Parents Are Less Happy. So What?

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Bryan Caplan’s new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, (which he blogged about for us here and here) has people talking about happiness and kids, again. Over at Cato Unbound, my better half Betsey Stevenson takes Bryan to task on some of his claims. It’s worth reading the full essayJeff Ely at Cheap Talk says you should take note of her views on the distinction between happiness and utility. Instead, I want to highlight an insight that comes from thinking through a formal framework:

Caplan suggests that parental over-investment in their children is causing parents to be unhappy. He infers from this that we should invest less in each child, and have more children. In the classic quantity-quality trade-off, Caplan is arguing that too many resources are going to child quality and not enough are going to child quantity.

Stating the problem this way makes it clear that Caplan’s argument actually requires parents to be making two mistakes. The first mistake is that the returns to the marginal hours with our children are lower than we think, and so we are over-investing in quality. If he’s right, we can all save ourselves a lot of time. But this doesn’t mean that we should necessarily have more kids. Here’s where the second assumption really matters: Caplan thinks that we should take the time we save and spend it on a greater quantity of children.

You can think of this another way. Caplan says that we parents are charging ourselves too much for children. And just as we buy more televisions when the price falls, we should have more children when the price falls. Maybe. But maybe not. When we reduce the price, there are both income and substitution effects. Caplan is entirely focused on the substitution effect: having kids becomes cheaper relative to buying TVs. So he says buy more kids, and fewer TVs. But what about the income effect? As people become richer, they tend to “buy” fewer children, not more. So there’s an offsetting income effect. Is it possible that the income effect overwhelms the substitution effect? Typically this only occurs among goods which take a big share of our budgets. Like children.

In his response, Caplan claims that family size is increasing in income—at least once you control for education. But this is pretty unconvincing. First, once you control for education you’re mostly just analyzing temporary income blips. If you want to see the effects of income, compare rich and poor societies, or fertility rates as countries develop, or any of the really important variations in income, and you’ll see that the rich have fewer kids than the poor.

Oh, and if you enjoyed this debate, stay tuned. In a forthcoming Freakonomics Radio episode about kids and happiness, you’ll hear plenty more from Betsey and me, and our own little natural experiment—our daughter Matilda. You’ll also hear from Bryan Caplan, and Joshua Gans of Parentonomics fame.

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  1. AaronS says:

    I recently concluded that I am BOTH more happy AND more sad because of having a child. First, I am happier because there is simply nothing in the universe more delightful than my wonderful son. At the same time, being one given to melancholy at times, it is never too far from my thoughts all the things that could go wrong for my son: kidnapping, molestation sickness/disease, bullying, social awkwardness, an uncertain future, etc.

    Yes, I know that is terribly dark. But apparently many of us parents (perhaps especially fathers) have such concerns lurking beneath the surface. So while I would not trade my son for a billion universes, there is a price to be paid for such joy…the loss of that joy.

    One thing I learned early on was that upon my wife and I having a son, I immediately knew that best thing–and the worst thing–that could ever happen to me: To have a son…and then to lose him. Of course, Mr. Levitt knows and feels this more deeply than most. From his story, I have tried to be more considerate toward my own son, knowing that we are not promised tomorrow.

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  2. WholeMealOfFood says:

    “If you want to see the effects of income, compare rich and poor societies, or fertility rates as countries develop, or any of the really important variations in income, and you’ll see that the rich have fewer kids than the poor.”

    How do you know that this is because of higher incomes and not because of decreasing infant mortality rates that are more obviously caused by the wealth of a society?

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  3. PMFT says:

    So, a parent has a finite amount of love? They’re less affected when they have many children & one is a screw-up, than if they only have one that is screw-up? Cause they love them less and less as the kids keep coming? LOL…sounds about right.

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  4. Jojo says:

    I’m amazed that economist wouldn’t factor in opportunity cost. Generally speaking having more children will cost more meaning more work, less personal time, and more general unhappiness. Each child birthed comes at a cost more than just in $$$.

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  5. Jackie K says:

    AaronS you mirror my thoughts exactly – I am the same way, but judging from the more relaxed outlook of my husband and others I know, had concluded this was more typical of mothers than fathers! I see I was wrong. ;
    Great post – pleased to see the utility argument. Life is not about pursuit of pleasure.
    Also – life with kids is hard at various points along the way but gets easier. Those unhappy parents may be unhappy temporarily.

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  6. James says:

    Let’s see: if parents are unhappy having N kids, then having N+1 should make them happier? I think there’s a basic flaw in that logic.

    Quite apart from the fact that reversable experimentation is quite difficult. Once you have that N+1th kid and find out that it didn’t increase your happiness, you’re pretty much stuck with him/her.

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  7. Oldtaku says:

    It’s always interesting watching parents try to justify having kids as anything that increases the quality off your life. It doesn’t, until maybe 30 years later, unless you’re one of the few women who lives to be a baby factory. That’s just your rationalization. For the moment it destroys your life and all the little pleasures, but at least you get a flood of endorphins and other hormones that make you feel better about having fulfilled your genetic imperative and think your little monster is the best thing ever (think about how you feel about other people’s kids – that’s the accurate, non drug induced view).

    At least in the old days having kids got you some more farmhands and you didn’t have much of a life to destroy. Maybe now it’ll keep you out of a nursing home.

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    • BSK says:

      I guess someone like me, a teacher who loves working with young children and hopes to have his own one day, is just crazy, right? Or under the influence of some sort of drug? Just because you hate other people’s kids doesn’t mean everyone does.

      Also, I hate most of my friends’ girlfriends and wives. Does that mean I only like my own fiance because I’m under a spell?

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      • James says:

        But I really like other people’s kids. I can play with them for hours at a time, then give them back to the parents.

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  8. Bruno says:

    Am I missing something here?
    Both income and substitution effect would go in the same direction, after all children ( quantity+quality) are a normal good.

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