, and no tiresome work or physical pain is as stressful is being in a situation where you feel your talents are unappreciated, and you see little hope of changing things. The null feeling of people towards each other is indifference, and so a person unappreciated by everyone has done nothing to earn favor, and knows it. What makes this so terrible is that unappreciation is persistent, whereas physical pain is temporary. When I think about making my children successful, it primarily involves imagining them in a situation where they are appreciated because of their competence, courage, empathy, and good humor. If all I knew was that many people truly appreciated them, and not in the condescending way people say they appreciate unskilled workers, it wouldn't matter to me whether they were rich or poor.
This gets down to what, specifically, is in a person's utility function. The traditional objective function takes one's consumption as the primary objective, and then present values the 'utility' of this consumption. This leads to weird convolutions, where one 'consumes' children, and actually doesn't enjoy their company but still prefers them. I think a more reasonable approach would be to assume people are maximizing their external appreciation in society. This is going to be increasing in wealth, because the more money one has, the more favors one can do, the more people will flatter you to get business or use your boat. And it all gets back to maximizing status. A status maximizer maximizes his appreciation in this world. Someone looking merely at their consumption bundle should consider themselves rich in the West even if they are at the bottom of society working as a parking attendant, but of course they would not feel rich at all, they would feel very poor. As people crave appreciation from others, maximizing their status is a direct path to that end. So is having children.
And of course, this leads to a world where all risk taking is unrewarded (see my article here).