Bundles of Oy

Newsweek has an excellent feature by Lorraine Ali on kids and happiness.

The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term “bundle of joy” may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers,” says Florida State University’s Robin Simon, a sociology professor who’s conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. “In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It’s such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they’re not.”

This is in fact the best piece of seen on this issue so far, touching on our culture’s intense romantization of parenthood. This is an excellent and accurate observation:

“If you admit that kids and parenthood aren’t making you happy, it’s basically blasphemy,” says Jen Singer, a stay-at-home mother of two from New Jersey who runs the popular parenting blog MommaSaid.net. “From baby-lotion commercials that make motherhood look happy and well rested, to commercials for Disney World where you’re supposed to feel like a kid because you’re there with your kids, we’ve made parenthood out to be one blissful moment after another, and it’s disappointing when you find out it’s not.”

Ali finishes on a hopeful note.

For the childless, all this research must certainly feel redeeming. As for those of us with kids, well, the news isn’t all bad. Parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who’ve never had kids. And there are other rewarding aspects of parenting that are impossible to quantify. For example, I never thought it possible to love someone as deeply as I love my son.

I think here we have the key to the intense resistance to the empirical results. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt the reports of parents like Ali who find that they love their children more than they thought possible. It’s really remarkable how often first time parents, especially men, seem almost startled by the profound depth of their love for and attachment to their child. I’ve heard any number of new parents say that they had heard others talk about this amazing bond, but never really expected to feel it themselves. The almost embarrassed earnestness of this admission is truly moving. And, if they won’t stop talking about it, also pretty annoying. (We are all surprised by the all-consuming intensity of our first teenage crush. But the point is, we all are.)  Anyway, the profundity of the experience of loving a child I think blinds many people to the very real costs of raising them. To accept that we have been made less happy in a real sense by our children threatens our sense of the profundity and the value of that bond. So people get upset when they hear this. But that’s not counter-evidence. Not all values move in one direction and it is a mark of maturity to be able to admit that some of the things we value most comes at a sometimes steep cost. We yearn to love our choices, and our lives, with whole hearts. But to do so is to lie to ourselves about ourselves, to close our eyes and cover our ears like children to the profundity of what we have given up. We cannot have everything. It does not diminish the life one has to face the truth about it. It enlarges it to see it for what it is, to know what it has cost, and to love it anyway.

I Am a Howleyite, or Osama bin Laden Is Right

Why reply to McArdle, Douthat, and Poulos’ replies to my post about Kerry’s demography article when Kerry does it better than I could have? I think she’s exactly right that cultural change occurs on many margins at once and that individuals are not Zombie-like hosts of static, monolithic culture. And I especially like the conclusion:

Part of the reason we find it so difficult to think about demographic change is that we fail to notice the goalposts changing around us. It’s true that the people we call social conservatives in this country are reproducing faster than the people we call socials liberals. But what will it mean to be “conservative” in America a century from now? In 1908 being a social conservative meant something far less amenable to tolerance than “legal marriage is for straight people!” Yes, Utah’s birthrate is higher than that of Bangladesh. I don’t know how to worry about that particular factoid, because I have no idea what it will mean to be a socially conservative Mormon in 30 years. It certainly means something different today than it did 30 years back.

People constantly make the simple error of thinking categories of identity have stable content just because the labels don’t change. But you can have literally no one “converting” from one creed to another and still find the culture and world utterly changed. Indeed, the sect of Mormonism I grew up in, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is now deeply different than it was when I was baptized into it at the age of eight. Not only does it now have women in the priesthood and a non-Joseph Smith-descended Prophet-President, but it doesn’t even have the same name! If I had children I couldn’t raise them in the religion of my youth, because it doesn’t exist any more. Conservatives of all religions in the liberal world constantly complain about this. Though there is institutional continuity, neither ritual form not doctrinal content stay the same — not even in relatively conservative religious traditions.

Part of my whiggish conviction is the thought that, in these latter days, the transmission of culture from one generation to the next is increasingly low fidelity, because the culture parents grew up in does not last long enough to pass to their kids. There is fairly rapid cultural selection going on, and it has been very friendly to broad liberalization and very unfriendly to conservative norms. That’s why some religious folk think they have to raise their kids on isolated compounds. I had not-that-distant ancestors who spoke Norwegian, German, Lakota, et al, but I don’t really even know who they were, much less what they stood for. Maybe some natalist can convince the Taliban there is really no problem if they can just keep their birthrates up. But certain radical fundamentalist Muslims think they need to destroy liberal capitalist modernity for a very good reason. Unless they do, it really will destroy their creed and its culture.

The Value of the Marginal Kid

Let me expand on a comment I left on one of Bryan’s blog posts… I think I’m finally homing in on the argument between Bryan and me about kids. As far as I can tell, Bryan’s hypothesis is one of these two propositions:

(a) Given any (non-silly) number of children greater than zero, there IS on average a net benefit to each parent from having one more child.

(b) Given any (non-silly) number of children greater than zero, there WOULD BE on average a net benefit to each parent from having one more child, if they applied the econo-strategies Bryan suggests.

I suspect Bryan’s hypothesis is (b). In that case, finding out that (a) is false, as I suspect it is, would be suggestive but not dispositive. But I’m still not sure what evidence would help Bryan actually establish the counterfactual in (b).

It seems like Bryan needs to establish (a) in order to have a strong, Good Morning America-friendly starting point. Something like: “Science says kids are great, more kids are better, and here’s how to make more kids better still!” But if he can’t establish (a), he’ll have to admit that in the normal case, having another kid is negative or neutral for one or both of the parents. So generally there is no selfish reason for the next kid unless you are able to successfully commit to and apply Bryan’s clever economist strategies. That just feels a lot less exciting and bookworthy, even if true. But is it?

If ever there was an issue where one ought to expect the effects of Darwinian false consciousness, it would be the value kids. So, if this is supposed to be something like social science, it seems purely anecdotal evidence has to be taken with stiff skepticism. But then what non-anecdotal evidence does Bryan have in support of his counterfactual: that parents would selfishly benefit from the marginal kid were they to apply Bryan’s strategies? And if you need to apply the strategies to make the selfish-meter tick upward at all, couldn’t you get an even bigger upward tick by applying the same strategies to a smaller number of children?

And then there is the issue of the ability of ordinary people to successfully apply those strategies. How good are most couples at effective Coasean bargaining? (Why aren’t they already doing more of it?) Can conservative, Christian middle-American women actually get away with outsourcing a lot more of their childcare without facing social ostracism from their mom-peers? And so on. I remain concerned that Bryan so far has established little more than an argument to the effect that it is possible to make an additional child suck less if you can manage to apply certain principles. I think this is both indisputable and boring.

Now, it is always open to Bryan to argue in terms of the non-monetary, non-happiness, non-revealed preference value of the next kid. I think we all agree that having kids are meaningful, for example. But I’m not aware of good measures of meaningfulness, and I’d be surprised to find evidence that, say, people with three kids have more meaningful lives than people with two. There is of course always the route of the sentimental moralist, who can appeal to our powerful gut conviction that children (and America and Jesus) are simply WONDERFUL, but that is where even broad-minded economists, like Bryan, rightly fear to tread.

Then again, maybe Bryan does have evidence for (a). But he’s already conceded that the evidence isn’t there in the happiness data. And there is an obvious downside to an extra kid in terms of lifetime consumption, especially given the income penalty for moms. So what else does he have in mind?